Saturday, March 21, 2009

325. thoughts on Hawaii

I've been living in Seattle now for about two and a half years. I've been back to Hawaii to visit three times now.

As time goes by, I'm beginning to realize what a strange place Hawaii is.

Of course it could be the case that it's the mainland that's odd and Hawaii that's normal. Then again, maybe in America there's no such thing as normal. Every place has its quirks and charms, its beautiful spaces and its sharp edges.

Some of the things I've learned about Hawaii (and Seattle):

  • In Hawaii, there are almost no cool bars to just hang out in. Most of the bars in Hawaii have karaoke blaring away in some corner. And a lot of the bars look the same - sparse, white walls with beer and sports posters on them, generic tables, generic chairs, generic selection of drinks. In contrast, Seattle has a ton of really interesting bars - each with their own unique vibe or theme. And while they all play music in the background, at least it's not drunken wanabe singers or (even worse) crappy assed Jawaiian music.
  • However, Hawaii bars do have some of the most unique pu pu selections. I remember going to an Irish pub in downtown Hawaii where they served sashimi. Is there another Irish bar anywhere else in the world with raw fish on their menu?
  • Hawaii has very poor urban planning. On this last trip, there were a bunch of people from Seattle who were also in Hawaii (we were there to see a friend get married). One of these friends is an architect and she was the one who pointed out how it seems as if little to no thought went into zoning. And I didn't notice it until she pointed it out but she's right. Everything in town seems to just be strewn about haphazardly and the highway system is woefully inadequate to get the urban sprawlers back to their workplaces downtown.
  • A lot of places also leave much to be desired when it comes to interior design. One of the worst examples of this can be seen at the popular restaurant chain, Zippy's. The restaurant side of their Vineyard branch is particularly gaudy and ill conceived. I mean, I love their food but they really need to fire the person or the firm that designs their branches.
  • It's really hard to find people riding nice bicycles in Hawaii. There are lots of low-end hybrids and mountain bikes but very few nice road bikes. I remember when I first moved to Seattle I was blown away by the quality and variety of bikes I saw just tooling around town. And I don't just mean the big brands like Trek or Specialized or Bianchi. It's not uncommon to see people commuting on bikes like Kona, Surley, and LeMond. On top of that, every once in a while I see some really top end bikes on the road like Seven Cycles, Cervelo, and Davidson (my someday-dream-bike, made in Seattle). I also like that I can walk into a grocery store in Seattle with my bicycle helmet on and not get strange looks from the customers or the people behind the checkout stands. Doing so in Hawaii might get me one false crack.
  • I suppose the lack of nice bikes in Hawaii is no surprise considering what a bike-unfriendly place it is. There are very few bike lanes and drivers, in general, hate bicyclists (or at least they drive that way). I didn't realize this until moving to Seattle where almost all drivers give me a wide berth when they pass. On top of this, Seattle has lots of bicycle lanes, sharrows, and even bicycle paths - little roads specifically for bikes!
  • The famous Ala Moana Shopping Center is unique in that it is the largest open air shopping mall in the world. In addition, whereas most malls cater to a specific economic demographic, Ala Moana has everything from local grocery store chain, Foodland to nose-bleed priced haute couture shops like Betsey Johnson, Dior, DKNY, and Chanel. Show me another mall where you can buy a can of Spam and a Tiffany brooch without leaving the property. It also has the distinction of being named "one of Earth's four great mall fortresses" in Douglas Coupland's book, Shampoo Planet.

I don't mean to be all down on Hawaii. There are lots of amazing, great things about the place. It's just that...well, when I lived there, I was a townie - which, in Hawaii, means that I was someone who preferred to hang out in the city rather than go to the beach. And the city of Seattle is just so much cooler than the city of Honolulu. And so when I go back to Hawaii, all the places I liked to go (places I thought were hip and cool and with it) aren't as cool anymore.

Lots of my other friends are water people. They need to be near water, more specifically, the ocean. Lots of them couldn't imagine living anywhere but Hawaii. But water isn't as high a priority for me.

And then there's the race thing.

I've written before about how lucky I am to have grown up Asian-American in Hawaii, and the longer I'm up here, the more this sinks in. Not only am I fortunate to have grown up in a place where I didn't always feel different, where I wasn't teased for my appearance or my last name, where I never had to worry that my race might be making it harder for me to achieve certain goals. I was also fortunate in the sense that because I didn't have to grow up with those sorts of racist barriers and experiences, it's easier for me to not get worked up when racism comes my way. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there are times when I don't even notice subtle forms of racism in situations that Asian-Americans who grew up in the mainland would readily recognize as such.

I remember reading a friend's blog post where she wrote about a time where she was running in the park. She ran past a white woman who asked her, "where are you from?" My friend is Korean-American and grew up in the mainland and she immediately saw this question as a product of racist ignorance. She responded with a curt, "from America," and let her stink eye say the rest.

If it had been me in that situation, I probably would have just said, "Hawaii," and been on my merry way, never considering the racist undertones of the question.

Now an important point needs to be made here.

There may be some who will look at that and say, "why can't more people just be like Randall?" To which I would say that if anything, my response is the more damaging of the two because it doesn't take into account or confront what's really being asked.

The white woman, let's call her Flo, would never ask another white runner that question. The only reason Flo asked my friend where she was from was because she assumed that because she wasn't white, she must be from somewhere foreign and exotic. By answering with the snarky, "from America," she forced Flo to confront her own assumptions about who people are and maybe that will help her think twice before asking the same of another minority.

My lame response would have just perpetuated her stereotype allowing her to continue thinking, "all non-white people are from fascinating, far away lands and gosh, isn't it amazing that America opens her borders to everyone? Americans are awesome."

On the other hand, I hope that my mainland minority friends don't come down too hard on me for not confronting Flo on her question. Because I didn't grow up with regular experiences of racism, I'm just not as sensitized to it as mainland Asian-Americans are. When I hear Flo asking me, "where are you from?" I honestly just hear the question (and not the subtext) because I'm hearing it the way I would if the question had been asked of me in Hawaii. That is to say, I'd hear it as a mere question of geography, not as one of race.

I don't know, maybe after I've lived here for a few years I'll experience more racism and become sensitized to it as well. I don't know.

I'm really digging my time in Seattle.

I don't know if I'll spend the rest of my life here but I can say that I don't miss Hawaii as much as I thought I would.

And to be honest, I feel more "at home" when I arrive back in Seattle than when I land for a visit to Hawaii.

I suppose "home" really is where the heart is.

But I'm not sure my heart is anymore.

But that will have to wait for another post.


Kacie said...

Hey - I actualy went to your friend's post and commented on it - I hope I didn't sound too challenging, but I'm one of those people that sometimes asks, "Where are you from?" and I'm a caucasian white girl.

But... just as much as some people who ask that question are assuming something about the "exotic" look of those they are asking, perhaps your friend is assuming too much about the person asking?

I mean, for me, I ask because while I'm a caucasian American chick, I grew up almost my entire life in Indonesia, and so I feel displaced and I HOPE the person I'm asking grew up in south-east Asia and I can chat with someone who grew up near where I did!

So ... you never know, right? I guess we just all have to try not to assume.

The_LoneTomato said...

Thanks Kacie,

you're right - there's a lot of assuming going both ways and that can be problematic all around.

I don't know how to best move on from a somewhat still racist society towards one where racism is a relic of the past.

Trying to to have assumptions is a good step but a very difficult one.

I hope to do more writing about race and racism in the near future.

Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting.