Friday, April 24, 2015

My Hawaiian Re-Education

I left my last post sounding very negative, but there is a very positive side to this multiplicity that recently I've been appreciating. And sort of bashfully re-learning some things that I thought I already knew.

I started working in the Hawaiian charter schools on the Big Island in 2006-- as a rank outsider. I had never heard of protocols, or oli komo and kahea, and I had zero knowledge of Hawaiian language. The people who took the time to tell me what to do over the years spoke with authority-- "This is how we Hawaiians do things." In fact I more or less wrote my master's thesis with the idea that there is such a thing as Hawaiian pedagogy-- epitomized by the saying, "Nana ka maka, hoolohe ka pepeiao, paa ka waha." Watch with your eyes, listen with your ears, and shut your mouth. Lots of other olelo noeau or sayings support this idea-- huli ka lima i lalo a ola, huli ka lima i luna a make. Turn your hands to the earth (to work) and live, turn your hands up (to beg) and die. Just get to work.

The last three years teaching full time in a Hawaiian language immersion school catapulted me into a full-time project of cultural and linguistic acclimation. I am a teacher and a student-- I'm a cultural outsider and I'm there to learn. I was hired as a representative of the "Western" world-- tasked with teaching English to immersion students from 7-12th grade. And told, as the token haole, to bring outside ideas in. How well that works and how qualified I am to represent the entirety of Western history and knowledge is a topic for another blog post.

Now I speak the language, can navigate the chants I need to know to enter a place or ask permission, to grant permission, to say thank you. I know to greet people with an embrace and an exchange of breath, even if I don't feel comfortable with the physical closeness with strangers. I can rattle off lists of proverbs and tell stories and chastise students to obey the values they should have ingrained: Hoihi, haaheo me ka haahaa, kulia i ka nuu, mai haawi pio. And after three years, I thought I had a handle on what "Hawaiian Culture" actually is, and how it feels to participate in it.

The Hawaiian culture that I've experienced the last three years has been based on stepping back-- stepping out-- waiting and watching. Deferring to authority, accepting my place, taking a back seat. My first few months teaching I was full of ideas, but I was told-- clearly-- that my job was to sit down, shut up, and listen. Don't ask questions, don't ask for clarification, because that is NOT how you learn in a Hawaiian context.  This is the Hawaiian way: just get out of the way, watch, and don't do anything unless you're invited. These ideas came from voices of authority-- Hawaiian cultural and educational and linguistic leaders. They told me clearly, "This is the Hawaiian way-- if you don't like it, go someplace else."

I mentally shrugged, and was more willing to take a back seat in a group because I could rule my little English classroom fife-dom with total freedom. In my classroom, I could read Shakespeare and Sci-fi, Hindu Mythology and Hawaiian Scholarship with my students-- train them in journaling and rhetoric and storytelling. Outside of my classroom, I was to defer, quietly assist if invited, but otherwise stay the hell out of the way.

Well, I thought. So this is what Hawaiian culture actually means. It's a bit lonely and harsh, but who am I to judge? My own American culture is selfish, abrasive, and exploitive, with a heavy dose of racism and misogyny thrown in. I've never met a culture without some major blind spots. It would be silly to think that lived Hawaiian culture was somehow immune from humanity's flaws.

I watched, from the outside, Hawaiian relationships where people took care of each other, could ask for help and reach out to each other. But I was told over and over that as an outsider I had no right to that. I couldn't ask for help with my goals and I was NOT to offer it to others.

I love my students but it was clear that I was an outsider. An angry parent told me that SHE was Ohana with the school-- she had been there and would be there forever, but that I was disposable. And if I pissed her off, she could make me disappear. So no, she was not okay that her daughter had earned an F by dropping out of my class half-way through the quarter. I didn't--couldn't--budge on the grade, but the relationship with kid and parents has remained strained.

It was chilling but, again.  Somebody tells me, "I'm Hawaiian, and this is my culture," I'm not going to argue with them. I'm going to say, "Wow, okay. That's different from how I feel about the universe, but I don't have the right to argue with your culture and your self-definition."

Just this year, though, we've had a change of staff and a change of leadership. And suddenly new voices, just as authoritative, are telling me a completely different story.

I had the first inkling of this when a new coworker told me that Aloha-- that she defined as an unending generosity to everyone-- is a real Hawaiian guiding principle. I was baffled. I asked her-- "Really? Aloha? Does that mean generosity-- but within the family, right? Because that whole, Hawaii means Aloha thing-- that seems like something invented by the tourist industry." She was offended and angry. "No, I'm telling you. I'm Hawaiian. Aloha is a Hawaiian value."

I let it go, but I was confused. I figured she was a generous person herself, and ascribed her goodness to her culture. I couldn't believe that aloha could be real. I had never seen a single example of aloha extended outside of family relationships. I had seen amazing acts of generosity within families-- many grandparents who stay home and raise their grandchildren while their grown kids work, other teachers who adopted students who are related to them for the summer, to teach them to paddle or farm or build hale-- families who lost their homes and were taken in off the beach by other families. But I had never seen Aloha cross family barriers. I had certainly never experienced it myself.

I was a little offended that this friend would be unable to hear that my experience was different from hers. Of course she experienced and practiced aloha-- she has a large and well-connected extended family network across the state. For people "grown here, not flown here," they are always within reach of an amazingly generous support system. If biological families fail, classmates and church relationships that are decades old fill the void. You're surrounded by people you've never not known.

My experience is legitimate, and saying, "No one has reached out to me with aloha," is not complaining or condemning-- just describing my experience. I have been met with constant neutrality (in a world where you've always known the important people in your life, there is no way to make introductions). That means a kind of blank, slightly apprehensive non-interaction until a mutual friend is able to vouch for me. Then careful friendliness. I've met less often with threats, like from that parent, and suspicion, like my initial reception from other teachers. They saw me as an intruder-- a Common Core shill-- and a death knell for the integrity of their Hawaiian-based school. Luckily that ice melted as I learned the language and just continued to show up. But generosity-- and certainly aloha-- never had anything to do with it. I'm not trying to drum up sympathy-- I'm describing what happened. I just figured that was how the culture works-- authoritative voices told me so, it matched my experience, I believed them.

But after my very smart friend's insistence that Aloha was a real thing, I did begin to wonder. Had I missed something?

Then this coworker began to do something really amazing. She reached out to me. She came over to my house. She asked me for stuff. She gave me stuff. She called me a dummy. She told the parents of our students that I was awesome and that they had no idea how good I am. She had me run errands for her. She chastised me when I screwed up. I had never been worth correcting before.

When my daughters, who were born here, speak fluent Hawaiian, eat poi, dance hula, make lei, etc etc, told her that at school they learned they're not Hawaiian, they don't have the blood-- she started a hard campaign to convince them otherwise. Every time she sees them, she tells them-- he Hawaii oe. Nana kela lawena kupono. You're a Hawaiian-- look at your good behavior.

Another new teacher was shocked at what I had been told about Hawaiian culture, and was furious that I had been told a version of Hawaiianness that she found totally foreign. She insisted that the real Hawaiian value of aloha IS unstinting generosity to everyone-- not just family. Grow enough food to feed the world-- save everyone. That's the real Hawaiian value. A'ohe pau ka ike i ka halau ho'okahi. All the knowledge is not within one school-- learn from all the sources available to you.

According to this new story, as members of the school ohana, I and my family are worthy of inclusion. We have no Hawaiian blood-- and my kids' Japanese and Okinawan blood made a poor showing and left them both blond and fair-- but still. We have the right to full participation. I have something to offer-- my help is wanted. And if I need help, I can ask for it. I don't quite dare believe this.

This week I took my two kids on a school camping trip with my middle and high school students. We stayed at a cabin with 20 beds in rows and an enormous rec room-- peeling yellow news clippings on the wall and freshly painted floors. The teenagers carved ohe kapala-- carving symbolic geometric designs into narrow bamboo splints with X-acto knives. (Only a little blood was spilled.) The kids printed with their stamps and made kihei-- impressive muslin ceremonial capes to wear in public. We gathered fragrant maile vines and ohia blossoms in all stages, and hiked over the slick treacherous paths at the top of Kalalau. They cleaned up and washed all the dishes and made slides out of cardboard and sat in front of the fire.

My little kids played with other little sisters and brothers-- they shared and failed to share toys, taught each other games, and slept soundly in camp beds with their sleeping bags.

One kumu made my daughter a lei, which she wore till it turned brown. Then she showed her, bruskly, how to make her own. My kids were expected to stand in the lines of other students to chant. A student's tutu did all the cooking, and I wished (fiercely, hungrily)  out-loud that my girls had a tutu-- and she easily said, "well here I am." The teenagers entertained and protected the little kids-- the parents corralled and fed them.

My fellow-teachers sang my praise to the parents, campaigning hard to let  us keep trying out our project and land based interdisciplinary secondary integrated literacy program.  I couldn't believe that these nice things were being said about me. I just shook my head and couldn't speak. I laid the happiness of the students and the success of the program at the feet of the other teachers-- they're the real leaders, with the endless energy and generosity, not to mention staggering cultural expertise. I'm just here to help-- count the X-actos and pinesol down the bathrooms.

