When I was a kid, my family lived the tourist town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. While the adults liked the interlopers because they knew their income relied on them, we kids hated them. They were always stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to gape at some stupid old building, or wandering into our play areas while hunting for arrowheads or inspecting Civil War battlegrounds. If they made the mistake of driving down our riverfront dead-end road, we would scream “Tourists! GET ‘EM!!”, and run down to moon them and throw rocks. Usually they would panic and drive off. Once, someone actually got out of his car and asked to take our photo. We all flipped off the camera while he laughed and encouraged us. I wonder now where that snapshot of 1980s hillbilly river-rat child life lives. Above someone’s mantle? More likely in a drawer or mouldering box with images of other, forgotten, strangers.
*note: this is the only photo of my own used in this post. I just didn’t have time, so I stole from the internet- which is why we have the internet
Working in Waikiki exposes me to hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists a week. From my spot in the harbor, I can see their blindingly sunburnt bodies teetering on stand-up paddleboards or wandering, ghostly pale under parasols, through the high-end shopping areas. They stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk to stare up at the fighter jets screaming across the sky, or a massive cruise ship- twice the height of the nearby buildings- pulling into the harbor. They gawp at the surfers and are perplexed by the scores of homeless camps that pepper the public parks and sidewalks in town. I watch them try to get their perfect Instagram vacation photo, angling their view so as to avoid getting the elderly woman digging through the rubbish bin for food in the shot.
They party at night in the hip bars in Chinatown, but never spend money in the Filipino groceries that occupy the same street during the day (unless it’s to buy something they will immediately dare each other to eat, laugh about, then throw away). You almost never see them on the leeward side of the island- where we live- unless they’ve accidentally wandered off the Disney Resort grounds. You can spot them, wearing shirts that say “Aloha Y’all” (on sale at Target for $9.99) gazing around at all the saimin, lumpia, malasadas, ramen and BBQ restaurants and food trucks, confused and asking where they can find a “real” Hawaiian restaurant. These are the people who are happy to pay $200 a plate at a luau so they can get the “authentic” Hawaiian experience*.
*full disclosure- I totally want to go to a luau. No luau shaming here.
But the thing is – drumroll please for my big, five months of living here wisdom bomb – they are missing the “authentic” Hawaiian experience entirely by focusing only on what the posters and carefully staged Instagram photos show. Because the advertisements only show part of the story. Yes, there are vistas so beautiful it makes your guts twist. There is snorkeling and scuba diving, sunset cruises, a host of expensive “experiences”. There are fitness models dragging surfboards across the sand, hula dancers at the shopping center, and stores where you can buy $1500 one-of-a-kind Gucci handbags.
But what you don’t see in the ads is the nearly 5,000 homeless people living on the island, 800 of which are children, and not counting the 90 of which who died literally on the streets last year. If you’re a stats person- that’s 1.5% of the population – that’s third highest in the nation, after DC and NYC. You don’t see the fact that only 8.15% of the population is Native Hawaiian, nor do you see that many are battling to save their traditional lands from greedy developers who want to skim the top off a sacred mountain site to build (another) telescope. You don’t see the posters I see in the free health clinics that say that half of adult Hawaiians have diabetes, or that the have the highest teen vaping numbers in the country- and that over a quarter of middle schoolers that vape. You don’t see the park across the street from my kids’ school, where people are openly doing meth, that serves as a gathering place for rival gangs to have knife fights. And they certainly don’t show the commute that takes an hour and a half in five lanes, bumper-to-bumper, to get the mere 8 miles to work.
And all that sounds bad. And it is. But also, you don’t see the rich diversity of this place. You don’t see that people of Japanese and Filipino descent make up over 50% of the population, contributing to the glorious hybridity of East and West here. You don’t see the widespread embracing of all body types- beach bodies be damned- and inclusion of people with disabilities in every aspect of life. You don’t see how patient and aloha the drivers in that awful traffic are, allowing one another merge and throwing shakas. You don’t see strangers helping elderly Aunties do their grocery shopping. You don’t see the fantastic array of fruits and vegetables at Don Quijote or Pacific Market (two of the big Asian groceries). You don’t see the Tongan-Samoan-Hawaiian unity events. You don’t see the volunteers who do outreach with the homeless, feeding, clothing and offering homework help for those living in the tent cities. You don’t hear the melange of languages on the school campuses, and you don’t see the students freely offering up their weekends to do beach clean ups or feed families at the Ronald McDonald house. And you don’t see that the Mauna Kea protesters have secured a halt (at least for now) to the destruction of their mountain.
Some people hate the tourists for their blindness to all of these truly authentic experiences of Hawaii. But not me.
I welcome them, with their entire family in matching aloha print garb. With their sunburns and random holding up the sidewalks to take a picture of another rainbow (because, like butterflies, it’s always exciting to see one, even if it’s the fourth of the day). With their desire to support Native Hawaiians, even if it is is a slightly misguided, voyeuristic way. With their funny reactions to Loco Moco (“is it just… gravy, burger meat, and a boiled egg on rice? Is this really a traditional food?” ((answer: sort of yes, sort of no)) ) I welcome them with their ignorance to the ugliness and beauty and deep, deep contradictions of this place- and I invite them to wade into it like they do the ocean waters outside their fancy hotels at Waikiki. It may be a bit of a shock at first, but you’ll quickly get used to it.
And then, maybe, it will be harder getting out.