During my second visit on the “Big Island” of Hawai’i, in the checkout line at the Malama Market in Honoka’a the cashier addressed me as “Uncle”. It was not the first time a young person had honored me with this traditional Hawaiian sign of respect. But as a reminder that wearing a face mask was still required in the grocery store, it made a deeper impression. I retrieved a mask from my back pocket and put it on before removing the items from my basket. After I thanked the young woman for this gentle nudge, my gratitude grew. Like the colorful bird species, the abundant growth of mango, papaya and other tropical fruits and trees, this custom of calling an elder “auntie” or “uncle” had captured and filled me.
My delight had nothing to do with removing my identity as a “foreigner”. I would always remain a “haole” in the land and culture of the native Hawaiian. It was like the customary welcoming to Hawaii another kind of lei showing that the native traditions include the embrace of persons wherever they come from. You cannot spend a day on the Island of Hawai’i without the recognition that you are not on the North American continent. And that you are and will forever be a “haole”.
Having returned to Kansas City, I am even more grateful for our friends who are natives of the “Big Island” and whose hospitality falls on us like the soft rain of the rainforest surrounding their birthplaces near Honoka’a. I understand better the pride displayed by the son of our closest Hawaiian friend who as a three or four year old, though born in California, protested to my wife Kate, “I am not an American, am I Mom? I’m Hawaiian.”
I also now appreciate more our role as “hanai” or “adopted” grandparents of this child now preparing for college on the “mainland”. When my wife introduced ourselves at a Sunday worship service in Honoka’a as Gabriel’s “hanai” grandparents, expressions of approval were quietly uttered by the congregation. From now on, all our efforts to encourage and support the young man’s growth will be not just out of love for him but will also stem from the desire to honor the Hawaiian tradition and our identity as his “hanai” grandparents.
How sad and unfortunate that so many of our would be “leaders” in the mainland U.S. portray the nation’s increasing population of foreign born persons as a loss for the heirs of white settlers. How could someone be persuaded to view immigrants as posing a threat when their contributions are so many and so obvious? Against all the white supremacist theories and arguments we can all learn from and enjoy the embrace of other cultures in the history, language and customs of native Hawaiians.
As an example, there is much more to the meaning of “aloha” than our “hello” and “good bye”. After my recent visit, I now associate the Hawaiian language’s “aloha” with the Indian custom of greeting and leave taking with “namaste”. My favored interpretation of that Hindu greeting and leave taking is “the divine in me recognizes the divine in you”.