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How long does it take to become local?

Mahalo Rewards: South Park's episode entitled "Going Native" gets Hawaii residents asking this question.


It’s always fun when national entertainment media tells stories about Hawaii. This October, Comedy Central broadcast an episode of South Park entitled “Going Native.” In it, one of the young characters learns that, although his family now lives in Colorado, he was born in Hawaii. He travels to Kauai to learn more about his “people,” and finds a clan of recent arrivals and part-time residents who pride themselves on being “Native Hawaiian.”

Written by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker (himself a part-time resident of Hawaii), the episode was a surprisingly nuanced satire, referencing the influx of tourists in Poipu and the decrepit condition of Coco Palms (“the ancient ruins of our ancestors”). The faux-natives, who live in the “Sheraton Residences” and drink chi-chis, abhor tourists, at one point even repelling an approaching cruise ship, in a scene that recalls Kauai’s anti-Superferry protests. (“Stop ruining our island, haoles!” one golf-club-wielding haole yells.)

Illustration: Daniel Fishel

The episode went viral in Hawaii (See it at southparkstudios.com). “Mahalo Rewards,” the name of the kamaaina discount card that the “natives” use as validation, became an instant catchphrase. Everyone who’s lived here for any length of time could recognize the arrogance, the culture co-opting, the easy entitlement. We’ve all seen too many real-life examples not to.

For me, the episode brought to mind a newspaper clipping I’ve kept pinned to my office cubicle for a few years now. It’s a letter to the editor of the Honolulu Advertiser, which reads as follows:
I witnessed a local boy discard his rubbish in the Kaneohe Burger King parking lot. I asked him to dispose of his rubbish properly out of respect for the aina, and the first thing out of his mouth was, “What does a haole know about the aina?” I have been a resident for four years, and to experience this kind of racism was unacceptable. He shamed his elders and the rest of the good local people on this island. This was a testament that some people still demonstrate animosity toward “haoles.” What a shame. I don’t think this would please the alii and kupuna.

Why keep this odd little letter posted at my desk? For this local haole, who grew up but wasn’t born in Hawaii, I guess it’s a reminder of how not to act. I love this place, it’s all I know, but the aina isn’t mine to invoke, no matter how long I’ve lived here. The alii and kupuna don’t need me to speak for them.

It’s a feeling of slight outsiderness that I think is going to last my whole life. Even after taking two years of Hawaiian-language classes at UH Manoa, for example, I’m still not comfortable signing off emails with “aloha” or “mahalo.” It’s a ridiculous hesitation, I know—who would even glance twice at such a small pleasantry—but I think about these kinds of things a lot.

Because my local-or-not radar is as finely honed as anyone’s. It’s amazingly, reflexively easy to rail at more recent newcomers, thereby proclaiming myself as truly kamaaina. Stop ruining this island, haoles! I want to yell. The characters in the South Park episode are obvious targets—so recently arrived that their claim to native Hawaiian is laughable. But what exactly separates me from them, aside from a few additional years of Island residence? Hopefully, at the very least, a tiny bit of self-awareness, a kind of “no grumble, be humble” attitude.

It’s an ongoing process, figuring out the best line to toe, the precise degree to which I can claim to be local and still be credible. Listening to Auntie Genoa and Gabby albums? No problem. Talking pidgin? Kind of a stretch. Enjoying poi with my poke? That’s cool. Bragging about how sour I like my poi? Ooh, maybe a step too far.

It’s totally personal, this internal arithmetic I do—I might not be able to casually drop “kuleana” into conversation, but plenty of people can, and do, and that’s fine. That you’re thinking about it is more important than the specific conclusions you reach.

It’s impossible to be perfect at this kind of thing—there’s always going to be someone more local than you, potentially shaking their head, but, if you’re lucky, you can at least avoid having a South Park episode written about you.

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Honolulu Magazine September 2020
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