Black and White and Red All Over: Some Thoughts about Hawaii and Ambiguity

On the first day of classes, I took roll. I imagined it would be a straightforward "what is your name?", check the box, school lunch? And next? But the process became increasingly comical as I tried to match official names with Hawaiian names with nicknames. These kids exist as one person on their standardized test forms and birth certificates--Julies and Jaylyns and Isaiahs-- and appear embodied in my classroom with entirely different names: Kuuleimoani, Kamailekuponoaloha, Heleolanimainamaikai. And then the kids call each other clipped syllables: Tutu! OliBee!

So every morning when I mark attendance I have to know that a Jason Smith is actually Kuuleialoha Williams who I know as Kuu but who his grandmother calls Jay-boy. He's taken his mother's maiden name after the step-father left and shortened his middle name for school and is something else on the playground and here he is thirteen and juggling more identities than most people have until after their third career and second marriage and conversion to an Eastern religion.

Every morning we sing and chant as a school-- the five year olds lined up in front, gawping and lip-synching, up to the 18 year olds to stand without fidgeting on the back row and have an aura of what will solidify into poise very soon. We chant about the cool mist and the rain clouds, and the hot parched beach and the high mountains. We chant about the God Kane (one of the pantheon: Ku, Kane, Lono and Kanaloa) and the omnipresence of His life-giving waters. And then we sing the Doxology and the Lord's Prayer. We sing Hawai`i Pono`i, by King Kalakaua, deifying Kamehameha. But we celebrate Kauai's history as the island that Kamehameha never conquered, Ku Manokalanipo! When I look across the palate of faces there are deep browns and pink-whites and surnames from a united nations of ancestors, and the kids are told to carry on the language and the culture of their people.

The kids learn hula dedicated to an array of wonderful and terrifying Gods and Goddesses. And they pray in the name of Jesus Christ before lunch every day, at this public school.

These contradictions vex me. I think of Christianity and Indigenous Religions as two fighting Beta fish-- you'd never want to put them in the same jar unless you were taking bets. How can you pray to Jesus when the missionaries were responsible for such xenophobic cultural cleansing? And are you proud of Kauai's rulers for withstanding Kamehameha or of Kamehameha's monarchy for winning out in the end? Are you proud to be an American, or are you waiting for reparations and reinstatement of the lawful Hawaiian government?

The teachers and students at my school handle this hive of contradictions with grace. Like whirling dervishes whose equilibrium comes through dizzying motion I wonder if the contradictions are really a cultural engine, that generate heat rather than diffusing purpose. Dr. Manu Aluli Meyer suggests in her wonderful and strange book Ho`o`ulu that the oldest, pre-written Hawaiian language afforded more ambiguity and generated more metaphorical, multidimensional ways of knowing and experiencing reality. Before alphabets and diacritical marks delineated definitions and pronunciations, deep meaningful punning was the norm in all levels of Hawaiian oral discourse.  This survives in Hawaiian music and poetry as "kaona" or hidden meanings, but was apparently a part of all communication before written language invaded Hawaiians' conception of spoken language and meaning.

My unease with all the contradiction splashes paint onto a window I didn't know was there-- my literalist, black and white way of seeing the world. If you are a devout evangelical Christian, you are not a Pagan. If you are a proud U.S. Veteran, you are not a Hawaiian Sovereignty activist. If your name is Kuuleialoha, it is not Jason.

But those diametrical oppositions are, I regretfully admit to myself, just constructions.  Constructions that give my life meaning, direction, depth and purpose, but still. Constructions.

One of my student's grandmother is teaching us all a song for a contest. Although I've listened to it on repeat,  understand the melody, and know the words, I can't sing it properly. I realized that when I sing it, I try and clip the extra beats off of the random five- or six-beat measures. I want a nice tidy four-four time. I was raised on a steady diet of music with codas, chorus, 1-4-5 progressions, and time signatures! And although I would love to sing this song like this Tutu, I can't for the life of me put two extra beats in the middle of a measure without spontaneously having all of my hair leap out of my head onto the floor.

But the students just go right along with it-- they've internalized that comfort with a looser sense of musical time.

So that's how I am trying to understand the ambiguity. I have internalized an epistemology (ooh, $10 word!) that leaps from binary opposition to binary opposition like lilypads on a pond surface, and like nice tidy sets of fraction-able beats in friendly little cohorts of four. I can't yet see outside of my platonic lilypond, but it's unsettling and humbling to realize that I'm in one.


  1. "ways of knowing," "epistemology," "social constructions," with all these fancy sociology words, you should publish a book. :)

  2. I enjoy hearing the voice in your head.

    (we finally stopped moving, we pulled into our parking spot 2 days ago. 4 solid months homeless, It's becoming clear that I am made of gypsy stock.)
    Love to the family

  3. I just spent the last hour and a half reading your blog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It is inspiring for me to see the way you have chosen to embrace your surroundings no matter where you are. I am trying to learn this as we have been in many different places over the past few years. Thank-you for your honesty and insight. I have read almost all of your entries but my eyes are burning so I will finish the rest tomorrow.


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