On Island

Our plane has just landed in Kauai when the message arrives. The owner of our holiday rental won’t be there to greet us. She’s off island but not to worry. She has plenty of local contacts in case of an emergency and we can always reach her if we keep in mind the time difference. Apparently, being off island means you’re on the mainland USA.

Then I read a short story about Albert, a male nurse who lives on Kauai. He’s also a gay man who cannot come out to his family. So he travels to Honolulu for sexual release.

I’m inconspicuous enough there, you know? The coconut wireless doesn’t stretch from O’ahu to Big Island.

Kristiana Kahakauwila, “The Old Paniola Way” in This Is Paradise

So, off island means someplace other than home. What then does it mean to be on island?


Big Island coast
End of the World, Big Island. Photo credit: Karen Kao

I pose this question to my friends on the Big Island. Originally from Los Angeles and East Texas, this is their 3rd time living in Hawaii and it looks like they’re here to stay. They’re proud of their new home In Kailua-Kona and want to show me the sights. Instead, I ask for insight into life on Hawaii.

So they take me to a baby luau, a grand celebration to celebrate the 1st birthday of a little girl. The proud Papa is Honduran, the Mama comes from Mexico. The feast they serve is a combination of both traditions while the band has just flown in from LA. It’s like I never left the Southland and yet this, too, is Hawaii.

There is a long tradition of seasonal workers coming to Hawaii to work at the sugar cane, pineapple, and coffee bean plantations. The first seasonal workers were Japanese, Chinese and Portuguese. The men at this luau are their successors. These are cowboys who work the cattle and horse ranches on the Big Island. They wear ten gallon hats and heavily worked belts. Tenderly, they hold the little birthday girl in their arms.

The Melting Pot

Duck surfboard on Kauai Island
Surf’s up. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The last time I was on the Big Island was 10 years ago. We stayed at a guesthouse in Hilo whose owners had also left the mainland. She was Mexican and he was Italian. They were both from the Bay Area and tired of the grief they were getting as an interracial couple.

My friend in Kailua-Kona echoes that thought. She’s 4th generation Japanese-American, born and raised in the Los Angeles area. Until she moved to Hawaii, she never realized how uncomfortable she felt as an Asian in LA.

In Hawaii, everyone is a poi dog.

a mutt, the kind of dog that finds you and not the kind you breed special.

Kristiana Kahakauwila, “Wanle”

One of the creation myths of the United States is that we as a nation are a melting pot. Statistically, that might be an accurate statement but emotionally, it is a truth hard for many to swallow. The islands of Hawaii may be the only part of the US that embraces its diversity.

Island Economy

This is not to say that Hawaii is paradise. There is poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse here. Economic opportunity lies in tourism and the service sector that supports it. Your ability to stock your refrigerator or find skilled labor depends on what or who comes in on the boat. It makes little difference whether you’re on the Big Island, Kauai, or Oahu.

Rooster on Kauai Island
Kauai rooster. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The winter storms can be particularly hard hitting on an island like Kauai. Roads and bridges wash out and it may take years before they’re repaired. During the last big storm in 1992, cages for fighting cocks were knocked down. The cocks ended up mating with the wild red fowl and now there’s a plague of brilliantly feathered roosters all over the island.

The lack of resources seems to bother only the mainlanders like me. Everyone else is fine with making do with less. This is a form of minimalism that Marie Kondo would like. But the island way of life is not inspired by lifestyle blogs or even choice.

Minimalism, I came to think, is not necessarily a voluntary personal choice, but an inevitable societal and cultural shift responding to the experience of living through the 2000s. Up through the 20th century, material accumulation and stability made sense as forms of security. If you owned your home and your land, no one could take it away from you.

Kyle Chayka, “The empty promises of Marie Kondo and the craze for minimalism” in The Guardian, 3 Jan 2020

Minimalism in the Marie Kondo sense requires a certain level of financial security before jettisoning those things that no longer spark joy. Chayka cites a photograph of Steve Jobs seated on the floor of his otherwise unfurnished home. Jobs claimed then:

All you needed was a cup of tea, a light and your stereo, you know, and that’s what I had.

Of course, the house was in Los Gatos, California, the lamp a Tiffany antique, and the stereo a model that cost $82,000 at the time.

I’ve been feeling quite proud of my ability to travel the world with hand luggage only. And yet, when I look at the array of devices I carry — iPhone, iPad, Kindle, camera, and Bluetooth earphones — I’m anything but minimal. If this trip is about making do with less, then perhaps the solution is to get back on island.