This is a rather more personal post, so I was hesitant at first to post it here. But, I feel the need to post it somewhere, to get these thoughts down on “paper.” And, since it’s relevant to Hawaii, to graduate school adventures, and to cultural experiences, I figure it’s perhaps not too personal to be put here. In other words, could be quite relevant to others’ experiences.
After three years in Hawaii, I feel like I am just now really starting to get really settled and established here. Up until the beginning of this school year (last August/September), I never really considered trying to organize an event on my own on campus – I didn’t feel it was my place, or I didn’t feel comfortable enough with my position, or with my relationships with faculty/staff to take that initiative. Up until this past year, I wouldn’t have thought of trying to organize something off-campus, either, as I felt that I scarcely knew anyone who could provide a venue, and perhaps didn’t really think about knowing anyone well enough to ask them to perform at my hypothetical event.
That’s just one aspect, but I think it says a lot. I cannot believe that in a little over two weeks time, I will be flying out of here, more or less permanently. Oh, sure, I tell myself that I’ll be back for research, or for conferences or something. But will that really happen? And even if it does, will it ever be the same? (No.) It’s one thing to leave for the summer, but to leave entirely? I am, strangely enough, having a very difficult time wrapping my head around this idea. When I first came here, I had little interest in staying. I had a lot of culture shock issues, and I just sort of felt like I would do my thing and then get out of here. Honolulu is way too small, too isolated, not only geographically, but perhaps more importantly, it’s small and isolated in people’s minds. People here have little desire to think globally, to think of themselves as part of an active, vibrant network of international travel, communication, and exchange. They’re much more interested in the local – who and what is important here, not who or what is prominent in the outside world. And that really rubbed me the wrong way when I first got here.
But after three years here, I have not only turned over a new leaf, coming to see things in a different light, but I have also found a community here that, sure, it’s not nearly as Japanese as Japan, not by a long shot, but it really is far more Japanese than anywhere I’ve experienced on the mainland. Now, of course, “more Japanese” is not really the phrase I mean to use. But, living here, one not only has extremely easy access to Japanese (and other East Asian) culture, but one is also surrounded and immersed in it, albeit in a rather uniquely Hawaiian local version of Japanese culture. It’s not just a matter of having Japanese grocery stores. We have those in NY, too. And in Boston, San Francisco, and elsewhere. In fact, you might have better luck looking for certain things (e.g. Japanese books) in New York than here – the BookOff’s selection is terrible here. And, sure, New York has plenty of izakaya and Japanese restaurants. But there’s something special about the izakaya and Japanese restaurants here. Well, three things. One, they’re more ubiquitous, more ever-present. They’re not just one option among myriad cultural options as they are in NY; they’re one of the main things here. Two, they’re as often as not operated by locals, which is something that really turned me off at first, since it felt far less authentic. But what’s “authenticity” anyway? When I came here, I had no interest in this bastardized local Hawaiian version of Japanese culture; I wanted the real thing, imported directly from Japan, an experience as close as I could get to as if I were in Japan for real. But I gradually came to appreciate local Hawaiian Japanese culture for its own thing. And the people are, in their own way, all the more genuine since there’s an air of the family-run, mom & pop sort of establishment, connected to the history of the place, the history of their family, and of Japanese in Hawaii, whereas the more “authentic” Japanese places are just chain stores, corporate things brought over here, with a sense of plasticness to it, lacking that friendly, local, family-run sort of feeling. Three, is the availability of Okinawan cuisine here. There are only a handful of places I know of on the island that specialize in Okinawan food, but that’s a handful more than I know of in New York.
Whereas there are many aspects of Japanese culture quite available in New York, it’s the fact that you don’t have to go and seek them out here, or feel like you’re occupying some remote niche of the city’s society/culture in doing so. Just being here, without having to really hunt it down at all, I have seen or been involved in numerous Asian theatre performances, Asian dance and music performances, Asian Art events, and the like. We have kabuki on-campus. We have a gazillion Bon Dancing events all summer (I’ve never actually managed to go to any). We have not one, but something like ten or fifteen Okinawan Lunar New Year celebrations; and that’s just the Okinawans. I wonder how many Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Korean Lunar New Year events there are on the island. We have Okinawa Festival, we have KZOO Japanese-language Radio station. We have Shirokiya Japanese department store, and we have andagi (Okinawan donuts) at the coffee shop on campus.
I have made tons of friends here, and a few who have become truly among my closest and dearest friends, and I will miss them very much. But many of them are leaving anyway, and so the idea of “I don’t want to leave because I’m leaving my friends” is sort of a moot point. More to the point, then, I guess, is that I’ll really miss all the opportunities to continue being involved in Japanese & Okinawan Studies and Japanese & Okinawan local communities, especially where the performing arts come into play. I have a sanshin teacher here now, and not only that, but I have started to get to know many people in the local Okinawan community. I regret not getting to know them better, both the local community, and the on-campus Okinawan students’ community. These are two places I could really have networked and made connections.
