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Alone in Paradise — High Prices, a Small Jobs Market and the Passage of Time
About the Author
It will soon be 50 years since my family arrived in Hawaii.
With our family’s silver anniversary looming, I’m thinking about my attachment to the islands: Why am I here and what might drive me away?
But let me start by telling you about my family’s history, starting with my parents. In 1966, my father and mother moved to the islands. They worked for Northwest Airlines, dad as a station manager and mom as a dispatcher. They separately settled down in the islands for the promise that Hawaii offered then.
Joanne and Stan were both single parents before they married. Stan already had my half-sister Rose, while Joanne had my half-brother, Bruce.
They both came to Hawaii seeing it as a haven, a place to start anew and raise their children. They met and had some great times at the old Queen’s Surf in Waikiki, and married in 1968. Although my father was offered better professional opportunities in places like Tokyo, he and my mother were so attached to Hawaii that he refused. It was a time of economic expansion in Hawaii and my father was soon hired by a small, but growing inter-island company called Aloha Airlines.
My mother, who was very pragmatic, yearned for a life as a housewife. My parents bought a house in what is now lower Makakiko, right above the elementary school, and the family began to grow.
Rose graduated from Chaminade University and married her classmate, Bob, a chemist at the old Primo Brewery. In 1969, their first-born, Rosie, was born on Oahu. I was born in 1974. My older brother Bruce later married his teenage sweetheart and they had their first child, David, in Hawaii in 1985. We were a family with a full life here. Oahu was our home.
On the 50th anniversary of my family’s move to the island, I will be the only Fichtman here. It isn’t much of a celebration with just one person in the party room.
Unfortunately, Hawaii hasn’t provided the economic opportunities to keep my family here. By the time I was old enough to remember things, my sister and her family had already moved to California as our family’s first émigrés out of Hawaii. On the West Coast, Bob started his own medical recruitment firm and my sister got a job with American Airlines as a reservation agent. They bought a house in a new development in Laguna Niguel and moved on with their lives.
After returning from college in New Mexico in 1982, my brother Bruce enrolled at the University of Hawaii, to continue his studies, in astronomy and physics. The peaceful home of his youth offered him only dim employment prospects in the areas he studied, so in 1988, he and his wife left.
Soon enough they moved to San Diego, not far from the master-planned community of Laguna Niguel; another land of soft-sand beaches and mild weather. They later made a permanent home further north, in Oregon, where my brother heads the Geographic Information System for Klamath Falls and my sister-in-law is a nurse. They too were able to buy a house there.
My parents wanted to stick it out in Hawaii. Seeing this place as a sanctuary since she arrived in 1966, my Ma wanted to stay. The family home in Makakilo was sold at a big profit just in time for us to move, temporarily, to Guangzhou, China, where my father was hired by Lockheed Aviation on a three-year contract at the start of 1990.
Throughout our time in Asia, we always knew that Hawaii was still our home. At the start of 1993, we returned. I graduated with an MA in Political Science from the University of Hawaii in 2000.
But while I was in China, I met a woman who later became my wife. We had a daughter named Rachel on Oahu in 1998. She was the second generation of my family to be born in Hawaii.
It saddens me that the Hawaii that was a haven for my parents, that was full of opportunities for my father and mother in 1966, doesn’t exist for many people anymore.
Soon enough, though, despite sensing the peace of Hawaii, my wife left in search of better career opportunities. She left the islands with my daughter to attend Michigan State University and they later settled in Idaho. Now my ex-wife, she is a professor at Boise State University, while my daughter is living far better than she could if her mom had the same income in Hawaii.
My own mother never wanted to leave Hawaii. She never did. After she died of cancer in 2010, the family honored her wishes by scattering her ashes around the islands in the places that had so touched her — Queens Beach and Makakilo, overlooking East Honolulu-Diamond Head.
That left my father and me. He is spry for his age, but he’s 90 years old. So in 2013, after 46 years in the islands, he moved back to the mainland where things are easier.
And Then There Was One
I am the last Fichtman to call Hawaii home, and the last member of my family who was born here who still lives in the state. In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of my family’s move to the island, I will be the only Fichtman here. It isn’t much of a celebration with just one person in the party room.
For the 23 years since I returned from China, I have been blessed to call Hawaii home, but it hasn’t been easy. It would be nice to say my skill or smarts helped me to get by here, but my roller-coaster career has had some “just-lucky” moments.
Since graduating, I’ve changed jobs repeatedly. Starting as an intern at Pacific Business News in 1999, working on its “book of lists,” I was able to use that experience to later get a position as an employment analyst at the state Department of Labor in 2008. In between, I used my interest in politics to become a legislative aide at the Honolulu City Council from 2004 to 2008.
Last year, with what I learned about federal grant management at the Department of Labor, I was hired for a grants manager position at Kapiolani Community College. The job provides me an income that is considered at the lower end of the “middle class” here in Hawaii.
With this salary, I am able to provide for my daughter, as well as saving a bit. That’s no small financial achievement in the islands, but it seems paltry compared to the success stories I hear from old friends and family who have moved to the mainland.
But while Hawaii is a place of healing and rejuvenation for the soul, its costs and lack of economic opportunities are driving many people to seek out better opportunities on the mainland. At some point, perhaps I will have to join them.
Even my nephew David, who is a decade younger than me, has been able to buy a house in Grants Pass, Oregon. He’s moved on from Hawaii for good.
Still, I’m doing okay. I just wonder what the future holds.
I have a fiancé who doesn’t want to leave. But, after seeing so many family members depart, I can’t help but wonder when my time in Hawaii will end. What will I do when this grant managing job comes to an end? I don’t own any land; I don’t have the means to get by for long if I am ever unemployed. It is a razor’s edge existence that includes beautiful moments today, but what about tomorrow?
I think of the people I grew up with and still call close friends. The ones who stayed haven’t even had the same opportunities, or salaries, that I have. And most of my high school friends from Lanakila Baptist left on planes to the mainland soon after graduation. They never moved back — maybe because most can earn more on the mainland.
My entire family is gone, due principally to a lack of opportunities and the cost of living, despite this place being the first home most of them ever really knew.
It saddens me that the Hawaii that was a haven for my parents and that was full of opportunities for my father and mother in 1966, doesn’t exist for many people anymore. And for those who try to make it here, both career- and salary-wise, it is a struggle.
At times I sort of feel like I am the last of my generation — the last Hawaii-born Haole blessed with parents who wanted their child to grow up in this place full of promise.
But while Hawaii is a place of healing and rejuvenation for the soul, its costs and lack of economic opportunities are driving many people to seek out better opportunities on the mainland.
At some point, perhaps I will have to join them.
Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands, whether about you or someone you know? If so, click on the red pencil button share it through Connections or drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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