Even after more than 30 years in journalism, author Jill Engledow says she’s not good at being interviewed.
“I don’t think well on my feet,” the Wailuku resident told me during a recent interview.
The former reporter for The Maui News and author of the new book Island Life 101: A Newcomer’s Guide to Hawai‘i and I sat facing each other in comfy armchairs in the cluttered living room of the Wailuku home she’s lived in for 20 years. The door was open, allowing a soft breeze to blow through the screen and bring in the green smell of trees and fresh cut grass.
“I went through my newcomer time in a time that doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “‘Haole’ wasn’t a bad word back then.”
Uncomfortable as she may be, Engledow wants to get the word out about her new book. She’s worried that something terrible is happening to Maui—to the communities and the values she has grown to love since she moved here as a child.
Hawai‘i first gripped Engledow when her father, a journalist and self-proclaimed dreamer, uprooted his family from their Texas home and sent them on a familiar quest: sand, sun and a slow-paced life among welcoming people full of something affectionately dubbed “aloha spirit.”
Her father eventually found work at the Honolulu Star Bulletin and Engledow, then 13, fell in love with her Waikiki neighborhood’s tropical climate. It was a place that was changing rapidly, but still retaining a jungle atmosphere.
Soon her father moved the clan to Hilo, where Engledow spent several years on a small homestead, attending grade school immersed in Hawaiian culture. Her light hair and skin made her a minority among her peers, but she says they never treated her like an outsider. She remembers the local kids accepting her as she learned about Hawaiian food, music and language. With assistance from her father, she began to write.
But after just two years, the family moved again, this time to Guam. There she finished high school before moving back to the mainland. She dabbled in college but never finished, then loafed around in California before finally moving to Maui.
That was in 1968. Maui’s population was only about 38,000, homes were more or less affordable for the average worker and tourism had not yet gotten a chokehold on the local economy. The manicured and luxurious Wailea of today was just a gleam in an ambitious developer’s eye.
Flash forward to 2006. The State of Hawai‘i Data Book reported 141,320 residents on Maui. Granted, population for the whole state has been increasing exponentially, but our island’s growth spurt has been dramatically more rapid than any other.
Engeldow, along with the rest of Maui’s long-term residents, has seen tourism replace agriculture as the island’s top industry. Big chain superstores took the place of the mom-and-pop varieties that once flourished. Luxury resorts and condominiums line once-pristine landscapes; many sit on important and sacred cultural sites. Expensive, gated communities replaced close-knit neighborhoods, sending housing prices soaring.
“It’s not just slippers and pidgin that’s important here, it’s the values,” she said. “Island mentality is a sense that we’re all in this together.”
Values like family, hospitality, unity and honesty that gave Hawai‘i’s communities their distinct charm, allowed generations of multi-ethnic people to live and prosper in harmony and attracted newcomers and visitors to its shores for decades. Engledow believes these values are in serious danger of being marginalized by a wave of newcomers who don’t understand them and make no attempt to change their autonomous mainland ways and become a contributing member of Maui’s community.
“We used to say, ‘the island decides whether you stay or go,’” she told me. “Karma goes around fast if you’re respectful, want to learn, give good vibes, that kind of thing. It’s about a person’s attitude. If you’re not happy here, you won’t stay. Now, people with enough money can live autonomously and don’t have to get involved or be a part of the community.”
A few years ago, Engledow saw an opportunity to help preserve Hawaiian values while simultaneously assisting newcomers in adapting and getting closer to their new homes. A friend she was chatting with complained about how much it cost to recruit specialized employees to Maui, just to see them leave again for the mainland a year or so later.
Engledow decided to organize a workshop to orient new arrivals to their new island life. She organized focus groups to find out where newcomers needed help, then put together a brochure filled with practical information—like how to pronounce Hawaiian words, what steps to take to get a car registered and where to register for schools. She even included guidance for adjusting to Hawai‘i’s cultural eccentricities like the cheek-kiss greeting. And she advised newcomers never to speak pidgin.
