I’ve thought a lot over the past seven years of living in Hawaii about telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about living here. Saying out loud what I am about to say is sort of taboo. Why, I don’t know. But, it appears to be. Maybe, because the islands are mostly populated by non-whites, telling the truth about Hawaii is just not politically correct and runs contrary to the Aloha Spirit, or the fractured and, often, imperfect nature of the Aloha Spirit. Indeed, while I am, and will always be, in love with the ocean, the beauty of this place, I am no longer in love with Hawaii, or its people.
1. As Shakespeare once said, “All that glitters is not gold,” a.k.a., this place is racist as hell.
I and my little family (me-a retired nurse, my husband-a retired disabled vet, my daughter-a 9 year old example of (in my opinion) perfection and my Mom-a 94 year old gripped in the merciless throws of ever-worsening dementia, came to Hawaii filled with hope and expectation in 2014. We fell in love with the natural beauty existing all around us everyday and prayed we’d never stop appreciating the breath-taking nature of it. We bought a house, set up the business of living our life in retirement. Then, little by little, the veneer started to fall away.
We had a presumption that, perhaps, because our daughter is asian (adopted from China) that we would have an easier time fitting in here. She went to a charter school to finish up elementary school, which though rather a disorganized place, was however welcoming and a sweet place for her to be, in terms of meeting friends, feeling at home.
For middle school, she switched to a small, mostly asian/pacific islander populated Catholic private school, hoping for a more organized, better academic environment as she was not being challenged academically. She got along well with the non-Hawaiians (mostly Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Phillipino descended kids.) She started to report feeling a lot of racism there, projected towards her by Hawaiian teachers and kids with Hawaiian heritage. She was criticized for wanting to learn, for in essence being super smart. We soon came to realize that even being asian was no guarantee of acceptance here.
Years ago, when I was a volunteer in New York City, teaching inner-city black kids Expository Composition, I found the same sort of anti-education/anti-intellectualism that, ultimately, ham strings children. Just like my students who spoke Black English in New York, if you spoke proper English, did your homework, went above and beyond the bare minimum in the pursuit of excellence as a student, for the love of learning and to challenge yourself, to get ahead in life, you were somehow looked down upon as thinking you were too good for everybody else and possibly made yourself a victim of abuse (physical or otherwise) by other students in your school.
In middle school, my daughter came home one time and said, “Mommy, there is a day called “Kill Haole Day.” Appalled, I learned that it was a day in the school year dedicated to roughing up whites. In 2008, a Department of Education report concluded “substantial evidence that students experienced racially and sexually derogatory violence and name-calling on nearly a daily basis on school buses, at school bus stops, in school hallways and other areas of the school,” (See U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, OCR Reference No. 10051060). The report also concluded that school officials responded inadequately or not at all when students complained of racial harassment. Students who did complain were retaliated against by their antagonists (See Southern Poverty Law Center. “Hawaii Suffering From Racial Prejudice”.)
For High School, there was no question where we wanted our daughter to attend school. We applied and she got admitted to a college preparatory school in upcountry Maui, that costs approximately $20,000/year. The level of education she receives would have been free in the public school system in northern Virginia she was slated to attend, if we’d never left home. She is safe. She suffers no racism. The Hawaiians and whites (and all races, in fact) in attendance there, get along great, she reports. She is in a happy and academically challenging place. She loves her school and, in fact, if she didn’t love it so much, she has stated she’d want to leave Hawaii. She tells me, “I hate Hawaii. I hate living here. But, I love my school and want to finish high school with my friends.” And so, we have another two years to give our girl what she wants. We will be moving to California in 2023 for her college/graduate school, unless she decides to go to/gets into one of the top schools on the East Coast, where we are from and where our family and friends remain.
2. If you have money, if you own property, if you rent it here, it will get trashed.
Locals say the tourists have destroyed these islands. How, I’m not sure. Because they love and appreciate them? Because they bring their money, which supports the local community? I think these photos speak for themselves. They demonstrate a level of resentment that is pretty palpable.
