Neal Milner: Will The Real Hawaii Please Stand Up - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Hundreds of thousands of Hawaiians who have left the state are still part of Hawaii. Their cultural evolution should be embraced.

Luke Shepardson, the Honolulu lifeguard who recently came from nowhere to win the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, grew up on the North Shore and says he will never leave that place again because it’s paradise, and “it’s better to struggle in paradise than to be unhappy and rich somewhere else.”

His story resonates because so many of us also believe that Hawaii is paradise and wish that others would believe what Shephardson believes.

That’s the trouble. The belief that Hawaii is paradise has serious downsides.

The belief is parochial, condescending and chauvinistic, as if people living elsewhere can’t possibly be as attached to their home. 

But the biggest downside is that this sentimentalization of Hawaii paradise diminishes Cece Cullen’s life.

“What we’re doing is creating our own Hawaii,” said Cece Cullen, 38, a Native Hawaiian, at a lei festival this month at an office park in Henderson, a city just outside Las Vegas.

A typical paradise response to this is “poor Cece.” In this view, those who leave, particularly Native Hawaiians and locals, are poor lost souls, displaced persons bereft of their culture, and of course longing to return if only they could, if only they could. 

Poor little lambs who have lost their way? Not really.

Cece Cullen is an example of what a New York Times article called “an affordable faux version of the islands (that) is better than an endless struggle to make ends meet in the real thing.”

The Times description is accurate except for one big thing: Cece’s version of Hawaii is not faux at all. 

It’s simply different. It’s a blend — a mixture of memory, imagination and the adjustments and opportunities people have when they move to a new place. Not true versus false or full versus depleted.

Culturally, the thousands of people who moved to Las Vegas are not an appendage of Hawaii. They are part of Hawaii. More and more, the cultural influences go both ways.

People like Cece are immigrants. Like immigrants everywhere, they left their homes because it became too hard to live where they were, but that place remained in their imagination and in their hearts. 

There are always memories and even longing, but the central focus in an immigrant’s life is balancing the old with the new and living with permanent longing and displacement while at the same time understanding that it’s time to get on with life.

The main driver is making a place for yourself in a new environment and keeping your old cultural practices alive while at the same time adapting them to where you live now.

So, they try to preserve much of their culture through language schools, family stories, religious institutions, as well as all those informal gatherings where talk of the old country gets combined with new foods and other “modern” customs.

Significantly, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement has come to understand and appreciate this.

The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement held its conference in Las Vegas to recognize the large numbers of Hawaiians who have left the state for the mainland. Hawaii News Now reported more than 1,200 people had signed up to attend. (HNN/2023)

This week, for the first time, the CNHA is holding its national convention on the continent. It’s in Las Vegas, and why not? There are 22,000 people of Native Hawaiian or Pacific Island descent living there.

CNHA describes the conference in terms that go beyond the islands themselves.  It is “an opportunity to reconnect with our ‘ohana who have left the islands; to share our stories, successes, and struggles and chart a course forward towards our common goal for our community.”

In that spirit, the convention workshops will not be a one-way street with the teachers from Hawaii presenting the material while Native Hawaiians from California, Nevada or wherever else passively absorb the authentic word from on high.

It’s much more likely to be a mix, a joint effort in, as CNHA puts it, “rediscovering Hawaii’s soul.” 

People like Cece will listen to workshops on cultural practices as filtered by her own experiences while people from Hawaii are likely to be influenced by some of Cece’s own ideas about keeping cultural integrity in today’s world.

This is preservation by adaptation and cultural exchange, which groups of people have been doing forever but which is all too easy to dismiss by naïve sympathizers.

Everyone in Hawaii has stories about leaving Hawaii. Often, they feature those who are coming back, like a young woman returning from four years at an Ivy League college because Hawaii is her home and she wants to make the place better.

Stories like that are overly polished and incomplete. They need to include the resources available to that person if she returns. More human and less heroic. 

The people I know who have returned have parents with enough wealth to help them buy a house and enough space to house them until the mortgage begins. 

I’m not saying that’s typical. My point is that it makes no sense to celebrate a person as a cultural exemplar without knowing what was available to her to ease the move. 

Shepardson is exceptional, but the fuller story is that he, his partner, with their two children are constantly struggling just to keep a roof over their heads.

Like immigrants everywhere, they left their homes because it became too hard to live where they were, but that place remained in their imagination and in their hearts. 

Hawaii’s movers and shakers as well as many of the rest of us are in the “plight” business — the plight of those who leave and the plight of the state as a result of losing these leavers.

The plight business allows politicians to talk eloquently but unrealistically about all the good things they are doing as if these good things are going to make a difference soon when from a family perspective, they will not.

Political leaders operate in policy time. Whatever they try to do, most effects are long range, for the good of the people in Hawaii at some later date. By and by.

Family time is much more concrete and immediate. Young parents who can’t afford the space they need are not going to benefit from something that is likely to happen years from now.

Lingering at the base of all this sympathy about people staying and leaving is a sorting impulse: staying is good while leaving is bad. 

An obituary of the famous editor and literary hero Robert Gottlieb who died last week said this about sorting:

Most of us have some version of a sorting impulse; we like to know who is good, and who is bad, what we should like, what we should not.

Gottlieb just wanted to know — of everyone, and in some ways, everything — what the whole thing was about.”

The whole thing about Hawaii is that it’s not going to get better for families for a long time at best. People are going to continue to leave and not return. 

Culture and tradition will take on new meanings, the product of interactions between people over there and people here.

The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement recognizes this full picture. Thriving and surviving are too important to be bogged down by notions of paradise.

Luke Shephardson is a hero. But Cece Cullen is a model.

Read this next:

Naka Nathaniel: Native Hawaiians Debate A Question Of Identity

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

My aunt moved to SF in the mid 60's not because of economics, but because she loved the city. Flash forward 50 years and SF is as expensive, or more to live than HNL. Hawaiians have moved all over the globe for reasons including cheaper rent, but recently its become a hot topic because of housing costs. America as a whole, seeks better jobs and lower living costs, it just happens that Hawaii is near the top of the list when it comes to both. The trade off is the best weather and beauty in the world. Something that government has NO control over, but capitalizes on, as if it does. Focus articles more on the bigger migration picture to lower cost states for a true comparison because this is a national trend, not unique to Hawaii. Then go back and ask state and city government what they have been doing over the past 50 years to lower the cost of living? Silence. It's not about what you are trying to do now, but what has been done 40 years ago, because that's how long it takes for Hawaii's glacial bureaucracy to get things moving. Pitiful, but true. Who represents the general public anyway? Ultimately,

wailani1961 · 3 months ago

WEIRD stands for western,educated,indusrial,rich democracies. Joseph Hendrix says this is the deep code that has created the success of market driven economies.Seeking maximum utility as individuaks is the heart of capitalism and the core reason for the price of paradise This mode if individual self seeking is the opposite of the code of almost all indigeous people which places family and common life above WEIRD values. The Ojibwe and Algonquian thought Westerners were possessd by a cannabalustic spirit called Windigo which raged with an insatiable appetite--always more. This is us dreaming of aloha but living with the rage of Windigo that will devour the planet. What new vision or value can cast out this spirit? Exorcist,shaman wanted!

JM · 3 months ago

How can some people believe that the only way to be a person of Hawaiian decent is by living in Hawaii? All blessings on anybody who moves anywhere that is better for themselves and their children!

Kai · 3 months ago

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