To reach a broader audience, in 2005 she turned her seminar into a book, Maui 101: Your Guide to Island Life, later revising it for even more audience appeal.
“Newcomers don’t know that they don’t know,” she said. “You can work in a restaurant, surf with your buddies, hang out with other people from the mainland and live on that layer of Hawaiian life. But you’re missing a big part of Hawai‘i. Newcomers don’t realize that if they understood more they could have a better, fuller life.”
The first step in gaining insight into Maui’s local lifestyle is a basic understanding of Hawaiian history, she said. Her book begins with the legends of sky-father Wakea and earth-mother Papa, Maui the demigod as well as a good look at the science behind when and why the Hawaiian archipelago emerged from the sea.
In her book, she traces Hawaiian heritage from AD 300 through dozens of ruling chiefs, tribal wars and social class systems to Captain James Cook’s arrival on Kauai. She outlines plantation life and international migration, the formation of pidgin and the effects of World War II.
“If you understand the history, you can understand the place,” Engledow said.
From 1980 to 1998, Engledow chronicled daily life and local culture for The Maui News. Her reporting on the community contributed to her deep appreciation and concern for native Hawaiian culture. Years of writing on a daily basis left her with serious repetitive strain injuries and forced her to step back from the life of a news reporter.
Today her work appears in Maui No Ka `Oi and a guide book called Magic Maui: The Best of the Islands. She also wrote Exploring Vintage Upcountry and several other works about historic Maui. She calls herself a binge reader and a history buff.
In Island Life 101, Engledow writes about a resurgence of interest in local culture during the 1970s. “The Hawaiian Renaissance,” as she calls it, was a time when Native Hawaiians, aware that their culture was diminishing, began seeking out their roots and connecting with their native identity.
There was a renewed interest in hula, Hawaiian music and language. Immersion schools for Hawai‘i’s youth appeared. Environmentalists lobbied to stop the U.S. Navy’s use of Kaho‘olawe for target practice. The Hawaiian sailing canoe Hokule‘a proved that Native Hawaiians had the navigation capabilities to sail to Tahiti, Micronesia and the rest of the South Pacific. Pride in the special qualities that made Hawaiian culture unique soared, saving an endangered lifestyle from possible extinction.
This is the lifestyle that Engledow wants to help preserve.
“I don’t call myself a local,” she said, despite the fact that she’s lived on Maui longer than she’s lived away from it, sings Hawaiian songs (but doesn’t actually speak Hawaiian) and plays the ukulele.* “I am not Hawaiian. I accept that I’m not a local and never will be. But I hate to see the local culture get overwhelmed. It’s already changing.”
Of course, not that all the change has been negative. The tourism industry breathed new life into Hawai‘i at a time when the local economy was slipping and the state’s youth were fleeing to the Mainland in search of greater opportunity. Beneath the picturesque visitor scene, Hawai‘i’s native culture still thrives despite rapidly rising housing prices, congested roads and overdevelopment.
“When I worked the Lahaina beat, it was shocking,” she said. “Lahaina is ancient. There are people there with roots that go back a long way. Underneath all that froth of people coming and going there is a very strong local community going about their lives while everyone else parties on Front Street. But the local culture is still beneath the surface.”
That’s why, in Island Life 101, Engledow discourages newcomers from living on the outskirts of the community. She writes that volunteering and playing an active role in the culture is vital to keeping local values alive.
“The idea is to be helpful, not to take over,” she wrote. “Try to have an attitude of wanting to learn. Locals expect you to act superior.”
Engledow certainly practices what she preaches. She spends her free time volunteering for her church and belongs to the Rotary Club of Maui. She deeply discounts her price when she does grant writing and press release work for non-profit organizations. And she says she knows all her neighbors by name.
“The truth is we have to work hard to live here,” she said. “We’re not all here on vacation.” MTW
* This sentence originally mischaracterized Ms. Engeldow’s Hawaiian language knowledge.