I am going to miss the wonderfully strong Asian Theatre program here, and the impact it has upon so many things that go on in the Theatre. I’m not saying that their productions of Hamlet and Oklahoma! were Asian-influenced, but I’m saying that no other school in the country so far as I am aware has so many smaller performances such as the scenes my friends will be organizing next week as the final projects for their Asian Directing class. No other school in the country has full-on Kabuki productions, or Randai. And I am most definitely going to miss that. But it’s not the productions themselves. It’s the attitudes, the interest. The presence of so many likeminded Asian Studies people, in Theatre, in Dance, in Music, in Art History, in Anthropology…. the very strong Asia-Pacific focus here, and the relative absence of any overpowering, dominating Western Studies-by-default sensibility. The ability to feel like Asian Studies is not a niche, off in the corner, but is the main event; and the ability to meet people, and talk to people, in all different departments, and find common interests, and common knowledge. How many Theatre students am I going to find at Santa Barbara who are interested in Kabuki? How am I even going to meet these people and get involved in getting to know anyone in the department, when there’s basically no Asian Theatre at all going on?
This post is really rambly, and I apologize for that.
One thing I realized today. I went to a talk about rhetorical sovereignty and the rhetoric conveyed by the newly renovated Hawaii Hall at Bishop Museum. First, as a total sidenote, I think it really interesting that this word “rhetoric” has never before come up in my studies. Perhaps it’s something worth looking into as an alternative to the discourses on, achem, “discourse.” But, anyway, when I first came to Hawaii, I was very much put off by post-colonial attitudes and post-colonial theory. I came into the Museum Studies class, and said that I was taking the class in order to learn how to design and execute Metropolitan Museum-style exhibitions of 13th century ink paintings, and people looked at me like I had three heads. The entire course was about how to represent indigenous peoples in a culturally sensitive way, how to give them “voice,” how to deal with post-colonial issues. And, at first, I was not only disinterested – I was downright opposed to it. It made me angry, and I rebelled. But, you know what, in the end, once I got over that anger and found the way to discuss these issues on a more removed, objective, “isn’t that interesting” sort of level, I found it all not only fascinating, but really relevant to and inspiring of topics I might want to look into with Okinawa.
I can’t even find a way to describe it without it sounding like the very thing I was opposed to to begin with. But, there is something in the academic approaches, or scholarly theories, about rhetoric and discourses, about the symbolism of a colonized place as deployed by the colonizer, that’s really interesting. The multiple meanings of a place, or an object, or an image, a symbol… I have no interest in being anti-American, or anti-Japanese, or anything like that. My interest in Hawaii, and in Ryukyu, is more or less apolitical, and almost entirely non-activist. I just find it interesting. And I think that being surrounded by discussion of these issues has been really interesting for me, really inspiring, and I wonder what I could come up with if I were encouraged to continue in this vein. But, since I’m leaving, not having that Hawaiian environment, I don’t think I’ll really find myself doing that sort of thing any more. I am so influenced by the topics around me – I get so interested in whatever it is I’m being taught at the moment – this is part of why I have so much trouble deciding on a field or a discipline, because wherever I am, it either feels really attractive, or makes the opposite option really attractive, but either way is extremely influential. … Hearing talks about the discursive or symbolic meaning of ‘Iolani Palace makes me think about how these same exact issues might apply to Okinawa’s Shuri Palace. Talks about how Bishop Museum is seen by many/most native Hawaiians as a colonial institution, as a creation of the oppressors, and not as a place that genuinely represents their voice – and also about what the museum is doing to try to rectify past wrongs and to represent the Hawaiian people, their history and culture, in the most culturally sensitive way – these kinds of talks make me really want to go investigate the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and the internal politics, and discursive or rhetorical impacts of the gallery exhibitions there.
I don’t know that I’m really interested in indigenous movements, per se, and I’m not looking to become activist. I’m still often very annoyed at comments people make, such as suggesting that a museum in Massachusetts has no right to a Hawaiian statue. (Wait, that’s actually a really nice museum, and it has its own story to tell, an interesting and exciting and romantic story about cultural explorers from New England who were some of the first to introduce the US to Asian and Pacific culture, and to advocate for Asians & Pacific peoples, and for the beauty and value of their culture, etc…. not to mention the whole issue of if we repatriate everything then what is left in the museum, and if we repatriate everything, then how is anyone supposed to learn about, or be inspired by, another culture, without traveling halfway around the world? But I don’t want to get into that now. That’s not at all what this post is about right now.) … But I do think that, resistant as I was at first, having learned about all these indigenous and post-colonial issues has been extremely good for me as a person. A real learning, growing experience, making me into a better person. I hope that I might continue to be exposed to these issues, so that I can continue to engage with them, to figure out my stance as a result of talking it through more with others…. Controversy can be a turn-off, but it can also give a place so much more character, and make it so much more intriguing. ‘Iolani Palace and Bishop Museum are key examples. Sometimes I may feel personally attacked, or I may get angry about certain points, but for the most part, it’s really just about taking an objective, secular, stand-back, removed view, and thinking it interesting and fascinating. As if it were a really intricate and interesting fantasy story. No personal investment in who the good guys are or anything, just a really engaging and twisted network of rhetorical/discursive/political phenomena.
