Describing Hawaii as somebody who grew up there is consistently one of the hardest things I’m asked to do. Hawaii is the most beautiful place on Earth. (Granted, I haven’t travelled much of the world, but from what I have, and from my expectations of it, I have this notion that Hawaii will always top anything else for me. It might have something to do with the fact I have a million memories associated with it…Hawaii is the best. Period.) From scaling waterfalls to ziplines to surf to diving it has everything a nature-lover could ever want. It is home to the highest density of endangered and endemic species in the world, is the most geographically isolated place on the planet….you couldn’t find a place better if you tried. Every time I come home, I am struck silent by the beauty. When I’m away, I always seem to think that it’s something I’ve made up in my head, one of those ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’ phenomenons, but it’s even more wonderful up close. I remember coming home for the summer after my first year of college, and looking out of my window to see a rainbow floating over the island of Oahu as my plane descended. I cried. There are colors you didn’t know were possible in the greens of the trees and the blues of the ocean.
You go to the beach and all of your worries melt away and you think ‘maybe I could just stay here forever and everything will always be this wonderful.’ You lie in the sand and watch your brother splashing, your mother a strikingly beautiful silhouette to the right, your puppy placing a hesitant first paw in the shore break; the sun is shining and the water is sparkling and everything is exactly where you would want it to be. Like it was made just for you. Living in Hawaii forever wouldn’t be bad at all.
Then it starts raining and the wind picks up and you have to leave. On the drive home the air conditioning blasts so hard; you’re shaking. You run into the house and into the shower and suddenly the walls are closing in and you’re wondering why everyone here looks the same and talks the same and if anything has meant anything ever or will mean anything again and you want to scream. But you can’t. Your mother would want to know what’s wrong, and she wouldn’t understand. Separate realities. Nobody can know. So you let the hot water pouring down burn it out of you.
And you go to elementary school, then middle school, then high school with the boy whose parents went to school with your parents, and whose grandparents played tennis with your grandparents thirty years ago at the country club that you are now a member of. Your brothers go to school with his sister. You wonder if your children will go to school with his. You hope not. You can’t breathe when you think about it. You can only breathe when you think about getting on a plane.
It’s suffocating. Everywhere you go, you see at least one person you know: a family friend, a second-cousin, a girl from your kindergarten class; you can’t escape the familiar faces. There is no way to remake yourself. Everyone knows your business. They know everything about you, from the color of your eyes to where your grandmother buys groceries. They know more about you than you know about yourself. It’s a small town that you can’t drive out of.
I used to walk into places and feel people’s eyes on me. I was horribly self-conscious. My parents separated viciously when I was young, tearing out pieces of each other in an attempt to get away as quickly as they could. Theirs was not a love story. It was something that just happened. I was the biggest love in their life, and I wasn’t enough to keep them together. Their differences were irreconcilable. My mother: all bright colors and edges, all caps and exclamation points, switching from blazing sun to stormy seas; the kind of woman you wanted to be fighting on your side. My dad: anchors tied to his feet, roots deep in the ground, soft, drizzling rain and the smooth sea-glass you held in your hand for comfort. Made for worlds in different galaxies.
I am the face of my mother, but rounded out. Where all my edges are blurred, hers are sharp. She is me, but with the volume turned up: more fierce, more wild, more outspoken. People saw me and were hopefully afraid that I would speak as she did, with a passion and strength that left no prisoners. Back home, when I opened my mouth, they were surprised at the softness. My words never flew out like fire. In fact, they rarely came out at all. I was far more willing to watch and listen than I ever was to speak. People’s stories fascinated me. They knew mine, but I had no inkling of what theirs could be. I wanted to know. This was the root of my intellectual curiosity. (I didn’t find my voice until I left home.)
