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Last summer, I visited Hawai’i for the first time and stayed on Oahu for five weeks. I immediately felt the humidity when I stepped off the airplane at my arrival late at night. It really was the perfect weather. I did not visit the island for vacation but instead participated in a university program.
I had a great introduction to the island when my professor took my classmates and me to a buffet in Waikiki, right on the beach. I stepped out and let the warm water rush up to my legs. I had never experienced an ocean with just the right temperature and transparent blue water, making it almost look like a swimming pool. But I wasn’t at the beach for the majority of my stay in Hawai’i. I was more on field trips and volunteered at a Native Hawaiian charter school, as part of my program’s requirement.
The dormitory was not located right by the ocean, but at Manoa, where it was much more green and full of trees. Many bug bites covered my legs and arms, and I danced around too many cockroaches at night when I walked on the streets. There were more cockroaches in the valley rather than within the city. I didn’t expect that either.
I was full of thrill and curiosity. My to-do list was set up. I wanted to try different foods, go to a luau, scuba dive and snorkel, learn how to hula dance and create leis, etc. I thought that’s how I would have been “cultured”. I was very wrong.
At the time, my professor was teaching us about Native Hawai’ian culture and the effects of tourism: good for American economy but not good for the natives. I learned that the Hawaiian kingdom was forced into giving its land to the United States, yet the majority of Americans may believe that it was a nation that wanted to be “saved” and protected by other countries.
Nowadays, only a certain amount of Hawaiians reach higher education, and being on a sports scholarship was usually the student’s ticket to college. Not only that but the homeless, or “houseless,” population there is quite large, which includes families.
The fewer typical activities I did when visiting the tropical island, the more I actually felt part of Hawai’i. As part of my studies, I had to do some on-site research. Instead of learning how to hula or create leis, I learned how to make poi the traditional way from a Hawaiian history teacher. It was delicious! He picked out the taro from the school’s garden and we cleaned it. Afterwards, he demonstrated how to mash taro with big stones almost shaped like a pushpin and used a long wooden board to press and mold the poi. He wrapped the food in banana leaves when we finished.
When it comes to learning more about the differences between people in Hawai’i, I learned three new connotations for local, Hawaiin, and mainland. People who are born in Hawai’i aren’t necessarily Hawaiians. They are locals. Hawaiians are the actual natives or with native blood. Mainland visitors are from mainland United States, and people could easily tell by the way you speak even if you look like one of the locals.
I’ve asked locals of their thoughts on mainland visitors, and some told me that they can be “superficial,” “uptight,” and “snobby”. (Those stereotypes were negative, but I wasn’t too surprised because how the media probably portrays America—it’s usually about the city life and its drama.) One person told me that he was afraid to visit Los Angeles because of its crime rates too.
But I did have other chances to do some “touristy” things. When it came to food, I ate spam musubi, loco moco, and flavored shaved ice (yet all can be eaten found in Los Angeles). I went kayaking for the first time and also jumped off a cliff into the clear blue sea at Waimea Bay, located on the North Shore of Hawai’i. That was probably the most thrilling and painful experience I did there.
Many others were diving, tumbling, and jumping too. I climbed on top of the rock. I jumped in a wrong position during the first time, keeping my arms out as if they were wings. In the next two jumps, I did the pencil drop.
Upon leaving, I wish I had crossed out more on my to-do list, but I did appreciate learning some of the island’s culture and the history of its people. If you’re traveling the world to learn about culture, it’s better to also include the other side of story—from the locals and natives, not just by what you read in the news or books.