Part of me was, and I guess still is, really psyched to go back to the mainland and to experience a more intensively scholarly, academic, rigorous, History-oriented program. And, to interact with historians of Europe, and otherwise with a scholarly community that can present me with a new and different environment or set of approaches. Part of me imagines that the experience on the mainland will be more rigorous in precisely the sort of way of training me to be a proper scholar in the way that mainland scholars are, essentially, retraining the “local Hawaiian” or the “uniquely Hawaiian” methodologies or approaches out of me, and preparing me for actually getting ahead in the field, by becoming the kind of scholar who everyone is looking for me to be. Or something like that. Of course, I have no idea what the program is actually going to be like. But, part of me really wants now to stay here, to do the sort of thing we’ve been doing so much of here, sitting around, calmly and engagedly talking about discourses, rhetoric, and symbolism, about cultural impacts. I feel comfortable here, not in a bad way, not in a “you’re too comfortable, it’s time to move on, there’s no new challenges for you here” kind of way, and certainly not in the way I imagine most people get too comfortable in Hawaii. I love the weather, how could you not? But I’m no surfer, or beach bum. I scarcely ever get out to the beach, or hiking in the mountains, let alone regularly doing anything like surfing or canoeing or paddleboarding or anything. But I know people here, and I find connections, interesting topics of research, interesting approaches, among so many people I meet for the first time. It feels like there are so many more people to meet, and conversations to have, and people I’ve already met who I’d want to talk to more, as we have such great common interests. Why am I leaving such a fruitful and vibrant and productive and inspiring academic environment? … Maybe it’ll be just as good at Santa Barbara. Maybe even better. Who knows?
But I do know that I have a very long list of things I’m going to miss.
*Leis – It’s so wonderful to go to an art opening, or other event, and know who the artists or speakers are, because they’re wearing leis. And it’s so wonderful to receive a lei. It goes far beyond the stereotype of being given a lei by a hula girl as you step off the plane. I’ve certainly never been given one in that context. It’s about honoring you that you’ve accomplished something, or that you’re someone special, a special guest, for the day.
*Japanese connection – Again, the fact that Japanese culture seeps into everything. The fact that you can go to the thrift shop, and find more Japanese dishes and furniture than Western ones.
*Community arts, esp. the Asian-American community – I wrote a whole post about this at one point; I’ve really turned around and come to appreciate the beauty, and authenticness, of arts performed in/by a community. Playing sanshin not only in class, but for the Okinawan Lunar New Year dinner, was fantastic. And there’s Bon Dance. And there’s this community of people who you get to know, who you see at all the events, who you see perform (or get to perform with). And I really do wish I could continue my sanshin, and maybe Okinawan dance, if only I had a teacher.
*Language – When I first got here, I was disgusted by the idea that pidgin should deserve any respect at all. And to a large extent I still feel that way. It’s just bad English, is all it is. But, when native Hawaiian words, or other local words, are thrown into everyday language, it makes you feel like you’re a part of something special. Drawing upon a special, unique identity, upon a beautiful culture. That you’re connecting to the local culture, and also becoming more global/cultural in the process. I love that we have Aloha and Mahalo to use in our emails, and I really struggle to write emails without them now, sometimes. If you don’t know who you’re writing to, what do you use? “Greetings,”? Bah. “Aloha,” is so much smoother and nicer. And we’ve got words like kokua, kuleana, ‘aina, kapu, mana, pau and puka, that add flavor to everything.
*There is also a profound feeling here of being somewhere special, somewhere unique and spiritually or culturally just very special. It’s because of the friction about the overthrow and colonization and all that, yes. But, people make sure to have you be aware of the history, and of the culture, and even pushy political stuff aside, we all know we’re in Hawaii. We all know at least something, at least some very little something, about the heritage of this place. In New York, or Chicago, or Santa Barbara (I’m presuming) we more or less go about our business and it all feels quite normal and everyday. Sure, New York and Boston have their own individual cultural character, their own energy. But in terms of magical, spiritual, ancient, cultural heritage, in terms of having something like what England or Wales has, or what Vietnam or China or Japan has, I don’t feel that the mainland US really compares. Maybe in some parts where the Native American presence is more felt, as it is here. But, whether thinking about it secularly, from a cultural/historical point of view, or from a slightly more spiritual point of view, in terms of Hawaii being a special place, a sacred place, either way, it definitely has an energy that distinguishes it from nearly anywhere else. And as exciting as New York may be in its own way, it will always feel like going home, like something boring and ordinary, for me.
