Monday, February 25, 2008

Hawai'i - A Japanese-American Perspective



Hawaii is beautiful.  Hawaii is a specimen.  I've never been anywhere that has such a combination of:
  1. ridiculously nice weather
  2. crystal clear water
  3. abundant wildlife
  4. beautiful scenery
  5. convenient amenities 
Demographically, Hawaii is so different from the rest of the United States that it might as well be its own country.  There is a clear majority of Asians living on the Island.  When I first heard this I thought this was based on self-selecting anecdotal evidence - as in "There are HELLA Asians in LA" (really?) .  But the 2000 U.S. census numbers back it up.  What's more, the three most common ancestries on the 1.2 million person island are Japanese, Filipino, and Hawaiian at 21%, 18%, and 16% respectively.

To me, the surprising thing about Hawaii is how American the place is.  Seriously.  I do realize it's been a U.S. state since 1959.  But then again Puerto Rico is a lot closer, has been a commonwealth since 1952 and that place still speaks Spanish.  So, you would think that a place inundated with 3rd and 4th generation Asians isolated by thousands of miles with a historical trajectory differing greatly from the rest of the country would develop a culture abjectly unique. 

To be fair ... it's not like there are no differences.  Spam and rice are fondly incorporated into the local cuisine.  Hawaiian and Japanese words are spliced into the vocabulary.  Also, when someone points out a local Hawaiian accent you can tell a slightly different intonation on the English.  It's just that there just aren't the big over-arching cultural differences you'd expect  from this virtual petry dish and for me this is genuinely puzzling.  From what I can tell local Hawaiians shop at the same Best Buys, Sears, and Trader Joes that we do.  They eat at the same fast-food places and are into the same brands.  From what I can tell they more or less share the same gas guzzling, free spending, politically centrist, fiercely independent, racially tolerant, media crazed culture as the rest of America.

I can't really explain this turn of events which leads me to believe two things:

1) I'm right about Hawaiian culture.  It is basically the same as mainstream American culture at which point I'd really like someone who knows more about Hawaiian history and sociology to explain how things turned out this way.   I am at a loss.

or

2) I'm wrong.  Hawaiian culture is actually very different from the rest of American culture, it's just that my gringo tourist ass did not spend enough time there or didn't know where to look at which point, I need to go back.

Either way, Hawaii is a baffling place considering it's racial composition and history.  It's interesting to me not just because I myself am a 1st generation Japanese-American, but because if in 50 years Hawaii can go from an island nation filled with 1st generation Asians farming rice and sugar-cane into a tourist hot-spot for Leno-watching Americans, then who knows ... maybe McDonalds Iraq featuring the "Baghdad Burger" isn't as far away as people think.

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