Afterthoughts: Brain Gain

Making the most of Hawaii’s ever-growing ex-pat network.
Making the most of Hawaii’s ever-growing ex-pat network.
Illustration: Kelsey Ige

For decades now, people have been lamenting the ongoing tragedy of brain drain. Hawaii’s brightest young talents moving, one by one, to the cheaper, more promising cities of the Mainland. Auwē—what chance do we have of improving the Islands when our smartest and most ambitious keep leaving?

Where others see loss, I see opportunity. I recently flew out to Washington D.C., primarily for a magazine conference, but, because traveling 5,000 miles to stay for 72 hours would be a little ridiculous, I tacked on another week of personal vacation. Once my professional development was pau, I hit the road for a mini, three-city tour of the East Coast, including Baltimore, Philly, Boston. No hotels for me—I crashed with friends the whole way. 

See, for years, I’ve been saying goodbye to Honolulu friend after Honolulu friend, each of them abandoning me for a better job, a larger dating pool, a house they could actually afford to buy. The majority of them ended up on the West Coast (Portland, Ore., in particular, must at this point be mostly populated by Hawaii natives) but enough have ventured farther that I now know people in cities all over the Mainland. 

I was sad to see each of them go, but now I was ready to make the brain drain work for me.

Here’s the thing. Hawaii residents get used to playing host—it’s part of the deal when you’re living in one of the world’s top tourist destinations. If you’re anything like me, you’ve already got a greatest-hits, insider’s tour of O‘ahu in your head, ready to go for any friends or family who fly into town. Waiola Shave Ice, poke from Alicia’s Market, a beach trip to Lanikai or Waimanalo, a photo op at Pali Lookout, a night out in Chinatown. It’s fun to share the wealth, of course, but it also becomes old hat fast.

Hawaii ex-pats, though, especially in non-destination cities, are so happy to see someone, anyone, from the 808. When I texted my long-lost friends to let them know I’d be showing up at their front doors, I could feel the excitement vibrating through my phone. This isn’t to flatter myself; I’m a nice enough guy, but I got the feeling they would have applauded a visit from their old Zippy’s waitress just the same. Still, I’ll take it.

And it’s sweet to play tourist for a change, especially with such gung-ho tour guides. My friends gave me the same insiders’ glimpses into their new cities that I give to Honolulu visitors. We dropped in on backyard BBQs, we searched out the world’s best crab cakes at the back of Baltimore’s version of Maunakea Marketplace, we day-drank at dive bars where the hamburgers were piled with even more crab, we visited the controversial, and newly defaced, Sleepwalker statue at Wellesley College. After sightseeing through my friends’ eyes, I feel like I know these cities now (a delusion, of course, but an enjoyable one).

The best thing, though, about having old friends in new places is seeing how they’ve blossomed in the paths they’ve chosen. Even if we haven’t spoken for months or years, we quickly fall into our familiar conversational rhythms, but my friends are also more than they used to be, more accomplished, more assured. They’ve conquered new territory, accepted new possibilities, established new traditions, even as they’ve brought some of that old, where-you-wen’-grad, Island sensibility to their new homes. Visiting the homes they’ve created so far away from the Islands makes me feel like Hawaii itself has expanded, all the way to the East Coast.

As I kick back on their couches, it’s easy to start flirting with the idea of joining the ranks of my far-flung friends. This house sells for just $125,000?! Gas costs how much?! 

Then I arrive back in Honolulu and the humid, friendly air on the Honolulu International Airport breezeway wraps around me and reminds me that Hawaii is home, truly. Hey, someone’s got to hold the fort down so there’s someone to show all those ex-pats the cool new stuff in town when they fly in for their next visit.