Navigating a new culture is like walking an unfamiliar path. It’s helpful to know some of the obstacles you may encounter before you begin your journey so you can watch for and avoid unsteady ground. When I observe fellow visitors from the mainland navigating the unique cultural environment of Hawaii it’s clear that many of us have a tendency to stumble over the same tripping stones – all of which are avoidable. In hope that they may be helpful to others, my observations about the most common stumbling blocks I’ve observed follow.
First, accept that Hawaii’s uniqueness can tempt visitors from the mainland to forget they’re in the United States. Hawaii is an archipelago (island chain) made up of eight major islands (Big Island of Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, Niihau, and Kahoolawe), several atolls (rimmed coral reefs surrounding a lagoon), many smaller islets (small islands), and undersea seamounts (underwater mountain tops that don’t quite break through the ocean’s surface) that combined span a distance in excess of 1,500 miles. If you count all the islets, there are more than 100 islands in the Hawaiian island chain, mostly uninhabited. These islands are literally the tips of a great mountain range rising from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, some of which are still active volcanoes. Together the islands in the chain are called “Hawaii” and together they comprise one of the 50 United States of America. When you’re in Hawaii it’s considered impolite by many residents to refer to the continental U.S. as “the United States” because when you do that you’re treating Hawaii like it isn’t a part of the U.S.A. also. Although it was the most recent state admitted to the United States (its 50th state), Hawaii has the same legal standing under the U.S. Constitution as any other state –it just isn’t located on the North American continent like America’s other 49 states. To avoid appearing ignorant of Hawaii’s statehood or offending anyone, it’s common practice in Hawaii to refer to the part of the United States that lies on the North American continent as “the U.S. mainland” — or simply “the mainland.”
Second, don’t let Hawaii’s diversity (no single racial group appears to be in the majority), its distance from the mainland (Hawaii lies in the Pacific Ocean about 2,479 miles southwest of Los Angeles, California — roughly the same distance as between Los Angeles and New York), or the exotic nature of its islands trick you into thinking that Hawaii shares little in common with other U.S. states. Despite its uniqueness and differences, Hawaii is similar to other U.S. states in many ways. For instance, government buildings in Hawaii fly the American flag and like other states, Hawaii has its own state flag that it proudly displays beneath it. Fourth of July is celebrated in Hawaii along with other American holidays (except that Hawaii, like a few other states, does not celebrate Columbus Day). Letters and postcards in Hawaii are mailed in Hawaii using U.S. postage stamps for the same price as they are mailed on the mainland; people drive on the right-hand side of the road; traffic laws are similar to those in other states, including the mandatory use of seat belts; citizens of Hawaii pay U.S. federal taxes; citizens of Hawaii may vote in national elections; Hawaii has a public school system as well as private and charter schools; U.S. citizens do not need a passport to travel here from the mainland; English is the official language (along with Hawaiian); the majority of its residents are U.S. citizens; the majority of its residents are employed; citizens of the State of Hawaii are entitled to the same protection under the U.S. Constitution as the citizens of other U.S. states; and, many of the businesses found in other states are also present in Hawaii.
Third, even though Hawaii shares much in common with mainland states, Hawaii is unlike other states in many ways. In particular, respect the fact that Hawaii has a proud history independent of U.S. statehood. Polynesians had made Hawaii their home roughly 1,500 years before the United States even existed. When British explorer Captain James Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 (naming them “the Sandwich Islands”) Hawaiian culture was already here and Hawaiians had a rich oral history of their own – apart from the British and later the Americans. In fact, the U.S. as we know it did not exist when the British first discovered Hawaii. Around the same time as the British discovered Hawaii the first 13 colonies on the U.S. mainland were combining to become the United States of America (1776) and the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain was being fought (1775-1783). In other words, the ancestors of today’s native Hawaiians had made Hawaii their home more than 1,500 years before the ancestors of most Americans living on the mainland today had arrived in America. It should come as no surprise then that Hawaii is steeped in traditions, beliefs, values, customs, and practices that sometimes do not reflect those on the mainland. When visiting Hawaii it is considered good manners to respect its differences without judgment.
Fourth, visitors from the mainland should be sensitive to the fact that Hawaii was an independent nation before it became the 50th state of the United States. Prior to 1893, Hawaii was the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, with its own language, laws, customs, traditions, history, and religion. Countries around the world had treated the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi as an independent nation prior to 1893, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Japan, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Samoa, Sweden, Norway, Tahiti, United Kingdom, and the United States. It had its own trading partners and international agreements. Despite this, in 1893 the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi was unlawfully overthrown with the help of the United States military — against the wishes of its people and its monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani. One result of the unlawful overthrow of its government was that native Hawaiians were denied the right to determine the political future of their country. The island nation was later annexed by the United States in 1898 and became a U.S. state in 1959. One hundred years after Hawaii’s overthrow, President Clinton and the U.S. Congress issued a formal apology for the U.S. role in toppling Hawaii’s independent government in 1893. The unlawful overthrow of Hawaii’s former government continues to influence Hawaiian politics today and related discussions are often passionate. As a visitor to Hawaii, be aware of the sensitive nature of this topic and be respectful of people’s positions.
Finally, as used on the islands the term “Hawaiians” generally refers only to native Hawaiians (the descendants of Polynesian people who settled here long ago). The term “Hawaiians” should not be used to describe people who live here without regard to their ethnicity. People who live in Hawaii but who are not native Hawaiians are generally referred to simply as “residents.” And at least on the island of Oahu, the term “locals” generally seems to refer to people who are not native Hawaiians but whose families have lived, intermarried, raised families, and/or died here for many generations – regardless of race. If there is a hierarchy among the islands with respect to status to be afforded to each other, native Hawaiians seem to have a special status, followed by the locals, and then other residents of Hawaii. It’s doubtful that visitors to these islands would be expected to understand everything about Hawaii or its history (I clearly do not), but it is appreciated when visitors are respectful of the people who live here and don’t make assumptions about them. Most residents who visitors encounter in Hawaii will reflect the island’s famous “Aloha Spirit” and will be friendly, gracious, kind, and accommodating. For the few that may not, let it go.
Photo Credit: Leigh Meeks (123RF License)