A Truth About Hawaii Spoken in Jest?

Travel Blog  •  Sophia Dembling  •  03.13.09 | 10:56 AM ET

Photo by mcgilljp via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Yup, I have to admit, I’m among those who laughed at the harsh Saturday Night Live sketch that has Hawaiian officials in a huff, as discussed by fellow World Hum blogger Pam Mandel. The Gallup Well-Being Index recently ranked Hawaii as the second happiest state in the nation, after Utah, but my limited experience with the state (three visits) introduced me to more hostility than happiness. I’m actually a little afraid of Hawaiians. I understand that they have reason to be pissed off, what with their paradise being paved over with hotels and low wages and all. It’s a problem with tropical paradises everywhere. So I’m not passing judgment, really. I’m just saying.

For example, once, when I was visiting a guest ranch, the Hawaiian storyteller hired to entertain guests learned I was a travel writer and got all up in my face about how my type were destroying the islands for personal gain. It wasn’t a conversation, it was a tirade I couldn’t stop and it was so rough that other guests finally intervened and got him to back off.

Then there were the ukulele lessons on a Hawaiian cruise. Ooh, I still get tense thinking about that. I went to every lesson and practiced my little heart out in between. Then, right before we went on stage for the big passenger talent show, our teacher informed us we would be playing a song we had barely touched in class, and that he wasn’t allowing us to use our sheet music. This felt entirely like calculated hostility, meant to make us look like chumps. I don’t know what chords I played on stage but they weren’t the right ones and I hate that guy still. This was supposed to be fun.

Hawaii itself was a thousand times more lovely than I even imagined it would be but these experiences kind of tainted it for me. So Hawaiian officials might be offended, but maybe it’s a discussion that needs to be opened. And I do mean discussion—as in both sides keeping open minds and ears—because even as I laughed at the sketch, I wasn’t sure who it was harder on. The abuses heaped on the tourists had a painful ring of truth, too.

Sophia Dembling

Dallas-based writer Sophia Dembling is co-author of the Flyover America blog and author of "The Yankee Chick's Survival Guide to Texas." She would love to hear your tales of America, so drop her an email.

29 Comments for A Truth About Hawaii Spoken in Jest?

Eva Holland 03.13.09 | 7:22 PM ET

I’m fascinated by this whole post-skit dialogue. I’ve never been to Hawaii and hadn’t heard before about this hostility dynamic, and—sadly, I have to admit—it turns me off wanting to visit. The comments on Pam’s post are downright scary. Understanding the reasons behind the anger doesn’t mean I want to drop a couple grand on a flight (from eastern Canada, that’s not far off the cost) to get yelled at and feel guilty, you know?

If I want to be reminded that I’m the beneficiary of a colonial past that continues to shut others out, I’ll just take a quick walk across the bridge to Quebec. ;)

Chris 03.13.09 | 7:48 PM ET

Eva, I’ve only been to Hawai’i once and only to Oahu, but I loved it and never experienced any hostility at all.

The people of Quebec could at least have the decency to fly the Canadian flag!

Julie 03.13.09 | 9:17 PM ET

I live in Oahu, so a bit of a difference from visiting and living.

I do know that there is racism here and I won’t deny so. It is mostly to those of Caucasian ancestry due to the fact of the past when Queen Liliuokalani was illegally overthrown and Hawaii taken over. Though I don’t really think it’s right, I, as one little person cannot stop a hate that has been in the islands for 100+(?  A little less possibly). We can’t live with them & and we can’t live without them (Tourists).

I’m sorry that you got treated that way and I’m quite sorry that you think that way after three visits.
There are people & places that are like that, just like there are places where it is pretty peaceful and doesn’t care so much about tourists. Depends who you talk to, and where you go on the island.

Sophia Dembling 03.14.09 | 12:50 PM ET

You know, one of the things that was most hurtful about the ukelele man incident was that my husband is a musician and very interested in learning about Hawaiian music—particularly slack-key guitar. He really tried to talk to our teacher, musician to musician. We made a point of going to hear his band whenever they played on board. Yes, we were on a cruise, but we were participating in that line’s cultural programs. When I read the quotes in Pam’s blog post about “are you here to learn about the culture?” I thought—all that does is put you in contact with the angriest people. (Note that both people who expressed hostility to me were specifically hired to teach tourists about the culture.)

I wonder if tourists who don’t encounter hostility are those who interact the least with natives and just kick back in their resort. (BTW, I have been to Moloka’i, Maui and on the cruise, which visited several islands.)

