Back in January, I finally got around to watching the film Princess Kaʻiulani. It really got me thinking, as I expected it would, and I wrote most of what follows as I watched, pausing for stretches to write. … I think my thoughts have changed somewhat since writing this originally, but it represents therefore my continual process of consideration, exploration, and hopefully growth or progress.
I find it so difficult, since returning to the mainland, to feel like I am sufficiently sympathetic, sufficiently, I don’t know what the word is… politically aligned, I suppose. When I lived in Hawaiʻi, it was so easy to feel like I was on the right side, to feel like I was engaging with these issues every day, and learning from them, and growing. As someone doing Okinawan Studies in Hawaiʻi, it was so easy to feel that I could count myself as an anti-colonialist, anti-Orientalist ally, or whatever the right term may be. I felt I could consider myself fairly well-informed/enlightened, and on the right side of thinking about these things, even if not actively activist. One can certainly be a feminist without being a particularly actively activist – a descriptor of your positions, not of your activity – but is there an equivalent word for being anti-Orientalist, pro-indigenous, and such?
Today, of course, I still feel terribly sympathetic, and I feel I want to be more so. I want to believe that I can truly count myself as thinking, knowing, believing correctly on these issues. But ever since returning to the mainland, I find it much more difficult to do so.
I watch a movie like this one, and of course I’m terribly sympathetic for Hawaiʻi’s plight, and wholly opposed to the actions of the Americans. But I cannot help but worry if my sympathy is too superficial, too weak. And to worry if I am, in fact, still a colonialist/imperialist at heart, an Orientalist, or, worse. I want so much to change, or to feel that I have changed, and while I was in Hawaiʻi, I felt that I had. But I fear that I am, simply by being removed from it, sliding backwards. Even as I edit this post right now, rewriting what I wrote a few months ago, I feel much more hesitant to call myself a “champion” or “advocate” for anything… after all, who the hell am I, and what do I know? I lived in Hawaiʻi for only three years, and though surrounded by certain issues and discourses and whatever everyday, actually took very few real courses or seminars explicitly discussing Hawaiian history or indigenous issues.
I hear the drums and the chants in the film, and see the hula dances, and smile; I feel a jolt of happiness in my heart. But is this the happiness of an Orientalist, who loves it simply for being exotic? As much as I might wish otherwise, it is not, it cannot be, the happiness of a Hawaiian local, much less that of a Native Hawaiian, who can rightfully claim some sense of belonging, growing up within that culture. On the plus side, though, I’ve certainly come to have a negative gut reaction, too, when seeing performances that are Orientalist and potentially offensive… so, that’s something. And, though I hesitate to feel too proud of myself or anything, since it was just last week, but after reading Adrienne Kaeppler’s survey of Polynesian & Micronesian art last week, I do feel that I’ve gained a better understanding and a new appreciation for certain core elements of Pacific cultural attitudes – e.g. about the sacredness of objects. I’ve been terribly busy this quarter, but hopefully I’ll get around to posting thoughts about that book more fully in a separate post sometime soon.
When I was in Hawaiʻi, I felt okay about claiming some association; I may be a haole, and I may not have grown up there, but by virtue of living in Hawaiʻi, and being so warmly accepted by so many people and communities there, it felt only natural to feel some rightfulness in considering myself a member of a community… for months after I left, I felt like I still belonged. I felt like I still had a community, that I had changed and learned and grown in Hawaiʻi, and that I could rightfully consider myself associated with the islands. But, as the months have gone by, I find myself questioning more and more what right do I have to say anything, what right to consider myself a supporter, or an activist, or whatever the word should be. What right do I have to call myself a supporter when I feel so inadequate both intellectually, and emotionally, in understanding these issues, in feeling that passion, and most importantly, so inadequate in articulating the core, fundamental notions of indigenous rights and post-colonial activism? I follow quite a few feminist blogs, for example, which are so brilliantly written… and I don’t feel that I can speak so eloquently, so appropriately, to Hawaiian issues. I fear that in any attempt to say anything, I will say something wrong, or not say enough. I will leave out some crucial aspect, or I will not go far enough in expressing my support. Even just using words like “support” here, I feel like it’s too weak. There surely is a stronger word, but it doesn’t come to mind.
On an intellectual level, I tell myself that Hawaiʻi, just like Ryūkyū or Japan or Korea, just like England or France, was a noble, rightful, proper kingdom unto itself, with its own history and traditions and should not be in any way regarded as lesser. So, I’ve got that. But, I see people all around me, who come from all over the world, calling one another “brother” and “sister” and sharing a connection, some kind of “fellow non-whites” connection, that I simply do not truly feel in my heart, much as I wish I did.
