Naka Nathaniel: Grown, Flown Or Something Else? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Hundreds of thousands of Native Hawaiians have made good lives for themselves outside of Hawaii. For me, it was time to come home.

Editor’s note: Our newest regular columnist, Naka Nathaniel, brings a perspective that is often hard to find — a Native Hawaiian who had never lived in Hawaii but never lost the connection to his heritage and his family’s homeland. Now living on the Big Island after working all over the world as a New York Times journalist, Naka is bringing his reporter’s eye and writer’s touch to discovering a place that is both new and yet deeply familiar.

The question of if you’re grown (born in Hawaii) vs. flown (an immigrant to the Islands) is mutually exclusive. Except when it’s not.

After my wife, son and I moved to the Big Island at the end of this last summer, I would gently correct people when they said I had moved back. Except for a summer semester at Manoa, I’d never lived in Hawaii.

Yet, when I was asked by a “flown” acquaintance, “So how long has your family been here?” I shrugged and said, “At least 800 years, maybe more.”

My wife, Meredith, likes to tell people that I’m a kanaka maoli living in Hawaii for the first time in my life. I have downplayed that point. Instead, I point to the greater significance of this move for my extended ohana. It’s all a matter of perspective.

I see myself as being flown because my dad — aka DaFada — left Hawaii in 1967 to work in the Marshall Islands. My Uncle Duke told him it would be a quick year-long money-making gig and then he could return home to Hawaii. One year became 17 years with a wife and four kids born on the island of Kwajalein.

DaFada did well out on Kwajalein. He lived tax free, saved a lot of money and his kids were educated alongside the children of rocket scientists in a small well-resourced school.

But in 1984, when his employer lost its government contract, DaFada faced a choice: Take a job on Oahu or be transferred to his company’s home office in Texas.

In the mid-1980s, the $300,000 needed to house a family of six on Oahu would be less than $100,000 in San Antonio. In Texas, he could send his kids to public schools nationally recognized for their academics, arts and athletics. It was a tough choice, but economics and education won out and we bypassed Hawaii for San Antonio. I can’t say I abided with the bumper sticker “I WASN’T BORN IN TEXAS, BUT I GOT HERE AS QUICK AS I COULD!”

Texas was a rough landing, especially the sad moment when we were introduced to Texas beaches. On Kwajalein, we played in the planet’s most pristine waters. When we visited Hilo (where my grandfather was a chief in the fire department,) my sisters and I didn’t want to go to the sub-par beaches. We wanted the marvels that didn’t exist on Kwaj: McDonald’s, the toy aisle at Long’s and the Waiakea movie theater. My Hilo cousins remember how the adults were fine letting their Pacific island country-mice cousins sit in front of the TV, when they would have been shooed outdoors.

Now in Texas, after the three-hour drive to the Gulf of Mexico, my sisters and I bolted from the white Oldsmobile station wagon and ran for the beach. However, the “beach” was sharp discarded oyster shells. We were redirected to South Padre Island and there our feet would be covered in tar from off-shore oil rigs.

So, we shed our slippers and became landlocked Texans with funny Hawaiian names. We were taught to say “Yo soy Hawaiianos.” When someone would say, “So why don’t you live in Hawaii? If I was from there, I’d never leave,” I’d shrug and say “economics.”

Just before Christmas 2021, my cousin Cheri, her husband Bobby and her kids came over from Oahu for a visit at my parents’ vacation cottage in Volcano. We sat on the lanai and talked story and laughed and laughed. But we got serious and started to talk about the state of things in Hawaii. I told Cheri that we wanted to do more. What could we do? Bobby said, “Kanaka come home.”

That was a punch in the chest: Kanaka come home.

That was a kahea to be answered.

Cheryl and Frank Nathaniel prepare to depart Kwajalein for the author’s first flight to Hawaii where he was greeted in the Honolulu airport by his grandparents, Harry and Katherine Nathaniel. (Courtesy: Frank and Cheryl Nathaniel)

I wasn’t the only one in my family who heard the call. My younger sister, ‘Auli‘i, also moved to the Big Island in the fall. Five years ago, when the U.S. census showed only 53% of the people living in Hawaii were born in Hawaii, the last governor said, “Too many in our community simply gave up and moved away.”

That’s unfair. Those that left, like DaFada, my uncles, aunties and cousins, sought better economic and educational opportunities. That’s not giving up, that’s wanting something better for the people you love. Did that governor’s family give up when they left Okinawa?

As I considered grown versus flown, I spoke with David A. Chang, the University of Minnesota historian, and author of “The World and All the Things Upon It: Native Hawaiian Explorations of Geography.” I am not a fan of labels, but I truly appreciated his introduction of the term malihini maoli (a Native stranger.) He (and others) planted the seed of writing about the process of moving home to Hawaii. 

‘Auli‘i and I are not the only ones to recently shed the malihini maoli label. I have a coterie of former kanaka mainlanders who have recently moved to Hawaii. In China, we’d be called “Hai Gui” or “Sea Turtles” — citizens returning to their homeland after being educated and working abroad. 

This is where I feel the magnificent whole.

When Hawaiian “Sea Turtles” talk about their moves here, the shared situation is they had a landing pad — usually a house owned by parents or grandparents — they could slip into. That’s realistically the only way for a maoli malihini to return to Hawaii. Housing, housing, housing. The No. 1 economic issue here.

As I wrestle with which label is more accurate, grown or flown, I can’t dislodge an idea put into my head a decade ago by the writer Gish Jen. In her book “Tiger Writing,” Jen has a fancy academic term for the idea: the interdependent context. One of her examples is “Travelers Among Mountains and Streams,” an 11th century painting by Fan Kuan. 

She writes: “This is a monumental work almost seven feet tall, in which both the looming mountains and endless deep mists dwarf the minuscule mules and their accompanying human figure, said to be a self-portrait … There is no sense that he needs to be larger or to exert more control over his environment, quite the contrary. He appears perfectly content to be a minute interdependent part of a magnificent whole.”

So in the interdependent context, I am grown. This is where I feel the magnificent whole. The magnificence I feel when I talk to DaFada on the phone as I drive back up the Kawaihae Road after morning paddling practice. I am just a small person amid the magnificent maunas talking to my kupuna who isn’t with me in body, but is definitely with me in spirit.

It’s said that the greatest accomplishment for any one born on an island is to leave the island. I feel that a greater accomplishment is to leave, come back, and bring those you love with you.

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About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

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