But, after a while, all the people in Hawaii begin to say the same thing. Or at least, they seem to sound the same to you. The place does that. It homogenizes your experiences; there is no experiential variety in a place so small, bound by water on every side. Yes, there is a cultural and ethnic diversity that cannot be found anywhere else in the States, but even that has blended into one, overarching culture over time. People from Hawaii are a certain way. There is something about them. Maybe it is a response to the constant influx of tourism, perhaps it is the only way the islands could survive with so many groups of people pouring in at its colonization, or it could just be like that in every place, and I don’t know it because I am only from one. Throughout high school, I was constantly searching for something more, something new. I needed to know that not everyone was like this, that not every place was like this.
That sense of claustrophobia was something I used to feel at college, too. Situated at the end of LA County, the city of Claremont is a good hour away from the ocean. The only reason I didn’t feel like choking when I thought about how far the water was from me was the mountains: standing tall, clear and crisp on a good day, reminding me of the Ko’olau range back home. I found comfort in those snowy peaks. As a freshman, my entire year felt like one of those moments where you’re holding your breath. Sometimes I feel like my entire life will be that…
In class, when the professor makes everyone go around and say their name, their grade, their major, and where they’re from, you always feel like there’s ice in your veins. You time each person in front of you, averaging out how long each of them takes, counting the people ahead and doing the math in your head while staring at the clock, hoping the class ends before it’s your turn. But it’s always your turn. All eyes are on you and you open your mouth and you say something but nothing comes out so you clear your throat. “Hi! My name is Mariah; I’m a junior, and I’m majoring in Philosophy and Literature. I grew up in Hawaii.” Nobody listens for the first sentences, but at the mention of Hawaii everyone perks up and stares at you. “But…you’re white?” One of the blue-eyed boys in the corner of the room is accusing you of lying. You can hear it in his voice. You laugh. “Yea, being ethnically Hawaiian and being from Hawaii are two different things.” You smile, as if his ignorance isn’t another knife in an age-old wound. “I’m not ethnically Hawaiian, but I am Samoan. What’s really interesting is that the Chinese actually populated all of North America and Polynesia back in the days of the Dynasties, and Hawaii was the last place to be migrated to.” But you lost him back at your laughter, and no one is even listening anymore except for the professor, who is kindly nodding and waiting for you to finish so they can move on. Tick another mark off of the list. That’s all we’re here for anyway. To constantly check things off of a never-ending list until one day we die in the middle of checking. Nobody pays attention to anything else unless it’s epic. Hawaii only interests them because it has the capacity for a shock factor. You never let them have the shock factor. You only ever give them the truth. Nobody wants that. Feed them lies. They’ll be eating it from your hands like it’s the best thing they’ve ever tasted.
When class gets out, someone asks if you surf and you want to tell the stories of how your mother would drag you out as a child and force you to catch waves until the saliva in your mouth had the same pH as the ocean water, but you smile and say ‘yeah, but I’m not very good; my cousin was semi-pro for a while, though.’ They ooh and aah and you wonder if you were really the brat your mother called you when you would cry on the beach. Everyone always acts like you were so lucky to have done all of those things. Maybe you were. You wish there was one right answer. But there isn’t. Is there ever even truth? Who knows. Memory has tainted everything too much to tell. Constant revision.
Somehow, being a person who is from Hawaii that lives on the mainland is both horrifying and wonderful at the same time. I appreciate everything more. People and places and animals and food here is all so much more wonderful from not having grown up with it around me. Squirrels are a mystery. (They quite honestly scare the shit out of me most of the time.) Snow is an adventure. There are so many flowers and trees and animals that I do not know. Back home, I knew the name of nearly every bird and tree and flower. It was my legacy. Living there, I was smothered by it, each piece of knowledge I knew reminding me that was just one less thing I could learn. Away from that, I miss it.
I could talk about Hawaii forever. Probably because it is part of me. Virtually revisiting the places that we’re from tells us a lot about ourselves. At least I believe that. Quite honestly, I’m not sure if any of this makes much sense. These days, my constant state is delirium. But it has a lot of things I’ve wanted to say for a while. It has a lot of things I’ll probably keep saying forever. It has a lot of bits and pieces that I hope to build something out of someday.