Friday, 4 June 2010

What Is So Great About Hawaii?

The question sounds like a simple one, until you discover that there are more Hawaiis than the one described by all the travel folders. Of course years and years of bad Kodachromes and kitschy hula music haven't been able to smother the real wallop to your senses that tourist Hawaii delivers on first encounter: that first breakfast next to the pool of the Edgewater Reef with sparrows buzzing your macadamia-nut pancakes; or, even earlier, jet-flown out of schedule, awaking to the predawn stirring of the trade winds on the lanai. The sheer sensual impact of these experiences is so completely new to most of us that it has to be felt to be believed. And when it is once felt, if you're not lucky enough to find a permanent place in the fiftieth state, you want to experience again this ever new freshness.

So there is an important physical side to Hawaii, and that is celebrated with gusto in these pages; but there is a further dimension to our newest state that I think even few of its kamaainas (Hawaiian for old-timers) are aware of. In fact, when a malihini (newcomer) like myself tries to explain this extra dimension, he is liable to be greeted by a painfully embarrassed silence or polite smiles.

I think my fresh perspective came mainly from the job that brought me to Hawaii. For the first full year of its operation, I was the director of the Institute of American Studies at the East-West Center for Technical and Cultural Interchange, a long mouthful for the most exciting idea in the United States today: a federally supported scholarship and research program at the University of Hawaii in which Asians can learn how to modernize their countries and Americans can learn more about the languages and cultures of the Asian countries we come into increasing contact with. The Institute of American Studies has the fascinating responsibility of explaining the nature of American civilization to the Asian grantees of the East-West Center.

The most challenging aspect of it for me, of course, was finding out in what ways Honolulu and Hawaii were like and unlike the rest of the United States. For this extraordinary mid-Pacific mixing (not melting) pot has kept alive several different ethnic strains (instead of grinding them down into a general American hamburger). This is much more than a toleration of diversity; it is an active cultivation of differences for their own intrinsic sakes.

It is the most important thing to learn about Hawaii. The 600,000 plus (1960 census) citizens of Hawaii have found a democratic future for America, and it works! Hawaii is not perfect in its social relationships, but it is at least halfway to paradise in its ethnic maturity. If you visit Hawaii and don't take a look at that part of its achievement, you should have gone to Miami Beach, where they also have palm trees and (somewhat) balmy breezes. In addition, then, to an exciting, sensual present, Hawaii has a Future to offer to the rest of America and to Asia.

And, as if that weren't enough, Hawaii has a Past. One might almost say the whole past of man (and mountain). For while we ate out Thanksgiving dinner at Volcano House on the Big Island, perched literally on the brink of a live and kicking, lava-making machine, it dawned on me that on Hawaii you can synopsize before your very eyes the actual formation of the earth's islands and continents.

Here on Mauna Loa, the process is still active; farther up the island at Mauna Kea, less evidence but still the possibility of eruption; next up the chain, on Maui, is Haleakala--the House of the Sun, a long-extinct but still fearsomely impressive volcano; west Maui, Kahoolawe, and Lanai are still further removed in time from the primeval upheavals; fly on to Honolulu and you have only the ancient craters of Punchbowl and Diamond Head to remind you of the terror that once rained on Oahu as its volcanoes gradually built up the island from undersea eruptions; still farther north is the Garden Isle of Kauai, where greenery thoroughly covers its oldest extinct volcanoes.

This historical record was expressed by the old Stone Age Hawaiians by their myth of Pele, who first lived on Kauai, then went island-hopping in a southeasterly direction until she disappeared into the very volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, where my geological daydream had begun. As in most myths, beneath the allegorical manner lay essential truths. But nowadays there is as much fun to be had savoring the manner as in understanding the matter. This mythic dimension is a heady bonus for the fact-fatigued American; every stone seems to be storied in Hawaii.

What is so great about Hawaii? Its fascinating Past, vigorous Present, and prophetic Future. It is the American dream of diversity in fullest embodiment.

From A Guidebook to Hawaii/Dolphin, 1965, Introduction, pp 3-5

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