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.


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