By the end of the three days, when my graduating seniors sang an oli mahalo-- a thank you chant-- to me and the other teachers-- I just cried and cried.

Maybe I've been horribly wrong-- I've mistaken the voice of a few people for the voice of everyone. Maybe aloha is a real thing, and the idea of Ohana is big enough and safe enough to include even me and my family. I hope so-- I desperately hope so.

Us vs. Us: TMT TNT and Cultural Policing

So my high school students are an endless source of thought-provoking moments. The other day they gave me a good little germ to seed my thoughts. They were complaining that a new teacher is giving them more homework than they've ever had before. One kid said, "That's just not Hawaiian!" Another kid agreed-- "yeah, well, she's not really Hawaiian-- she's too Oahu." They all nodded-- being from Honolulu, or doing things like some other Hawaiian immersion school, or assigning too much homework-- those things disqualify someone from REALLY being able to represent his or her culture. And if that's true, the kids had the right to ignore her because whatever else she was, she wasn't (their kind of) Hawaiian. Never mind a direct ancestral relationship to some of the most influential Hawaiian scholars, fluency in modern and archaic Hawaiian, written and spoken, and a working knowledge of Hawaiian crafts, cultural behaviors, and skills. Nope, sorry, voted off the racial island.

Granted, these are kids-- subtlety and relativism are not thick on the ground-- but they voiced a thought that exists among adults who are more able to disguise the absurdity and bias in their cultural policing.

For example-- there's a huge, loud and emotional battle on social media about the TMT-- the thirty-meter-telescope-- that is being built on top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. The mountain is sacred, as the seat of Wakea, who with Papa and Hina, fathered the Hawaiian islands and the first taro and the first human. When building on the 13th telescope on top of the mountain started, photogenic and media-savvy Hawaiians on the Big Island protested, and dozens were arrested. Since then, Hawaiians and anti-TMT supporters have provided minute-by-minute instagram and facebook documentation of their protests across the islands and the world. The planning for this telescope-- one of a campus of more than a dozen already built-- has been open, public, and legal. In fact, OHA-- the Office of Hawaiian Affairs-- is public in their support of TMT, and Hawaiian cultural representatives were an active part of the planning.

When I mentioned that to my coworker, she said, "WHO were these Hawaiian cultural representatives! I bet they were JAPANESE!" She was disgusted. "Where did they find these people? I bet they don't even have Hawaiian studies degrees!" Because she doesn't agree with the result, she dismissed the voices involved.

This highlights a situation that seems really obvious if you are in or within spitting distance of Hawaiian politics, but may be completely opaque to, say, international telescope builders.

There is no such thing as a single Hawaiian social or political consensus. Someone who may seem like the ideal Hawaiian representative, say like a Hawaiian language professor at the University of Hawaii, may not actually have any social or cultural capital to calm fears or inspire action. Or an award-winning Merrie Monarch kumu hula may have actually alienated too many other performers to be persuasive off stage. And even when individuals are widely respected for their work in one area, like education or music, deeper philosophical and political issues can keep them from being really representative. One friend of mine passionately wants the Hawaiian Kingdom, under the Hawaiian monarchy, to be restored. Another friend riles AGAINST the pageantry and exploitation of monarchy and champions a egalitarian political system based on substistence-farming in family units. While these friends can work together to, say, teach kids mythology for a day-long fieldtrip to a taro patch, they could never come together to support one political goal. What single goal could possibly meet both of their visions?

So there's no wonder that many astronomers are baffled or offended by the anti-TMT social media backlash-- emotions are running very high and the presence of "cultural consultants" at the table is not at all the palliative that the planners had counted on.

There are a multitude of groups and subgroups within the Hawaiian community, and there is no apparatus for these groups to talk to each other. They have long histories, and real philosophical differences, that keep conversations from moving forward in a useful way. My co-worker, the one who thought TMT's cultural consultants must have been Japanese impostors, laughed when I mentioned this diversity of groups, and said, "We need a Hawaiian phone tree-- Hey what's going on at UH! What's going on with the charter schools! What's going on with the state office!"

So that's something to remember-- there is no centralized Hawaiian organization, there are no definite shared beliefs beyond the broadest and least specific. And I have sat in probably one hundred hours of meetings trying to come to a consensus about even the most general-seeming tenets of Hawaiianness in order to fine tune the vision and mission of our Hawaiian Charter School. "The Language is central-- but not more that culture. But without language, culture is meaningless. But culture without land-based practices is fluff. But land-based practices without blood relationships are exploitation. But blood-relationships don't account for culture!" And around and around.