Statue of King Kamehameha I (r. 1782-1819) in front of Aliʻiōlani Hale, across the street from the ʻIolani Palace.
I can go forward, taking courses and reading books, and hopefully someday teaching my own courses and writing my own books, speaking of the nobility of the Ryukyuan and Hawaiian peoples, and decrying the wrongs done to them; I can teach my students that the US is, and was, an imperialist power, and that our government has indeed inflicted great injustices around the world. But, as of right now, at least, there is still a piece missing. If I hang a postcard of a Hawaiian flag upside down on my wall, I feel like a poser, or like I have no proper right to consider myself an ally, a supporter, on these issues. I feel like it’s too easy, like I’m not doing enough, like someone else is going to turn around and tell me I have no right, because I don’t appreciate well enough, or feel strongly enough… And, it’s certainly true that I have marched in no protests, written no diatribes, shouted no slogans.
I feel I wish I had people around me who could validate my attention to these issues, to tell me I do have the right to speak as a supporter of Hawaiian rights. Because it is far too easy, as a white American man from the mainland, as a student and an academic, to feel like I am simply giving lip-service, like I’m simply siding with the radical, liberal side as fashion or something, and not out of genuine feeling. Is that who I am? Sometimes I worry it is. It certainly is terribly easy to feel that one appears that way. … But, even to have a group to affirm that they see me as genuine, is that not itself self-serving, and selfish, and all too easy? And is that not flirting dangerously with problems of authenticity and the cliché of “I’m not racist – I have black friends”?
I’m not sure I’ve ever faced something like this in my life. I sometimes feel I cannot rightfully consider myself a supporter unless I go all the way. Truly all the way. To really immerse myself in cultural community, and to become truly active in political discussions and protests… To put aside all else and truly devote myself to activism in support of these issues – or elsewise, shut up and go home. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered or engaged with issues that have such strong feelings of ownership as Hawaiian issues (or Pacific Islander issues more broadly). I never needed anyone from Japan to confirm for me that how I felt about, or spoke about, Japan was “right,” or if I did, I got past that long ago, but with Hawaiian (and to a lesser extent, Okinawan) matters, there is such a strong pushback against anything perceived to be offensive, and so – quite understandably, with good reason – it makes it very difficult to ever feel I’ve adopted enough, incorporated enough, of the proper pro-Hawaiian, pro-indigenous, attitudes and understandings. Not that I mean to place the blame on others; I do not mean to say “they” make it difficult. It just is what it is, and I find it so hard to navigate. I hope that in reading more about Hawaiʻi, and in taking seminars on indigenous issues, I might come to feel more secure in my understandings, in my positions, and in feeling a right to speak. But can a few books and a few courses be enough? I certainly feel I have learned and grown and changed a lot from the few courses I have taken in Hawaiʻi, and from the few things I have read. But, perhaps it is a fuller immersion that is required. But when, and how, will I ever get the chance to live in Hawaiʻi again for any extended period? And even if I do, will it all fade and weaken once I leave the islands again, as it has this past year and a half?
Right: Honolulu, seen from the air.
I watch this film, Kaʻiulani, and I want to feel that I understand better, that I feel deeper, than the average filmgoer because of my connection to Hawaiʻi. But do I? Do I really? Can I claim that? I know the names, and the very basic outlines of the history, better than your average filmgoer for whom these events, and the names Kaʻiulani, Kalakaua, etc., are completely new and unfamiliar. And I recognize ʻIolani Palace and Queen Emma’s Palace, and know something, too, of their histories, where the average filmgoer might see these spaces as generic, not understanding the great accuracy with which the film portrays these places (were they filmed on location? Or was it reproduced?). But, so what? Is that enough?
Do I truly have any real connection to Hawaii, that’s more than just something petty, temporary, and tenuous? Is it okay, or is it inappropriate, to claim that? How, and when, if ever, can I feel confident enough to make these claims? And if I cannot, then what?
And, of course, all of these worries simply carry over into my pursuits in Okinawan Studies… I feel far fewer barriers in making these claims in Okinawa – I’ve certainly spoken with enough people in Hawaiʻi, both Okinawan & Okinawan-American students, as well as professors, and members of the local community, plus professors in Okinawa, and so I am able to feel much more comfortable and secure in allowing myself to claim some association with Okinawa, and to speak about Ryūkyū. But, the discourse of “authenticity” is powerful, and the doubts it inspires are powerful, and I simply do not know how to overcome them… though some have tried to reassure me that, at the very least, the fact that I’m thinking about these things, and worrying about them, rather than just striding in un-self-consciously, is an important start.
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