*Which brings us to oli and hula. I really will miss the Hawaiian chants, known as oli and mele, and the hula. If the me from a few years ago were reading myself writing this, he’d think I was crazy. But I really have grown to appreciate these things over the last few years. The infusion of traditional culture, the maintenance of traditional performing arts traditions, is something we really just don’t have so much in the West. Perhaps partially because the line between traditional & modern is so much blurrier in Western culture, and because we see something very different in non-Western arts that we can’t necessarily appreciate in our own arts. But it really is something, and I really will miss it.
*I met a girl recently from New Zealand, who has been studying in Australia, and who says that acknowledging the indigenous peoples when beginning a talk is disgustingly politically correct, and just meaningless, and ultimately colonialistic. I guess her argument is that we do it just to make ourselves feel better, or something. Or that we say it and yet still go on dominating and controlling and occupying these lands. I don’t know what exactly her argument is, but when people come here from New Zealand or Fiji or from Native American communities, or wherever, and acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, I feel there is a cultural exchange, an acknowledgement, that I am denied a part of. No one goes to Israel and acknowledges the traditional owners of that land (i.e. us, the Jews). You don’t see Frenchmen or Irishmen going to one another’s country and acknowledging the deep cultural significance, and long histories, of that land. PC or no, I think it’s a beautiful practice, and I think that we in the Western world do far too little everyday to acknowledge and remember culture, history, and heritage. We think of our land as purely modern, as purely utilitarian to our everyday life in the now, in the today, and we just don’t have the same respect for the land, for culture and heritage, and for history as embedded in the land and in ourselves as these indigenous peoples do.
*FOOD. You can get almost anything in New York. And there are tons of things, tons, that you cannot get here. But, while much of the food here may simply be East Asian food (e.g. sushi), or Western/mainland food (e.g. burgers), I was kind of surprised, actually, at how many things there are that are more or less unique to this place. Poké (chunks of raw fish, with soy sauce or sesame oil, and a few other mix-ins/toppings). Manapuas (a uniquely local Hawaiian word for steamed buns such as exist in exactly the same form in Japan, China, and elsewhere). Malasadas (a Portuguese fried dough sort of thing that I certainly had never heard of before coming here). Andagi (an Okinawan thing, not a Hawaiian thing, but definitely much easier to come by than anywhere on the mainland in my experience, or even for that matter in the Japanese mainland, outside of specifically Okinawan specialty restaurants). And Shave Ice, which, yes, is done in a different way than on the mainland or in Japan.
*Finally, I may have railed against the small community when I first got here, thinking it terribly quiet and boring, looking at everything as a sort of third-string knockoff of the real thing going on on Broadway, or in the galleries of Chelsea, or whatever. But there are advantages to being in a small community. It blocks out a lot of pretentiousness, because people know one another, and are comfortable with one another, and you can get to be known far more quickly and more easily, without having to work so hard to pretend to be more professional, or more experienced, or more intelligent. You can just be, and people will welcome and appreciate you. Being here, I have truly lost patience with the idea of dressing up and playing at being professional. Fuck it. Once, I would have wanted nothing more than to be invited to a private party at the posh private apartment of a Guggenheim curator. But now, what the hell do I care? Everyone there is fake, and constantly working to keep up the fakeness. Or maybe it comes easy to them. I dunno. It doesn’t come easy to me, and I don’t have the energy to not be genuine. I don’t want to sit around in seminar constantly locked in a mental battle to prove I’m intelligent enough, or intellectual enough, and I don’t want to show up to art gallery shows constantly feeling like I have to work so hard for people to know who I am, to think that I belong there, to think that I’m someone worth talking to, or worth inviting back. I’d rather just go to my friends’ shows, and know nearly everyone, and get introduced around, and be someone with little to no effort. I’d rather have intelligent, intellectual, engaging discussions with people feeling like we are already, just by being, members of the same community, and thus already ‘ohana (family) to some small extent. No pretentiousness, no competitiveness, no going out there to prove anything, but just relaxed, engaged, fun, interesting, friendly discussion with one another about interesting academic topics.
This is far too long already, so I won’t pretty it up with pictures or anything (that’ll just make it longer). It’s terribly rambling, but I feel like I want to just leave it be. Here are my thoughts. I’m still working them out, so please don’t attack me for anything I’ve said. But I’d be more than happy to have a further discussion about any of this, if you find it interesting and having some reactions or thoughts you’d like to share.
Lots of good posts on the backburner, up and coming, if and when I get around to it. Stay tuned!