At this writing, I have no idea what the condition of our home looks like on the inside, as it is presently being held hostage by a local, using the COVID Moratorium to stay in the home and do God knows what there, though he has offered to get out, in exchange for $20,000. Clearly, there is no shame in hurting outsiders, in fact they appear to take a great deal of enjoyment in doing so.
I won’t say more, except to say that if you own property in Hawaii and are from the mainland, there is a more than a little likely chance that you will be resented for it (even if it took a lifetime of work to earn the money to buy here) and, if given the chance to destroy it, they will. I am not unusual. My story is the story of many others. It is pervasive, as is the racism…..as one local Hawaiian said to me under his breath menacingly, as I sipped my coffee at Hookipa one morning watching the surfers, “Haole go home…”
3. There is a crisis of Drug Addiction, Homelessness and Mental Health Problems, that is reminiscent of New York in the 80’s.
I lived in New York City for many years in the 80’s and 90’s. I have seen this before. The causes are many. The solutions complex. I’m no expert. I have no answers. What I do know is the State and Local governments, the community as a whole, that is supposed to be an Ohana, are not working sufficiently enough to find solutions to society’s ills. If you are an outsider, a haole like me, and you want to escape this, you will need to live in an HOA or gated community of upper class and/or financial elites. Not wanting to live in a golden birdcage, we chose a local neighborhood. We are paying for that decision today.
You will hear in the islands that the cause of all these societal problems are the outsiders, coming in buying up the land, the properties, etc… making it hard for locals to survive. While there may be some truth in that, as my Grandmother used to say, “you are never too poor to buy a needle and thread, or a bar of soap.” Of course, what she meant by that was, no matter how poor you are, you can take responsibility for your life, work hard and, while it may take some time, earn a better life, not blaming others for your problems.
What is truly crazy is the climate here is perfect for growing food. Hardly anyone does it. There’s plenty of fishing and hunting, a capacity to live off the land, if you choose. But, I surmise, the greater truth here is a lot of blaming of others…and an inability to say the words, “Hello, my name is (fill in the blank) and I’m an alcoholic, a drug addict.”
Now, the problem of mental illness (some of whom are veterans) is truly tragic. I don’t understand why the mentally ill aren’t getting the support they need from the state and local government. Of course, much of the homelessness is secondary to mental illness, and is made more complex by the self-medicating that occurs with drugs and alcohol, in an effort to ease the pain of mental illness and homelessness itself.
To those of us with experience as a healthcare professional, this comes as no surprise and it has been a systemic problem in the United States for over 50 years:
Modern psychopharmacology began in 1950…Over the course of the next 50 years, the psychiatric understanding and treatment of mental illness radically changed. Psychotropic drugs played a major part in these changes as state hospitals closed and psychotherapy gave way to drug prescriptions. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30786241/)
A little research into the problem of homelessness in the state of Hawaii reveals that it is a problem that is much smaller than other states experience and could, if it was the priority of state and local governments to come to terms with, be improved:
May 13, 2021; … With 2,010 homeless people counted on the neighbor islands, Hawaii’s entire homeless population stood at 6,458 as of January…. on any given day, as reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Of that Total, 499 were family households, 485 were Veterans, 299 were unaccompanied young adults (aged 18-24), and 1,678 were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness. (See – https://www.usich.gov/homelessness-statistics/hi)
In contrast, Ireland (the country of mine and my husband’s forefathers), is a nation of 4,976,124 people. Ireland is 27,133 sq. miles with a drastically reduced growing season compared to Hawaii, which is 10,931 sq. miles/able to produce food year round with, has a population of 1,406,430 people. Ireland has as of March 2021, after over a year of pandemic battering, 8060 homeless individuals. Just 1602 more homeless than the state of Hawaii. Ireland has 3.58 times the number of people then in the state of Hawaii, with less than 25% more homeless persons.
Why is that? I don’t claim to know the answer, but feel fairly certain, it has little to do with the successes of outsiders. I surmise that the culture of blaming outsiders, the lack of personal responsibility and failure of government to address societies ills, among other things may be at fault.