A brusque local Portuguese auntie, way back when I had just moved to the islands and was trying to figure out the social lay of the land, chastised me when I asked her something about Hawaiians in Hawaii--I don't remember exactly the question-- something about music and tourism, probably, being a nosy little folklorist. "I don't know. Only Hawaiians can decide for themselves who they are and what they want. And nobody else can speak for them. So if they don't speak for themselves, we don't know and can't say."

Even someone speaking from authority can only speak for themselves, really, and you have to hear many voices in order to get the beginning of a complete picture.

More on this later...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Love Poems, 2.

It's Valentine's again
time to lay down the law.

  • no long-stemmed roses.
  • no garish birds of paradise or alien heliconias
  • no heart-shaped coffins for sicky-sweet cherry cordial chocolates
  • no pre-filled cards
  • a general ban on all things red and pink.
  • no fancy over-sauced restaurant meals
  • not a drop of cheap champagne
All I need is
a mountain
a river
a lifetime.

That's all.

Love Poems. 1

I'm on a tropical island with you.
Whales breach, dolphins spin,
seals sun themselves, turtles surface..
We could go beach...

The canyon is every shade
of red and orange and green--
waterfalls are white streaks on cliff faces
rainbows arch into the misty sky...
We could go mauka...

Friends and family throng the pavilions at the beach,
barbecue smoke and sunset ocean views,
Slippers in a sandy pile, fish sizzling in the wok oil
wooden hashi snap and scrape
We could go party...

But let's us
You and I
Stay home
Light the candles
And keep the noise outside
at bay.

(Another class assignment! This one is based on "In Paris with You" by James Fenton, which is a funny anti-romantic poem about all the things the author will NOT be doing Paris. My prompt to the students was-- Write a love poem about all the things you DON'T want to do.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Avoidance

On Avoidance
My to-do checklist
multiplies like protozoa
osmosises and mitosises into
      things to procure
      things to discard
      debts to pay
      mundane tasks
The list glares at me from my phone
      an unblinking eye
            a high pitched tinnitus of
            adult obligations.
      so I subvert my list,
            add nonsense:

  • "sit in the sun: five minutes."
  • "sample 3 kinds of chocolate."
  • "draw a seabird."
  • "sketch a mad genius."
So between the sandpaper-on-bone tasks
      of "callthebank"
I can dutifully check off whimsey
accomplish nonsense
procrastinate responsibly
      and with great satisfaction
            avoid the doing by doing
      and play a counter-harmony
            on the vacuum-drone of my 
                  adult life. 

(This is another poem prompt I gave my students in-class. We read Grace Paley's "The Poet's Occasional Alternative" about the poet avoiding writing poetry by baking a pie because sometimes it's too hard to do something that won't please everybody, that might never find an audience. But... everybody likes pie! I gave them the prompt: write about what you avoid

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Heaven and Hell

Heaven + Hell
are estranged sisters
eyeing each other
across uncrossable distances.

Each gathers her allies
   mutters darkly about the other.
   Envy might glint, sometimes, in their eyes.

Heaven plants her roots, sends up fronds
   sweet green shoots
   and harvests ripe.

Hell skims lightly over the world
   undoes bindings.

Heaven seals
    with honey and wax.

Hell dissolves,
    molecules sigh into their component parts.

Heaven keeps a tidy yard,
   bakes fresh bread,

Hell, she walks out the gate,
   leaves salty footprints (no backward glance)
   in her wake.
   She forgets.

(From a classroom prompt based on X. J. Kennedy's fantastic poem, "Nothing in Heaven Functions as it Ought." I had the kids brainstorm connotations and denotations of heaven and hell, and compare them to the Hawaiian concept of the afterworld, Keaopo, which is non binary, non-human, and plural. There's one on every island.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015


   The hollows and rough edges on elm trees
   the startled up-look of a deer
   the shallow whisper of the creek
Come with me and see!
   200 tones of green
   from emerald to scum
whitegreen underside of oak-leaf
greenblack shine of dogwood
slick green rocks
softgreen moss
   Come with me
   lift the stones suddenly
     if the crawdads
   will startle us
   prod the soft rotten log
come with me and
   whisper secret names into the hollows
   half-glimpse fairies
   half-hear gnomes
Come and follow the narrow path
Swing a stick-sword
   swoop away the spiderwebs
or else they'll snag our mouths
and eyes
tiny spiders jeweling us
Come and hear the complete quiet
   the hush of high-up branches in the air
   the careful step of our own small feet over the earth
Come and greet the forest of my twilit child-time.

(I challenged my students to write invitations based on Leaves of Grass (Thanks Kenneth Koch!) and I wrote one too. What's the point of having a neglected blog if not to post poems?)