Yes, Julie, I totally agree that three visits is not enough to make a decision about a place. I would be glad to return, that’s for sure. But I do think the issue needs airing. I appreciate your comments.

Frankie 03.14.09 | 2:26 PM ET

This isn’t unique to Hawaii.  I live in Montana.  We have our displaced Native Americans who had their land and culture taken from them.  We also have white people who have lived here for quite some time. Some of them feel their way of life is slipping away.  Montanans want out of state tourism dollars but are quite vocal about wanting them to leave.  They don’t think “easterners” or worse yet “californians,” who are part time residents, should have any say in the politics regarding public lands, monuments, etc., yet these are the very things tourist come for and are quite passionate about.  I have never been to Hawaii, but I am self employed.  You cannot open a business and then have your employees berate your customers.

Sophia Dembling 03.14.09 | 3:51 PM ET

Yup, Frankie, you’re right. I think there is some level of digruntlement everywhere that attracts tourists.

BTW, one more anecdote…during the cruise, Tom and I stopped by a vendor selling CDs of Hawaiian music and Tom asked the vendor to recommend a CD of traditional slack-key guitar music. The guy pulled out a CD without comment and handed it to Tom, who bought it. When we played it at home, it turned out to be total pop schlock, nothing traditional about it. Accident? Misunderstanding? Or disrespect?

Chris 03.14.09 | 6:09 PM ET

Frankie, I used to travel to northern Utah a lot for work. I’ll never forget driving through the small town of Huntsville, UT and seeing signs in people’s lawns blaming Californians for moving in and driving up their taxes.

Frankie 03.14.09 | 6:44 PM ET

What never ceases to amaze me is the egos of people.  Why would anyone think that a paticular place on the globe belongs to any one people or culture.  There is almost always someone who came before you and someone who will come after.  Everyone should be welcome anywhere.  If their presence eventually changes what was, so be it.

Jan 03.14.09 | 7:46 PM ET

I agree wholeheartedly.  We went to Hawaii in 2006.  The islands were absolutely beautiful, as was the weather.  But I had the unfortunate luck to take a tour with a very well-known and popular tour group whose driver we still refer to as, “The Angry Hawaiian.”  This guy went on and on about how awful the United States was and how they had stolen the islands from his people (and he was not a “purebred” himself).  His non-stop lecturing and derogatory statements really left a bitter taste in my mouth and I won’t go back.  There are a lot of great places to go on the mainland with a lot shorter flight.  He really needs to think about what a sitting duck they would be without us there!

Ling 03.15.09 | 10:10 AM ET

Hawaii’s not the only place on earth where tourists get roughed up a bit. It’s a reflex kind of thing - you know, people with loads of money waltz into your town, stay at luxury hotels and don’t know squat about local customs. A bit of anger and disdain is bound to show up. As a tourist, you gotta get past that, and get really curious. Once you start understanding the way fo life and how to behave and stuff like that, I bet Hawaii will seem even more happy than Utah. And 3 visits are defintely not enough to justify branding Hawaii as hostile.

pam 03.15.09 | 7:17 PM ET

I don’t think there’s anything I can add to this that I didn’t say already on my post beyond “Thanks for extending the conversation.” Though I do know this—I do listen to Hawaiian music—we have the Hawaii Radio Connection broadcasting in Seattle and often I find the music a little, uh, let’s say “easy listening” for my taste. I don’t know what you got, without knowing the name of the artist or album, it’s hard to judge, but it may not have been the passive aggressive act you suspect. It could just be another cultural divide.

Kealohi 03.16.09 | 3:55 PM ET

I didn’t watch the skit but based on what I heard I can’t deny the truth behind the parody.  I am part-Hawaiian and I’ve lived in Hawaii (on four of the major islands) for most of my life and have years of experience and stories working in the tourism industry. There are some tourists who treat Hawaii like their own personal playground, forgetting there are many who call this place home.  Who doesn’t get defensive when they feel there home is being threatened and or disrespected? On the other side of the matter there are some individuals who, while very passionate in their beliefs express themselves in a manner that is negative and inconsistent with the core beliefs of Hawaiian culture.  While everyone has bad days and lapses in judgement, it comes down to individual responsibility and choices.  It is a matter of respect-for ANY place you choose to visit and the culture that is prevalent in that area.  I apologize to those who have had an unpleasant experience here in Hawaii.  Please do not stereotype a wonderful race and culture because of a few individuals who forgot the meaning of true Aloha spirit.

