Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Hawai’i, the fiftieth state1 of our nation and the only archipelago of tropical islands I can fly to without a passport. I almost panicked for a minute when I realized I hadn’t brought mine to the airport, but luckily a driver’s license is enough. There were plenty of other things to focus on while traveling, though, including my cousin’s five-month-old baby! It was a fun group; little Noelle had her two parents and two cousin-uncles to take care of a whole lot of carry-on luggage: a car seat, a stroller, and so many suitcases. We’d packed beachwear and snorkel gear, of course, but also our nicest clothes for our friends’ wedding!
This was the first time I’d gone to a destination wedding; Rebekah and John are both from California, but it was their dream to get married in Hawai’i, complete with trips to the beach, snacking on shaved ice, and a Disney character lunch at Aulani! Naturally, we had to stretch it out into a week-long trip, so I got to enjoy some time off in between the end of summer session and the beginning of fall semester.
I have a lot of disparate thoughts about Hawai’i that I’d like to just present in brief.
1) First of all, it’s so beautiful. I have never been to a beach as gorgeous as Sandy Beach nor seen as deep a blue in any body of water as the ocean from Makapu’u2. It was thrilling to realize that at all times I was completely surrounded by the Pacific. Oahu is so small! And so much of it is gorgeous, mountainous, Jurassic Park-esque forest (or jungle?), peppered with the “country”, or rural areas. Honolulu, the capital city, didn’t scintillate or inspire awe in me in terms of its architecture — notably, one towering apartment complex downtown caught everyone’s eyes because three floors of it had completely burned out in a recent fire — but every evening as the sun set, the city simply glowed. I felt fortunate to be in a place of such natural beauty.
2) Rebekah and John’s wedding was beautiful in a more metaphorical sense. I have known Rebekah since elementary school; we basically grew up together in the same church. I am so happy for her in taking this big step in her relationship with a wonderful man, and I am especially happy that their relationship is solidly grounded in their shared faith. During the ceremony, they did a foot-washing ceremony, one that takes inspiration from a passage in the Gospel of John in which Jesus, a leader and respected teacher, serves his followers by washing their (probably very dirty) feet. The ceremony as seen in Christian weddings today is meant to symbolize the two partners’ mutual dignity, humility, and servant-like attitude toward each other. It may strike some as being awkward to watch, but I think that’s part of the idea. We go to great lengths today to put on appearances of elegance, cleanliness, and propriety. Washing someone else’s stinky foot (I mean, it was humid on that island!) is sort of the antithesis of this. Even when it’s done in a pretty place set to pretty music, the juxtaposition is strange. But that’s why I appreciated it all the more!
3) Also… damn. Weddings. Marriage. Concepts that often bring conflict to the queer heart. I’m reminded of a funny stand-up piece by John Mulaney about how every time one goes to a wedding, it begets nothing but reminders (in the comedian’s case, reminders from his girlfriend) that, well, the clock is ticking on that whole marriage thing! Like, when you hit your mid-twenties — and I’m almost in my late twenties, good heavens — it seems like there are more and more weddings every summer. In the past three months alone I’ve been to two and seen eight more on Facebook. The conflict, though, stems from the years of adolescence I spent thinking that I would never get married, not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t, as a Christian and a gay man, because the only choice I thought available to me was lifelong celibacy — and inevitably, lifelong loneliness. For people who choose celibacy, I respect their decision and I am not predicting that they will be lonely, but I know myself and I know I don’t have that gift. I couldn’t do it. So now, here I am, semi-cautiously putting myself out there as a guy looking for another guy to live life with, and… I mean, going to a wedding and seeing two people who have succeeded in that search makes me happy for them! But also makes me feel very aware of my current lack of success in that search. Look, I know that this is not what weddings are about; they’re not about me. God forbid I so much as appear to be resentful. And I also know that a wedding is just ceremonial, and only the beginning of a lifelong journey that has ups and downs; it’s not a fairy-tale ending. But! Our culture — especially American Christian culture — hypes up weddings and marriage so much that I can’t help but think, before, after, and during, that I would like to begin that lifelong journey with somebody, too.
4) While on the beach I took some time to record a short ASL vlog, as I’ve been doing on all my travels this past summer. It was my worst video yet! Ha. I say that because I am very rusty in ASL, out of practice and kind of adrift without anyone to converse with. But I tried my best anyway. And the cool thing is that after I posted the video, I was told by a few friends about the status of Hawai’i Sign Language, a sign language that supposedly predates American Sign Language in that region, but is almost extinct. You can read about it here. I was fascinated by this story, because I never knew anything about HSL! And I’m concerned, as a linguist, about both the status of the language and the volatility of the personal politics around it. Since there’s arguably only one native speaker left, the speech community depends a lot on her, but there will always be arguments about her reliability. It’s a difficult question for linguists who document endangered languages, whether the decisions they make about their subjects of study will cause trouble in the communities they observe. In my opinion, it’s always better to get as much language data as possible, even if it varies from person to person, because, well, the alternative is to risk losing a potentially rich source of information — not just their different versions of words or signs, but also meta-linguistic information such as why they think the differences occur, and how they are judged. All of this is important data for a linguist, and I hope that the documentation efforts underway in Hawai’i will press on.
5) I was both fully entertained and slightly put off by the Aulani resort in Kapolei, on the beautiful western coast of Oahu. The entire region is nothing but luxury resorts and golf courses, and Aulani is probably the most paradisiacal. It also goes to great lengths to reproduce traditional Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. For example, the restaurant we went to was decorated with woodblock carvings of common objects and their names in the Hawaiian language. The resort also had exhibits about traditional Polynesian crafts and a model of the Hōkūleʻa, a double-hulled canoe which inspired one of the large boats in the Disney movie Moana. Lastly, the performances at our “character lunch” were not limited to appearances by giant Mickey and Minnie Mouse in Hawaiian print shirts, but also a charismatic, dark-skinned Aunty who played a ukulele and sang kid-friendly songs about Aloha and caring for the natural resources of the islands. It seemed to me, an outsider, that there was lots of effort put in to show guests that this is what Hawai’i is really like. Yet I couldn’t help but think, “Well, actually, this is what Disney’s Hawai’i is really like”. I got into a discussion with my friends about how Disney is using this real estate, these people, and their culture as a means to make money for itself as a corporation. Sure, the money from thousands of visitors a year funnels back into the local economy (and there’s a bigger discussion here about why the entire state’s economy depends so heavily on tourism), but I really wonder, if native local Hawaiians could design a resort that would showcase their culture, history, architecture, and food, would it look at all the same? Would it look like a 20-story tiki hut? Would it have a lazy river flowing in the middle of it? Would it sell Lilo and Stitch dolls? I learned after reading this Seattle Magazine review of Aulani that local “elders” were in fact able to oversee the vision and design of the resort, down to the smallest decorative details, which is a comfort to know. But if it still takes Disney levels of million-dollar financing to create true cultural authenticity, then what is a little island in an ocean of consumerism to do?
Well, that’s all I wanted to say for now. Aloha~
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1and by “state” I really mean “colonized territory”, but that’s a story for another post…
2with the exception of Crater Lake, Oregon
Word of the Day: haole ([ˈhɔule], or “ho-lay”, sometimes “how-lee”) is the native Hawaiian term for ethnic non-Hawaiians, usually White people. It is often used derogatorily, but that doesn’t mean it’s a racist term (depending on your definition of racism). Just… watch this video, a great sound byte by Haunani-Kay Trask about the use of the term, from Island Issues: Racism and Academic Freedom (VHS, 1990).