Sunday, May 10, 2009

Musings: Local Knowledge

It’s helpful to have local friends. I called one the other day, a surfer, to ask how to treat a piece of coral in my foot, knowing he’d been in the same fix countless times.

“You gotta dig it out right away,” he said. “Get a needle and just dig it out.”

That bit of advice out of the way, I mentioned that I’d possibly lost a work assignment because I’d written something in my blog that pissed off the person who controlled the money. And that got me thinking about how many people I might have pissed off inadvertently because I’d written something critical about someone they like or are related to.

“It’s not your fault,” he consoled. “You’re from the mainland, so you don’t know any better. You don’t know just how connected people are in this little place. You don’t know you have to ask your mama, ‘is that guy my cousin?’ before you take him out.”

Yup, locals know a lot of things that we mainland transplants don’t — at least, not until we’ve been shown or told.

Like when I ran into farmer Jerry, he knew why Makaleha stream was running low, even though we’ve had rain locally. It’s actually fed by Waipahee, he explained, and that’s in an entirely different ahupuaa, one that’s much drier. He also knew why my neighbor Andy’s stream was running so high. “We’ve been putting water in there,” he said, referring to the system managed by the East Kauai Water Users Cooperative. Seems it’s not a stream but a ditch that runs through Andy’s property on its way to the taro farmers on Bette Midler’s land near the bypass.

And my neighbor Andy has filled me in on countless bits of Hawaii history, both ancient and modern, along with details on various people in our neighborhood. They, in turn have filled me in on how the streetlights got installed and the roads got paved.

Some friends know about all things kanaka maoli, including the words to Hawaiian songs and their meaning, proper place names and why it’s important to use them, protocol for all sorts of cultural activities, the whys and hows of supernatural stuffs and even more that we haven’t gotten into yet.

Other local friends have shared their knowledge of where to find mokihana and maile, and how to pick it properly, the names of countless plants and their uses, how to harvest banana, papaya, breadfruit, taro. They’ve shown me how to catch and clean reef fish, then fry it without making a mess. They’ve explained all the important family connections (which I still haven’t mastered), and taught me how to make feather, flower and ti leaf lei, laulau, poi, kim chee, nishime, sushi, mochi, lilikoi juice, potato-mac salad, fish cake, poke. And they've told me the best places to buy all that stuff when I don't want to make it.

Then there’s the face-saving stuff, like when to shut up and listen, what constitutes disrespect, the proper way to behave around throw net fishermen, what to bring when you go visit somebody, how to greet kupuna.

I've never forgotten the wise counsel offered by Jan Ten Bruggencate (whose blog I greatly admire) shortly after my arrival on Kauai: “Don’t try to speak pidgin.”

And in that same vein, another friend’s advice, issued upon seeing my stiff, contorted shaka: “Don’t ever do that in public. Otherwise somebody going think you making stick finger. Then they might wanna beef and I’d have to fight ‘em. And I don’t wanna have to do that, cuz it might be my cousin.”


Anonymous said...

"locals know a lot of things that we mainland transplants don’t"

-- is the machismo ethnic hawaiian? or is that from some other group?

Joan Conrow said...

I think it's just a guy thing.

Anonymous said...

Aloha....perhaps in some future blog, you could share some cultural information, such as......what constitutes disrespect, how to behave around net fishermen, what to bring when visiting someone, how to greet kupuna, and different proper cultural protocols.

LoF said...

collective-think and the protocol around it is not unique to Hawaii, native Hawaiians or Asian settlers who call themselves local. now that I think about, neither is xenophobia either. some stuff I was raised on, now as an adult, I feel is really nothing unique to Hawaii at all just repackaged with the Made with Aloha rubber stamp.

some of it is just rural narrow-mindedness cloaked in nineteenth century sentimental romanticism of "south sea" fantasies then repackaged as ethnic, local, or native. localized ideas that have appeared because of a century of globalization syncretized to local conditions. Elizabeth Buck deals with it in her book about Hawaiian music and dance. the danger, of course, is that it freezes culture which is dynamic and turns us into a caricature of ourselves as objects for others.

Andy Parx said...

For every instance where some luna actually successfully pressures a landlord or a boss to punish someone who spoke out or stepped out of line, there’s a hundreds where people just think it might have happened but it really didn’t.

“It could happen”... but usually it didn’t.

The problem is that this illusion of power is at the core of the clout of plantation mentality. When people “no like say nahting” to protect themselves or family members, that enables those who don’t really have that kind of power to actually have it simply because people believe they do.

It seems like the “story” is always “someone told me that someone told them that they heard that maybe 20 years ago” something happened- .

That’s what’s so dangerous about giving a lot of these “conspiracy theories” so much credence.” They”- whomever they may be- don’t really have the brains or wherewithal to pull off these things like the WTC “bombing” or the “old-boy-network guys” getting someone’s landlord evict them or boss to fire them. More than likely the person the luna approaches will say no and maybe even turn them in if it’s something illegal- and they won’t risk that.

But if people think they do it, that’s creates hundreds of times more power than they may actually have.

Katy said...

"Plantation mentality," as Andy describes it, seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.

It's damn hard work for people who are being screwed to organize collectively, and the great myths about our own powerlessness are the biggest obstacles.

But that's why we have to organize collectively, instead of trying to seek justice individually. As the old folk song says "The boss won't listen when one guy squawks, but he's got to listen when the union talks."

It's no small thing that our class solidarity has been consistently undermined by racism, misogyny and homophobia. And distractions like "chem trails" and 9/11 conspiracies feed into a general sense of helplessness.

Andy's example of people afraid to speak out because of the fear of being evicted or fired reminds me of the stories I heard as a union organizer, when frightened workers were more swayed by the "once upon a time" stories that had circulated about firings and reprisals than by the daily experience of being underpaid, overworked and disrespected. Plantation mentality, in other words, is alive and well in the rural West and elsewhere.

In many ways, it's LESS alive here, though I hear about it constantly. Progressives reinforce its mythic power, it seems to me, by willingly engaging in major acts of forgetting. There is an admirable history in Hawai'i of militant organizing and resistance to draw upon, but in my experience, you'd never know it from listening to recent activist arrivals (like me) who assume that nobody ever resisted injustice and exploitation before we got here to show the locals how to do it.

Joan shares in her post about the value of the things she's learned from her local friends. I guess the biggest eye-opener for me has been learning about the history of radical resistance in Hawai'i. I'm impressed as hell by what folks did to keep the Superferry from Kaua'i, of course, but most of us recent settlers knew nothing about the Niumalu-Nawiliwili Tenants' Association struggle when we went down to the pier.

It's up to all of us to keep our peoples' histories alive, so the myths of powerlessness don't win out.

Anonymous said...

"I think it's just a guy thing."

-- oh nice one! funny. thanks for the wise reply

very interesting take on things May 10, 2009 3:30 PM and May 10, 2009 4:12 PM, ty

"And distractions like "chem trails" and 9/11 conspiracies feed into a general sense of helplessness. "

--- so true, and "helplessness" is putting it lightly

May 10, 2009 10:16 AM

Anonymous said...

Did Katy & Andy read the same thing I did? I was laughing and your seeing conspiracy theories. Lighten up you guys. Life is not always so serious.

Anonymous said...

Joan, you know more about Hawaiian culture and local customs than most locals, Hawaiian or otherwise.