It was a long bus ride from the Ohana Hotel to Kapiolani park by Waikiki beach, where we held the last class of the Hunter College winter break study abroad program. Instead of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, professor Hulstrand suggested outdoors. She asked each of us to share our thoughts about our overall experience.
I sat half-listening. The warm sun shining over the royal blue Pacific ocean, the soft breeze dancing with the swaying palm trees, the majestic Diamond Head mountain on the horizon, and the sweet scent of freshly-cut grass also spoke to me. Overwhelmed senses and emotions converted into overflowing tears, just as it was my turn to speak. They rendered me mute. The eleven-hour flight from Newark airport to Honolulu International airport was my second time on a plane and traveling for the first time without family to another state during my first year in college. It felt more like going on a rocket to another world.
The course, “Hawaii: Island Paradise, Where East and West Meet”, included excursions and literature by locals and foreigners that highlighted the rich traditional culture of the indigenous Hawaiian Kingdom, the tragedies and disease brought on by foreign missionaries, and the eventually forced annexation to the United States in 1898 that led to statehood in 1959. The life-sized statues of the past royals such as King Kamehameha, the first Hawaiian leader to unite all of the major Hawaiian Islands, and Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last sovereign monarch, that peppered the city brought these historical figures to life.
Hawaii’s history came to life in other ways. After about a week and a half, I became used to the touristic ambiance of the area, loco moco listed on menus, Hawaiian shirts on display, and pleasant Hawaiian music in the air. I saw many Elvis impersonators dining at the Denny’s where I often had breakfast as well as the ubiquitous surfers and beachgoers. However, one day the scene changed.
I saw a group of people demonstrating and holding up flags. The flags resembled the American flag but had the union jack replacing the stars and the stripes including blue ones along with red and white. I soon learned of the grassroots political and cultural campaign to establish an independent nation. They are called the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement and they view the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and annexation as illegal.
Dark clouds began to loom over the sunny island paradise. Figuratively and literally.
Even though it was the middle of the rainy season, I had scheduled an island tour with a few of my classmates. Most people canceled because of the sudden downpour but our tour guide Dave, a native Hawaiian, decided to take us anyway. Unfortunately, the heavy rain had prevented us from enjoying the panoramic coastal views promised on the tour so Dave offered a detour to the more inland residential neighborhoods where regular everyday Hawaiians lived. As we rode by modest-sized single-floor houses with small front lawns and short chain-linked fences, Dave explained how many native Hawaiians struggle to make ends meet similar to Native American communities in the continental United States.
The repercussions of forced colonization on many generations of native Hawaiians was plain to see. As a recent highschool graduate of twelve years of public education, I was astonished at how certain histories of my own country were not deemed relevant enough to be taught. I realized there were many gaps that needed to be filled and my sense of what it meant to be American began to change. Recalling how often I recited the pledge of allegiance and sang the Star-Spangled Banner in school, I wondered what it meant for indegenous people to pledge allegiance to a country that claims, “liberty and justice for all”.
The more I learned about Hawaiian history and culture through literature, museums, traditional music and dance as well as speaking with locals, the more connected I felt to the land of aloha. At the time, I felt less connected to the Dominican Republic, the birthplace of my parents, where I first visited the prior year.
Perhaps it was the fact that the land under my feet was American soil and its takeover was closer in time than that of the Hispaniola island in 1492 by Spain. The brutalities faced by the indigenous Taino people being overtaken by European settlers and the African slaves being imported over the Atlantic for their labor were far removed from my life in New York. It was also yet more essential history skimmed over at school.
Travel was the catalyst for the gradual removal of my rose-colored glasses of the so-called City on the Hill.
It is one thing to read of history in a textbook and another to experience it with the senses. The brief yet impactful journey was the impetus of my thirst for more knowledge and understanding of my own roots and in turn the path to self-discovery.
When our professor asked us to describe and put into words our experience over those adventurous three weeks, words were insufficient. Instead, my tears expressed my joy and my sadness as the past and present collided within me. I was an enlightened American in the land of love, peace, and compassion.
In other words, aloha.