Island Bound

For ambitious young professionals, the Mainland beckons with opportunities. But for some, the Islands' pull is stronger.
Brandon Lee

It happened again the last time I returned to California and visited my best friend from college, as it always does. Two beers in at a posh bar in Brentwood, and Brian was again trying to convince me to move back to So Cal, where we had roomed together and attended Claremont McKenna College in the mid-’90s. "You have all these big Mainland ideas, Bran," he told me, "but you’re stuck with a Hawai’i sensibility. You could do so well up here if you gave it a chance again." Yes, you’re right, I remember thinking.

Half a year later, I’m still in Hawai’i—as I knew I would be from the very next morning after Brian and I went out. Sure, moving to the Mainland again had sounded good when we talked, even had felt good with the liquid courage added in. But it wasn’t a hangover I woke up with the next day so much as my same ol’ hangups for the Islands—and Honolulu, in particular—where I was born and raised, and have been living again and working for the past nine years. It wasn’t that Brian was wrong, but that he was so right: I do dream big, yet I always at least start in a local context—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It was this kind of thinking that, after three years of trying to earn a full-time sports writing job at a local paper, led me to take a leap of faith on a freelance writing career here in 2002 instead of joining a Mainland newspaper. That led me to eventually start my own surfing magazine when sufficient freelance work proved hard to find at the time. Which led me to dedicate myself to the independent-writer hustle all over again, and with even more determination, when I left the magazine early last year. It’s not that I haven’t often imagined what being a Mainland staffer would have tasted like, or wondered what could’ve happened if I had launched the magazine in a bigger U.S. market. And, sure, some of my ideas haven’t worked out exactly like I wanted. But I am going to continue having them and trying to make them flourish. Here.

illustration: Michael Austin

Here, where I can surf when it’s pau hana time and not worry about contracting the alien-green tongue and deathly sore throat that I had after hitting the polluted Cali waves with Brian one time a decade ago. Where I can hike high up into the cloud-covered and rain-soaked mountains, along an ancient foot trail, and feel connected to Honolulu’s past while looking out over the beauty of the present city. Where, despite it being generally harder to forge a writing career than on the Mainland, I can write about the place and people I care about most.

I still believe that big things can and do happen here. Sometimes it is more difficult and can take longer—at others, much more so. I may not be exactly where I’d imagined I would be when I first began on this path as a writer, but, because I decided to give freelancing another go, I now enjoy the privilege of writing about other people and happenings in the local scene and culture in addition to those in sports. And I still very much enjoy covering sports, too, like the big-wave surfing on the North Shore that would not have been possible in Minnesota (one place I actually considered). Well, people do surf the Great Lakes, believe it or not, but it’s just not the same.

There are the successes of others that reinforce my own commitment, too. Like when I saw that big bruddah in the bleachers at the Little League World Series on TV last year, unabashedly crying after his son and the other ‘Ewa Beach youngsters dramatically won the whole shebang, and I shed tears, too. It gives me chicken skin—not goose bumps to this day just thinking about us guys winning that world championship.

My "Hawai’i sensibility," like for that dad and many other local people, will always reach well beyond dollars and cents. And, for now—and, hopefully, always—I will continue to do my reaching from home.