If ever there was an occasion for the use of the phrase “so many feels,” it was this. After earning my MA from the University of Hawaii, and then subsequently moving back to the mainland for the PhD, I went back to Hawaii last week, for the first time in about 9 months, to present at a symposium.
Perhaps partially influenced by my blog-writing and/or scholarly training, and the habit I have thus developed of thinking about experiences rather than simply experiencing them, almost immediately upon landing, even before leaving the airport, I found myself thinking all sorts of thoughts about my return – how do I relate to Hawaii now? What do I think about Hawaii, now that I’ve lived there for three years, and then been gone for so many months?
For the first day or so on campus, I was flooded with thoughts and emotions. It was wonderful to be back – the natural beauty, the weather/climate, the myriad opportunities for Japanese/Okinawan food and culture, and, of course, seeing old friends. And interestingly, yet not unexpectedly, I found that campus, and town more generally, while eminently familiar, lacked a nostalgic or emotional quality. It wasn’t “oh, I remember this place!” with tears in my eyes and/or a smile on my face, but rather just an ordinary awareness of where everything was and how to get there.
But it wasn’t just as if I’d never left. Staying at the slightly nicer, more hotel-style, building associated with the dorms I had lived in the last few years, and no longer possessing a key card to get into the dorms (plus, no longer being able to use my student ID to ride the bus for free), I definitely also felt a feeling of not-quite-belonging; this, of course, being accompanied by some anxiety over just how much I do or don’t belong, and how there are now new students, who I don’t know, and who don’t know me, and who in some very real and valid respects “belong” more than I do. Fortunately, at this stage of the game at least, a mere nine months or so since I left the islands, I still have plenty of friends on campus, so it’s not like I’m a total stranger, and the people I do know can welcome me in and introduce me to the people I don’t know – in this way, I was able to feel comfortable letting myself in to walk around the art building, see who I ran into, and to then hang out with old and new friends. Actually, in a broader sense, this worked pretty much all weekend – having friends to go to the beach with, friends to go out to a bar with, friends to show me a new cool restaurant in town. It didn’t really hit me until after getting back to the mainland from Hawaii, earlier this week, that it won’t be long at all before most of my friends are no longer there. The next time I go back the experience will be decidedly different.
But, this time at least, despite all my anxieties, by the middle of the week, I had settled down into a wonderfully calm sense of contentment and familiarity. For most of the rest of the week, I simply enjoyed myself.
What’s to say about all the rest? I do miss Hawaii very much. I miss the beautiful blue sky, oh-so-white clouds, and lush green – and the wonderfully warm weather itself – more than I’d thought, as well as the beach. I always tell myself, and tell others, that I’m not one of those people who ever went to Hawaii for the weather, or for the beach, but, by comparison, even Santa Barbara (which everyone is constantly saying is so nice) seems unattractive and cold. I miss the ever-present and easily accessible Japanese & Okinawan culture, in its myriad forms, from restaurants, izakaya (pubs/bars), and grocery stores to the kimono, books, CDs/DVDs, etc. available at Shirokiya/BookOff, to the countless cultural events, lectures, etc., from Bon Dance and Okinawa Festival to sanshin lessons, Asian Theatre at UH’s Theatre dept, and just lectures and symposia in general.
But perhaps most of all, Hawaii is an unusual place, like Japan is too. Now, wait, bear with me on this one. No, living in Hawaii is not like living in Japan; in so many ways, it could not be more different – the vast majority of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii don’t speak Japanese, things are not clean and efficient and on-time, and the overall culture is very much its own distinctive Hawaiian / local-Hawaiian-Japanese-American thing, and not at all an extension of contemporary culture in Japan. But. While there are a multitude of individual specific cultural aspects I love about life in Japan, alongside those there is also great appeal simply in the feeling of living somewhere not-mainstream, somewhere special, somewhere exceptional. A feeling of living a worldly, cosmopolitan life, of doing something special. Not that I do any of this merely to impress others – it’s not purely or primarily about the ability to go home and have people say “wow, you’re living in Hawaii!? How cool/amazing! What is that like?” Rather, it’s about the ability to say that to yourself. To myself. To feel like I’m doing something special with my life, to feel like every single day is an adventure, a cultural experience, something that I can myself feel is worth it and exciting and meaningful. It’s a feeling I’ve had about Japan ever since my very first time there, and yet I still have a hard time pinning down exactly how to describe what I mean… and it’s certainly not a feeling I have in Santa Barbara, that I should be so fortunate to live here, rather than living in LA or in NorCal or in Seattle, or anywhere else. What’s so special about Santa Barbara, that makes you worldly, that makes you cultured, that makes you well-traveled, that makes you someone with particularly distinct experiences and perspectives, like Hawaii or Japan does?
More than that, still, and I guess this is what concerns me the most, is that I feel that living in Hawaii made me a better person. Being constantly challenged with rethinking my assumptions and attitudes about indigenous issues, about valuing or understanding indigenous and (post)colonial issues, and rethinking my understandings of Asian and Asian-American cultures, made me a better person in a way that life as a privileged white man in the mainland US never does. It gave me perspective on a whole series of issues outside of the mainland black/Hispanic racial/”diversity” dynamic, and through engaging with indigenous, cultural identity, and colonial issues in the Hawaiian context, opened my mind to rethinking my relationship to all of these issues in terms of my own (Jewish) identity, my own relationship to Japan or Okinawa, to America, etc etc. And, on a separate point, in my last year or two in Hawaii, for the first time in my life, I expanded out into theatre, music, and dance, taking on new cultural/artistic hobbies and becoming a more well-rounded person. Back here in Santa Barbara, I have yet to find or connect with any Japanese/Okinawan/other-Asian music, dance, theatre, or art communities, and though I still maintain those interests, and still have my sanshin, I feel like my life revolves far too much around reading and writing, i.e. the more strictly, exclusively scholarly/academic lifestyle. In my last three semesters in Hawaii, my everyday life was dominated by kabuki, sanshin, Okinawan dance, and otherwise hanging out with art, music, and theatre people, with research, reading, and writing kind of happening only on the side. It’s about being social and having a very active social life, yes, and I do feel I’m lacking that, missing that, here, but, it’s also about living a more culturally/artistically engaged lifestyle.
When I first arrived in Hawaii, it took me a long time to adjust to the island. And maybe it’s simply a matter of that it will take time here too to make friends, to find cultural avenues, to make connections and find my social & cultural life. Maybe it’s just a matter of a transition/adjustment period. Or, maybe Santa Barbara is just a desolate place, relatively, compared to Hawaii, and cannot, will not, ever compare to Hawaii in terms of the ability to engage with Japanese, Okinawan, Polynesian, music, dance, theatre, art, and culture otherwise.