What it means to be a white minority in the islands
Their words don’t touch me here. I’m alone and everything is silent. The colors of the coral and the fishes and the flashes of muted red on my toenails are my friends. I can be still, at peace in my blue nothing - a padded cube inside my head. Floating. Endless. And then I feel it - the tightening in my chest, my lungs, my throat. Salt like ice cutting my eyes, blurring the colors to black, curling in from the edges of my vision like a noose ... but this is where I am safe, I remind myself. Here there is no haole or stink eye1 or words I don’t understand. I am alone.
Li-hing mui - they suck on the insides of their cheeks, spit the seeds, smack their gums like cattle until their teeth are red. Brok’ da mout2, they say and sprinkle it like dried blood over orange slices so when I eat it, my hands are smudged and I can’t wipe it off on my clothes because it would stain and Aunty said we don’t have bleach to clean it out. And their mounds of poi - muddy, purple gunk grown like tumors in their aina3. Ho, dah grinds4!, they say. Da shiz ono5, brah! I don’t know - they don’t let me taste. I squish poi between my toes when I walk in their kalo6 patches, but ka makani7 blows constantly at my face, twirling my hair in her fingers, yanking me back.
But here, here is where I am safe. The pressure in my ears and eyes is suffocating, but the water enveloping me is my blanket. It hugs me tight in its arms so I never have to go back to the surface. I hover, listening to the cracks of the fish gnawing the coral, the only sound down here. Constant chatter to drown out the bombardment of accusations in my head - You like me buss you up8, eh, haole bitch? Their sideways glances - stink eye - crush my lungs more than the tower of water above me. I dive deep, pumping my legs to propel me further into darkness, reveling in the electric thrill of blackness lurking in a ring around my vision, sucking the life from my throat. Alone in the dark, I reach in front of me until I can grab fistfulls of emeralds. The green sand here is murky and leaves a trail of brown dirt through the water as I bring it back to the surface.
Mahimahi sashimi - they eat it raw. Its magenta flesh is slimy to the touch when Kumu9 forces all of us to eat a slug-sized chunk after hula practice. In that moment, I swear off seafood. I can’t force it down. Haole not so akamai10 now, ah? I hear them. Of course I hear them, though I’m not supposed to. Their white rice mochi paste sticks to the roof of my mouth, glueing my jaw shut. I choke on my own deafening silence - ache to yell, scream, retaliate against their barrage, but I am silent.
Dayum! Lookadat fucking white-ass haole, bruddah! You know wha? Dat shiz givin’ me chicken skin11, ah? Da Devil’s white, you know ... I hear them too while I sit in the sun on a bed of emeralds waiting to burn. My arms are the first things I notice getting darker. They redden until they are painful to the touch, then slowly tan. Even red is better than white. Flakes of skin follow me like breadcrumbs, but I am careful not to peel off my armor. I refuse sunscreen. Dark skin is strong skin - impervious to threats and able to withstand their stinging words.
Hapa rice - brown rice with flashes of foreign white dancing out of sight. The brown grains are firm on my tongue, like beetles protected in their exoskeleton, but the white ones smush easily. They are weak. Fakes. Pretending to be native, but stumbling in their disguise and giving themselves away. I cut the native accent into the words I learn, but still, It’s Ha-VAI-ee, not Ha-wah-ee. I hide in plain sight, speaking little so I’m not found.
To keep from drying up and crisping to ash, I cool my skin in the ocean. Crisp and cool, crisp and cool. In and out of the waves, blonde hair clinging to my neck and cheeks as if desperate to smother me. It weighs me down like gold, dragging me through the tides. Heavy as lead, reminding me I should sink beneath the crust of the earth rather than exist on top of it. I long to cut it off, but hair here is precious. Pele’s12 hair is the tendrils of pahoehoe13 lava encasing the islands, tying them all together like a woven lauhala14 basket. And her hair flows free, so mine must too.
Spam musubi - seaweed-wrapped bricks of rice with a floppy hunk of unidentifiable hotdog patty pressed in the center. Their bread and butter. Bought in bulk for school field trips because kids our age don’t need real food. They survive on those things, but I can’t eat more than one without needing to puke. Same with their kalua pork and cabbage. The cabbage, play-acting as the vegetable of the dish, is pale, acid green. Slimy as the sashimi, but tasteless. They gobble it like pua’a15, smearing their faces with grease as if they’d been rooting in the mud.
But soon, without knowing how, I begin talking like them, the ones who call me haole - no soul. Ho, sistah! Get choke16 waves today, ah? Like go? Shootz17. I talk like them, but I am not one of them. I am not, nor will I ever be, “local.” Twelve years still, and I am an outcast, a foreigner, a white beacon, a haole. Even here, free-diving in my ocean, I can hear them mumbling - they are the moans of the tides and the clicking of the ono fish nibbling the coral. But they are voices in my head, I remind myself. The salt sting is what keeps me coming back, the tie I have to the place that insists on pushing me away. I’m only safe underwater, for when I break the surface, haole comes back, ringing in my ears, drowning me.
1.) In Hawaiian, “ha” is the breath of life and “ole” means no or none. Therefore, ha-ole literally translates to no breath, or no soul.
2.) Caucasian foreigner
1stink eye - a hard, scornful glare
2brok’ da mout - delicious, literally “broke the mouth”
3aina - land
4grinds - good food
5ono - delicious, also a native Hawaiian fish
6kalo - taro, a plant pounded into poi
7ka makani - the wind
8buss you up - beat you up, literally “bust you up”
9Kumu - teacher, specifically hula teacher
10akamai - smart
11chicken skin - goosebumps
12Pele - Goddess of Fire, causes volcanic
eruptions, legend says her hair is made
13pahoehoe - flowing type of lava, looks like rope
14lauhala - plant used for basket weaving
15pua’a - pig(s)
16choke - many
17shootz - see you later
Word Count: 1054