I was walking through Dick’s Sporting Goods in Salt Lake City, Utah when I saw it hanging on the back wall: a ski jacket with the same electric bird of paradise print my tutu had on her couch in the ‘70s. It called to me like poke with a side of poi.
My teen daughter was appalled. “You are NOT wearing that, Mom. Don’t even try it on.”
I put it on.
“See, it’s reversible,” I said. “Plain brown on one side and bright Hawaiian print on the other.”
“No. Just no, Mom.”
“I like the print side out.”
My husband shrugged. “At least we’ll be able to find Mom in a crowd.”
I bought it.
And I wore it. For about a week it clashed with everything and everyone, as out of place as an aloha shirt at—well, a ski slope. When you’re an ex-pat Hawaiian living in Utah, it can be hard to find the aloha sprit in January. It didn’t help that my daughter is a serious winter athlete. At her competitions, I was running around dressed in prints more suited for Waikiki than a winter Olympic park. It made her uncomfortable in that teenage yeah, that’s my mom, she’s not from around here kind of way.
I tried not to care. I ignored the stares and snickers and carried my childhood wrapped around me like a blanket. But one day I caved and reversed it.
“What’s up with your coat?” my son asked.
“It’s like me. I’m wearing my Hawaiian on my inside.”
He tilted his head. “Yeah, but unlike your coat, you’re not even brown on the outside.”
Through a genetic quirk my youngest sister and I inherited our mother’s super fair northern European coloring while my other sister and brother have our father’s mixed Hawaiian heritage of medium brown hair, eyes, and skin.
I’m not going to lie to you. As the only blond, blue-eyed kid in the entire school district in Kahului, Maui, it was rough. Unlike every other Hawaiian family I’ve known, my dad was an only child—and from Oahu. I didn’t have a huge ohana of cousins calabash or otherwise on Maui to vouch for me. It was easy to be the target from the teachers and principal on down.
No lie. People go to jail now for what they did to me in elementary school. But Maui was a different time and place back then. At least I like to think so.
There’s a disconnect that happens in your head when you’re beaten for being an outsider by kids who are descendants of sugarcane and pineapple workers from Asia when your ancestors farmed taro in those same fields for hundreds of years. But on the playground nobody cares about those kinds of distinctions. It’s all about freckles and the need for sunscreen.
For a year or two after school while waiting for my mom to get off work, I went to a house where the father carved traditional ki‘i—tiki statues—and the grandmother spoke beautiful Hawaiian with her friends under the shade of mango trees. They were patient with me—the gangly haole girl who watched with big eyes and listened to the melodious voices rolling like water over her head. Sometimes they would tell me stories about Hawaiian history, culture, legends, and traditions. I soaked them up like a sponge.
After my family moved back to Oahu, I was accepted into The Kamehameha Schools and that changed my life. I didn’t have to fight so hard to belong because everyone knew I wouldn’t be there if I didn’t. At Kamehameha I learned more about what it means to be a modern Hawaiian, and like my classmates, promised to perpetuate our culture in positive ways. Our princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop had given us the precious gift of an education; we therefore have an obligation to be her hands and pass aloha along.
I write The Niuhi Shark Saga and other stories for island kids who never see themselves or their families in popular literature. So much about Hawaii has been rewritten by Hollywood and that’s tragic. There is a need for authentic Pasifika voices to tell our stories, and I hope to add to the conversation in my small way.
When people read the words, they hear a Hawaiian voice. But when I show up at a book signing or appearance that disconnect happens again. “You’re Lehua? A Kamehameha grad? No way!” I don’t think anyone ever gets used to being called a liar within the first few minutes of meeting a stranger, but I smile and roll with it. I’ve thought about putting my dark-haired sister’s photo on the back of my books and sending her out into the world as Lehua, but I know that wouldn’t be pono. And for a Hawaiian, living a life that’s pono—a life in harmony with what is good, noble, and true in thought, action, and deed—is our deepest aspiration.
Like many of my classmates, I went to the mainland for college and stayed to raise a family—a family of towheads like me with looooong Hawaiian middle names. And I worry about that.
Every year I grind my teeth when the local grocery store hosts its Hawaiian days with samba music from Brazil, masks from Papua New Guinea, paper flowers from India, and calls anything with pineapple Hawaiian. In the summer neighbors are keen to throw luaus where they wear cellophane grass skirts, fake coconut bras, and serve Hawaiian haystacks—a truly vile concoction of shredded chicken, raw veggies, coconut chips, long-grained rice, and Campbell’s cream of chicken soup. About the time they bring out the limbo stick and form a conga line is when I sneak home. I know I should be more gracious, but it’s hard.
I insist my kids call flip-flops slippahs, snow cones shave ice, and understand that true aloha is colorblind. I wonder if I’m going to be the last generation in my family that remembers how Maui captured the sun, when the makahiki season starts, and why haloa is the staff of life. But then I hear about how my son called out his AP World Geography teacher about comments he found derogatory and inappropriate about Polynesians—and insisted on an apology. When the teacher balked and called him a poser, my son told his teacher to look at his middle name and offered to have his mother come in and explain real Hawaiian history to the class.
Maybe I won’t be the last after all.