4. People don’t take care of their dogs here.
We are dog people. Cat people. We have spent decades rescuing animals from shelters on the mainland and in Hawaii. We have seen such cruelty to animals here. Animals left chained up all day in the hot sun. Animals kept in cages, un-groomed, away from food and water. When asking a neighborhood boy what happened to a certain dog, he said, “Oh they starved that dog to death.” One neighbor trapped our one year old cat, who went into her yard. It was later found dead in the street, with no apparent external injury and with its collar/I.D. removed. People ride around with dogs in the flat bed of their trucks unharnessed, at risk of falling out, or injured in the event of an accident.
People get dogs for protection here and hunting, keep them intact, due to some cultural taboos against stealing a male dog’s mana, etc….and, then, let them run around loose, off leash, inseminating other females. People here, often, don’t get routine vet care for their animals. Our tenant allowed his pit bull to suffer an open, excoriated neck rash that turned into a sub-cutaneous oozing wound, without treatment. Another of his dogs, suffered a deformity of the jaw, wouldn’t eat and was emaciated and he did nothing.
We have volunteered at the humane society and have heard awful stories of treatment. We no longer volunteer. It’s too sad. We just rescue, care and donate. And, as my daughter says, “People are funny here about dogs. If they bark a little, they hate you. Of course, their dogs can bark, but if you are a haole, your dogs must remain silent.” I won’t say more about this, except to say, I can’t wait to live in California, where dogs are welcome in restaurants and have beaches dedicated to them to play and run. You may not think dressing up dogs in outfits with bows in their hair is your cup of tea, like it is for me, but just be prepared for what you may see here, if you call yourself a dog person.
5. Finding real friends is hard.
Loneliness is rampant. Unless you are a local and have a large extended family, you may suffer loneliness. Because of all of the above, finding real friends can be hard, if you come from some place else. To be honest, if you are a white person from the mainland, you may find yourself making friends only with other transplants, or through work, church and other venues. If you are retired like us, it’s a little harder. Now, my daughter has made a few very close friends (who come from the mainland and other parts of the world.) I’ve made a handful of girlfriends, who come from the mainland too. My husband, who has a speech impediment and other overt signs of his disability (dystonia, rt. sided hemiparesis, etc..) made exactly one friend. Unfortunately, this one friend is the individual we allowed to live in our home as a renter and has destroyed it.
We know it will take time to repair the damage to our home, once we get it back. We know that when we leave in two years, we will make the transition back to the mainland with ease, because we are going back to a place we understand, where certain behaviors are beyond the pale. By the same token, we know that there are good people in every place in the world, including here. You may find your dream here. I hope you do….just don’t be naive, as we were. We believed this place was something it is not. I hope that what I have written, however un-PC, or taboo, will help open your mind to the fact that all the glitters is not gold. Buy, move, rent at your own risk here. Just know that the underbelly does exist and it’s not pretty. And, no amount of sunshine and rainbows will heal the trauma of this experience.
I can’t say for sure, but, if I had to say today, if we will ever come back, I would say no. Hawaii is beautiful, but there are many beautiful places in the world to see, to visit. But home….now, that should always be a safe place, a place of Aloha. Yes, I still believe in the Aloha Spirit, even if I did not find it in Hawaii.
I feel a little bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz….I always had the power to go home, I just needed to click my ruby slippers and say, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home……..” I know we will, one day, find our dream home. We will find our true Ohana and the true Aloha Spirit….it just may be in San Diego, or Sarasota Florida, or wherever we find ourselves, in our next stage of life. I just pray someday, I won’t be filled with sadness, when I think of these islands that I once loved so much. But, if that never happens, I will do my best to not think of them, like Scarlet O’hara, with her “Fiddle-dee-dee, tomorrow is another day!” I will put in its place such terrific new experiences that the memory of all this will drift out to sea, like a coconut shell on the waves of time.
From my Ohana to yours, wherever you are in the world….may God bless you and hold you in the palm of his hands.
Peace, love and aloha,
Mrs. Sassy Pants