The Mar. 21 New York Times article “The Hawaii Cure: A first trip to the island, in a desperate bid to escape the news” is hard to read. Beginning with the first night at the luʻau where author Wells Tower is “hankering after something incontestably Hawaiian” and ending with him wanting to “poke lava with a stick” alongside other tourists at Kilauea, every stereotype and dismissal of a culture and people is encased in a simple description of the author’s vacation with his family, and then sent out for the world to read. Not surprising–because variances of this patronizing and dismissal tone presents itself in many publications that attempt to depict Hawaiʻi–but hard to read all the same.
It’s no wonder that, within the same week this article was published, #boycotthawaii was a thing and met with attitudes ranging from glee to invite (Yes, please boycott Hawai‘i) to encouragement from others (Yay! Hawaiʻi). What was meant to be a scolding by Donald Trump fans that disagreed with a native Hawaiian federal judge’s ruling on Trump’s travel ban instead ignited encouragement from those who disagree with Trump. But both the scolding and the anti-Trump voices have it wrong. Hawaiʻi is not yours to boycott, except in the limiting perspective of the “all welcoming” island spaces, put in place by a tourism industry that wants to profit.
If you listened close enough to the responses of #boycotthawaii, a rendering of the historical facts would have perhaps influenced a questioning of narratives. Some cited the history and sovereignty of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the illegal overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893, and the subsequent and prolonged occupation of Hawaiʻi, with the failure of the U.S. to secure a Treaty of Annexation in 1898. If you listened to the responses close enough, the appropriation and selling of Hawaiian culture and places to the highest bidder, and to the largely adverse effects on both “natives” and places, were spoken loud and clear in the seemingly casual responses.
Apparently Tower didn’t take the time to either ponder these responses, or to reflect on his recent attempt to take a “Hawaii cure” on “the island” (like there’s only one), whereby “the news” doesn’t happen. His rhetoric of “the island” stems from the same vein of insight that ponders if we have electricity here or if we still live in hale. They missed a couple of centuries of modernity in Hawaiʻi, and then are surprised and more than a little taken aback when encountering the reality. Then, there are the valiant attempts to reconcile and piece together ideas of “nativeness” within an American genre.
This article is multi-fold. One, reality can only be viewed through the lens of an American understanding of people and place. Two, within this perspective, the encounter is always favored by the privileged, those that can come and then leave, and with very little knowledge of or attempt to understand the actual places they are visiting. Finally, and to show cultural superiority, no real conversation (of “national” politics, or about anything) occurs outside of the continent.
Tower begins with “Can it be true? The aloha spirit is real? Paradise on earth? An Eden of happy Americans moated from our national ravages of malevolence, contempt, uncertainty and fear?” Captioned after these questions is a photo of someone lounging, feet up, poolside at the Sheraton Waikiki.
To cut to the heart of the matter, Haunani Kay Trask’s article “Lovely Hula Hands: Corporate Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian Culture” has a direct response and analysis for his opening questions. “This fictional Hawaiʻi comes out of the depths of Western sexual sickness which demands a dark, sinfree Native for instant gratification between imperialist wars,” she says. “The attraction of Hawaiʻi is stimulated by slick Hollywood movies, saccharine Andy Williams music, and the constant psychological deprivations of maniacal American life. Tourists flock to my Native land for escape, but they are escaping into a state of mind while participating in the destruction of a host people in a Native place.”
Unknowingly proving Trask’s thesis, Tower then takes us through five days of vacation on Oʻahu and Hawaiʻi Island. After the mandatory luʻau the first night where “’Aloha’ means last to the buffet,” Tower encounters a “fat and saucy cockroach” at the Waikiki Beach Hilton and “in the live-and-let-live aloha spirit,” decides not to “molest the animal.” Aloha is used as a throw away word as he searches for the highly reproduced and advertised “Hawaii cure.”
