Just got back from a four day jaunt to Oahu. We stayed in Waikiki, went to museums and ate out-- it was a fun mini vacation from our rural island. I liked pushing through the crowds of people, admiring the daring high-fashion haircuts, and eating authentic Japanese food. 

But I was bothered by something unexpected. 

I heard English in all accents, and a UN roster of other languages: Tagalog, Chinese, Korean, Russian, and French. I heard more Japanese than I have since living in Japan. But I didn't hear a single word of Hawaiian. No mahalo or aloha or e komo mai-- not even the token, tourist-board approved warm fuzzy version of Hawaiian that gets used as a tool to bring a non-threatening layer of native authenticity to maitais and cheap plumeria leis.

Once I noticed it, the lack bothered me more and more. All the little chances people missed to use the few words of olelo that have crept in to common usage jumped out at me. At the bishop museum, we heard recorded Hawaiian voices chanting and earnestly testifying of the great Polynesian way finders, but we were told, welcome! at the gate.

 I know that sometimes Hawaiian and Hawaiian creole English, aka pidgin, are used as a kind of acknowledgement of recognized ethnic sameness. In other words, hey, you look like me, let's speak our shared language together. The world all around may be speaking English or Japanese-- but us? We different, we got our own thing, we don't have to translate or codeswitch for anybody. And that's good, it's a great use of language to mark in and out groups. That's cool.

But Hawaiian is a language teetering on the brink of extinction. And part of the cause is that people don't feel they HAVE to speak it. It's uncomfortable trying to say new and difficult words as a tourist or a new-comer to the islands-- if I can get away of saying Thank You instead of Mahalo without being rude, then that's absolutely what I'll do. Of course if I went to France, it would be horribly arrogant to assume that I can get away with saying Thank you instead of Merci. So even if it's uncomfortable and I feel silly at first I will ask politely for Un Cafe Sil Vous Plait and say Merci even if my attempt is ridiculous and earns me an eye roll. But there is no analogous shame for not trying to speak Hawaiian in Hawaii. If I moved to France, I would never be able to get away with only speaking English. In order to function in the society, I would have to learn the language. In the early days of the Hawaiian Kingdom, that was the case here as well. All of the missionaries, their children, the traders, sailers and foreign workers all learned Hawaiian. Sanford Dole, the baddy who illegally imprisoned the queen and established himself as the Big Boss of his oligarchical republic of Hawaii, spoke fluent Hawaiian while he dismantled the Hawaiian kingdom. 

So is it just lazy entitled snobbery or fear that keeps people now from learning Hawaiian now? Maybe partially, but I think cultural sensitivity is another thing keeping Olelo Hawaii from taking centre stage in Hawaii. People without Hawaiian blood feel they don't have the right to speak it.  I was raised to beware of cultural appropriation. Dressing as a different ethnicity for Halloween? Not okay. Pretending to do a hula hula with a coconuts bra? Tacky and mortifying. Using a thick rolling accent to ask for a burrrrrrrito con carrrrrrrrne? Affected and precious.

 I avoid those kinds of culturally appropriative things because I don't want to be another white insensitive jerk. I'm going to watch the powwow or Bon dance respectfully from the sideline. I'm not going to dance hula or join in an oli until I've been invited. I'm not going to wear a bintu or a sari or a Maori tattoo unless they are given to me intentionally from someone who has the right to give them to me. It doesn't belong to me, so I can admire from a distance, but not touch.  That is the same feeling that kept me from learning Hawaiian until now. When I started working at this school, I HAD to learn Hawaiian in order to participate in staff meetings and parent teacher conferences. Before that, I felt I didn't have the right to the language, that it wasn't my sandbox to come muck around in. I didn't want to project my western "noble savage" hopes and dreams onto a language that I can't claim in my heritage.

But my thinking has changed. I didn't feel appropriative or colonial when I learned Japanese in Japan or Dutch in Holland. If Hawaiian is a living language, it has to be sturdy enough to handle attempts at misappropriation. Misuse or sentimentality can't break the language. So what if earnest old white ladies learn Hawaiian because they love the idea of a culture of Aloha, or because they want the spiritual connection to the land to which they imagine the ancient Hawaiians had proprietary rights. So what if I learn Hawaiian so I can sit through staff meetings or my kid learns Hawaiian so she can learn her times tables.

If Hawaiian is going to survive, we all have to scrabble at every opportunity to use it. If that means feeling a little silly and saying Mahalo to the cashier at Costco, fine. If that means memorizing the words to your favorite Keola Beamer songs, fine. If that means speaking Hawaiian to tourists and visitors and newcomers, even if they don't understand, fine. Hawaiian should be a language that we hear in Hawaii. I shouldn't be able to go to Oahu for five days and four nights and never hear a word. So if that means that it's going to be me saying those words, fine. Hiki no. E walaau Ana au. 


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