The world was transitioning from night to day when Koko and I set out walking this morning. Overhead, Orion’s belt still shone alongside stars whose names I do not know, while in the east, above the Giant, smoky pink was streaking a baby blue sky.
We walked toward and through pockets of sound: the baying howls of hunting dogs in the valley, the muted roar of wind through the tops of tall ironwoods, the whining hum of an electrical transformer. And as we walked, the heavens turned gold and the birds sang out and Jupiter slipped into a bed of pearl grey fleece that had been laid atop the summit of Waialeale.
It’s hard to describe why I like this time of day so much. It’s partly due to the freshness, the marked absence of human sounds, the undercurrent of excitement that accompanies a new start. But it’s also because I can lose the edges of myself as I move, feeling almost invisible, through the murky light, unseen, yet still a part of what’s unfolding.
In short, I’m at ease in that place of half-light, half-dark, that world on the brink of becoming something else. That’s where I feel most that I belong.
My sister was struck during her recent visit by all the discussion about who belongs here and who doesn’t. She heard people talking about haoles and locals, malihini and kama`aina, residents and visitors, rich and poor, Polynesians and Hawaiians. She heard locals worrying about being mistaken for tourists, and tourists trying to pass themselves off as locals, and she commented on how people seemed preoccupied with sorting one another out, figuring out where they and others belong in the nuanced social circles of modern day Hawaii.
She was particularly amused when the talk turned to who is attracted to whom, like when a local guy asked her, “How is it possible that the local brothers have ignored you?” and one of my Hawaiian friends sang a song about how the fair skinned wahine tempt the local kane. "It's like there's attraction and rejection going on simultaneously," she observed.
On her way back to America, she stopped in Honolulu to visit an old friend from grade school, a man who had lived on Oahu for 25 years and was married to a Chinese-Hawaiian woman. Yet he was still an outsider, he told my sister, and he always would be. They were joined by one of his daughters, who attends Kamehameha Schools, as did her mother, and the girl spoke at length about hapa haoles and Eurasians and the ethnic composition of her classmates, and who was pairing up, and the obstacles and opportunities presented by one’s skin tone.
“Belonging seems to be such an issue there,” my sister reflected when we spoke on the phone, “such a major topic of discussion.”
I wondered about that, and when I saw my neighbor Andy yesterday, I asked him why.
Being a historian, he looked to the past and thought some of it stemmed from Hawaii’s plantation heritage, and the way that different ethnic groups were housed in distinct camps; indeed, they tended to want to live apart, and took pride in preserving their culture, which was reflected in their gardens, their food, their religious worship, their lifestyles and languages.
Though some of that has softened over time, it hasn't disappeared, and it still informs the way people look at one another, especially on an island, where family ties are strong and the borders are fixed and it's more easily determined who is grown here and who is flown here.
But I wondered, too, if this question of belonging isn’t rooted in the uneasy knowledge that Hawaii is an occupied nation, a place that America and its citizenry have claimed, but don’t really own. And even deeper than that, if it’s based in the recognition, deeply buried though it may be, that the ones who truly belong are the plants and animals that evolved here — the endemic species that we’re slowly and surely destroying in our desire to belong.