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Reason #402 to Love Hawaii: Diversity

“It was like being in another country. I was so surprised!” –My neighbor, telling me about her first trip to the islands.

“Nobody’s just AMERICAN, we all came from somewhere else! What are you, REALLY?” –French Vietnamese swimsuit booth guy at the International Marketplace.

I love Hawaii’s — Honolulu’s, especially — melting pot culture. Even the Native Hawaiians came from somewhere else originally, taking their big ocean going canoes out into the wide Pacific and navigating by the stars. Then, Captain Cook and his crew arrived, followed by Han Chinese on trade ships. Japanese and Filipino immigrants came to work the sugar cane and pineapple plantations; the Portuguese did the same, bringing with them the braguinha, the precursor to the ukulele.

According to the 2008 Census, under 30% of Hawaii’s population is white — the biggest demographic group is Asian. Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese at almost 40%. In such a small place, it’s not surprising that humans mixed it up and gave us the hapa, mixed race types with (maybe) one white ancestor in there somewhere. Even Hawaiian royalty jumped the fence and married outside the Native Hawaiian community — Hawaii’s last princess, Ka’iulani, had a Scottish father.

T-Shirt

T-shirt, Honolulu Airport

All this mixing has created a place that’s American, certainly, but also, like nowhere else in the US. It’s a Zippy’s where you can get eggs and rice next to a Korean place next to a French bakery. It’s a big Hawaiian guy whose grandmother was a British music teacher, the child of missionaries. It’s Barack Obama, a Honolulu born boy with a Kenyan father, our surfing president. It’s an imperfect society to say the least. But at its best, it’s the American melting pot envisioned as a tropical utopia.

If you spend enough time in the islands, you pick up cultural affectations or obsessions not your own. These little pieces of other societies stick to you, you take them home as souvenirs. You end up at your mainland kitchen table — as I did, yesterday — eating cold noodles with furikake and trying to recall what’s included in those take out supermarket bento boxes.

An appreciation for all those mixed up cultures, all they have to offer, is a fine a souvenir from Hawaii as anything you’ll buy in a store. And it’s truly Hawaiian made.

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