A bunch of Hui

Mahalo, Ola, Pono, Aina, Ono, Piko, Pau....I hear Hawaiian words all the time. And mostly from non-Hawaiians. But I only hear the same handful of words over and over--the Hawaiian-word pool that we can pick from is limited.

There are some Hawaiian words that Haole imposters, like myself, always feel free to bandy about.
Aloha is one of those words we've beaten into submission-- especially pronounced, "Hello-hah." Because it is un-American to pronounce a word from a non-English language correctly, "Hello-hah" lets you make a limp-wristed effort but without having to fully commit to a non-English word. Win-win.

Malama is another one we say a lot-- and we use it to suggest, like finger-wagging school marms, that others could be taking better care of things. Malama Aina, Malama Kai, Malama Pono, Malama ola-- don't forget to pick up after your doggies, people. Don't mess up the ocean, be righteous and eat more vegetables! And Kokua-- you better cooperate!

Advanced Haoles throw in cultural references to doozies like kaona --hidden poetic meaning-- or hooponopono -- a meeting to hammer out nastiness, in a loving constructive and mediated way. I don't dare throw in these big guns in a casual conversation-- but I do nod enthusiastically if I hear someone else say it, eager to show I've got the inside scoop, too.

And once you've heard one haole say it, we all start in on it. We're linguistic lemmings. Once a word has been colonized by our lumbering American accents, it's free game.

But why do we bother to expand our mainland vocabulary to include these Polynesian punctuations? Maybe we hope the words help us in establishing Local cred without venturing too deeply into the complex shades of the Hawaiian language. We want to show our efforts at "blending in", and maybe showing we're in on the local culture...

I'm guilty of this-- especially this week. I'm starting a preschool co-op, but rather than call it a co-op, I've co-opted the Hawaiian word "Hui." Our preschool won't be about Hawaii or Hawaiian culture specifically-- but splicing in the Hawaiian word pins us to the map. It's a fraught little nod to the "host culture" of the islands.

Transplants feel racially at odds with actual Hawaiians and modern day Hawaiian culture (charmless Jawaiian music, anyone?) but also nostalgic for a romantic image of Gauguin's island paradise.

There's something typically colonial about this word-stealing: Americans taking just the good-bits version of the Hawaiian language--- the easy, the poetic, the quotable-- and leaving out the complexity of meaning, the functionality--the coherent grammar that makes Hawaiian a living language. Without the grammar, without the daily-life-use, we just extract emotions, impressions, post-card perfect dreams from the language. We do the same thing to the landscape-- give us beaches, palm trees, hula shows and baby luaus. Leave out the schools, the potholes, and the politics.


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