The next day, Tower finds himself at the “Banzai Pipeline” where “The young and barely clad are out in force, demonstrating physiques that can only come from long and rigorous hours of ignoring national politics.” He also notices a photo shoot on the beach and the “professional butt” of a woman posing. Maybe discontent with his own physique, because in the midst of this scene he declares, “No way will I be bathing here,” the lay-around lifestyle he perceives is interjected with his attempts to be clever, but really displays his contempt and condescension for spaces he doesn’t understand.
Continuing on their journey through the North Shore, Tower and his family stops at Kahuku Superette, which he describes as a “homely liquor shop/convenience store that from the outside is easily pictured in a newscast with police lights flashing on it.” The perceived dangerous side of Hawaiʻi shines bright for Tower, and he attempts to counter these uneasy feelings with trying to find solace in the search for Americana. Having survived Kahuku Superette and the poke “sashimi salad,” the author wants to visit the Arizona Memorial but they are out of tickets. So instead, “we resolve to take in our nation of history with a trudge around the Makiki neighborhood where Barack Obama grew up.”
Tower is distressed that there are no markers of Obama’s now famous stomping grounds, either at the former apartment building where his family once lived, or at the Baskin-Robbins where Obama worked. At the apartment building, Tower notices only “one (small-size) American flag,” while at Baskin-Robbins he remarks, “It is the sort of cramped little parlor that, if you had a job there, would make you sink into despair or go on to be the President.”
This obsession with Americana blinds him to the environments in which he actually finds himself, except to remain alert for the themes. “Parking is free on the street, one of Makiki’s practical concessions to the paradise theme.” As though every inch of Hawaiʻi should fit a paradise theme.
After just two days, Tower and his family find themselves on Hawaiʻi Island. They hit Ahalanui pond and the signs of warnings about entering this warm pond excites Tower. Here is the danger of the encounter to be overcome. For him, he does just that and finds solace. He exclaims, “The pond is excellent, maybe the closest I have ever found to my mind’s ideal of the great American swimming hole.”
His interaction with the park, and with the life that occurs in the parking lot, brings him to Coconut Man No. 2 (because there was already an encounter with a Coconut Man No. 1). He allows that he could never actually live on Hawaiʻi Island because this man selling coconuts attempts to rip him off by not returning $10 in change, thus “nipping a budding and inconvenient fancy that I might like to live here on the Big Island.” That’s all it took? A sauve talking coconut purveyor to turn you off to living here? What a lightweight.
However, the curiosity of living on Hawaiʻi Island does not wane, because apparently once you like something, you have to occupy it. He remarks, “Real estate in these parts would probably cost you a thumb.” And, when observing the houses, “While some of the citizens keep spectacular gardens, this is also a place where if you want to leave some old mattresses or an engine hoist in your yard, you just go ahead and do it.”
As trivial these observations, it’s when Tower gets to Kilauea that he really displays how narrow his perspectives. Halemaumau crater, the summit of Kilauea, is the Hawaiʻi home of Pele. “But who wants to glimpse lava from afar when you can get close enough to jab it with a stick?” This is where he watches “newborn wads of America bulge and slip toward the sea.” Finally, finally, Tower has to “put my back to the miraculous and get on with life.” Thus ending his vacation. Briefly miraculous, but the encounter surely lacking the cure he ultimately sought.
In her own version, Haunani Kay Trask finishes her essay by plainly stating, “Now that you have heard a Native view, let me just leave this thought behind. If you are thinking of visiting my homeland, please don’t. We don’t want or need any more tourists, and we certainly don’t like them. If you want to help our cause, pass this message on to your friends.” She is asking for relief from the onslaught–not so different from the multitude of voices that manage to pierce the surface occasionally and ask for the same.
The spontaneous pushback to a simple hashtag #boycotthawaii sparked a levity that many welcomed, as the encounter, voiced by Tower and others, continues to privilege the privileged. In dealing with the day-to-day reality and the multitude of negative effects that have plagued Hawaiʻi since the last century, created and continued by the collusion of government interests with tourism (and military) entities, a relief from the onslaught would be a welcomed change. Change to actually be with both the miraculous and mundane.
Photo of the image of Pele at the Volcanoes National Park Visitors Center: Ron Cogswell/Flickr