Sophia Dembling 03.16.09 | 4:00 PM ET

Kealohi, what are the sorts of things that visitors to Hawaii do that are must disrespectful and aggravating to locals?

Alli 03.16.09 | 5:11 PM ET

I haven’t seen the SNL skit, so I can’t speak to that.  But I have been to Hawaii a handful of times (just got back from a week on O’ahu and Big Island, actually!) and have some close friends that are Hawaiian.  It’s really unfortunate that you ran into some bag eggs there, but I think that’s the case anywhere you go.  I know that us DC folk can get a little snippy when it’s rush hour on the Metro and large groups of confused tourists are clogging up the escalators and turnstiles. 

I can speak from experience that I’ve met one or two not so nice Hawaiians, but have encountered ten times as many that were friendly, helpful and thrilled to share their culture and their islands with us, both while we were on organized tours (though admittedly, we haven’t done many of those) and just off the beaten path, exploring on our own.  We’ve spent time with local families at a few places, like waterfalls and heiau (ancient temples), and those encounters remain some of the best memories from our visits there.  The kids were showing us hidden spots and pointing out birds and animals, while the parents were talking to us about what it was like to live in DC.  One gentleman even gave us a personal tour of his coffee farm, welcomed us into his home, introduced us to his family and shared a lot with us about the race relations and the positives and negatives of the tourism industry in Hawaii. 

I’m sorry that you had some bad experiences and truly hope that doesn’t dissuade you from returning, as there are many wonderful things about Hawaii and many people who are happy to have you there.  As long as you treat everyone you meet with respect and aloha, then you can at least hold your head high knowing that they can’t lump you in with some of the more boorish among the travelers there.

Kealohi 03.17.09 | 4:07 PM ET

Here are some things that aggravate locals…
1. Respect the environment. People who live in Hawaii have a strong connection to their natural environment. Whether you’re hiking or at the beach, take ALL your trash with you and dispose of it in a proper receptacle.
2. Respect the ocean. Don’t touch coral or any ocean life because they are fragile and susceptible to diseases, some caused by human contact.
3. Pull Over!! This is a big one. We want you to embrace the moment..you’re on vacation after all. We appreciate the gorgeous scenery and waterfalls as much as you do, but if you’ve ever drove the road to Hana you know that its a long drive. Many people drive this road daily to and from work and at the end of the day they just want to get home. If you’re stopping around every turn or slowing down for every waterfall to take a picture, you will aggravate the locals. My advice is to pull over and let them get ahead of you. If you’re lost, drivers please don’t attempt to read the map and continue to drive. Pull over! And when the whales return each year people tend to get excited and suddenly stop to catch a glimpse of this spectacular sight! Pull over!
4. Liquor laws.  When I was a server at a hotel parents would try to give underage children alcohol, or others conveniently left their i.d. in their hotel rooms. Some people think rules don’t apply because their “on vacation.”  If you don’t have proper i.d. we can’t serve you alcohol!  We’re not trying to ruin your family fun, spring break or honeymoon, we just want to keep our jobs;)
5. Weather complaints. Sorry we have not figured out how to control the weather yet! We live on islands isolated in the middle of the pacific ocean.  We see rain as a blessing and a vital resource.  Our rainiest months are from the end of November thru March but rainstorms also happen sporadically throughout the year.
6. Vacation homes. Hawaii like many other tourism areas throughout the world struggle with the possibility of too much development.  Multi-million dollar vacation homes drive up the prices for real estate leaving locals unable to afford a place of their own. Buy a condo or a timeshare instead. Many are existing structures and and it helps to preserve the little natural open spaces we have left.
Hope this was helpful! :)

Sophia Dembling 03.17.09 | 4:12 PM ET

Fantastic, Kealohi! Thank you so much. I hate to think that there are people who don’t already think of many of these things, but I know you’re right. Do people really gripe about the weather?!?

Your last suggestions is particularly interesting. I also cringe to see development eating up our natural resources but I never really thought specifically about what it does for locals, or thought of time shares/condos as an alternative. I know that “vacation clubs” for the highest end travelers (sort of like time shares, but different) are a growing business. I realize now that this could be a very good thing.

I am very grateful that you took the time to respond!

Connie 03.18.09 | 12:26 AM ET

I’ve lived and traveled all over the world including living 7 years in Hawaii. Hawaii is without doubt the most racist place I’ve ever been to. Until relatively recently the the last day of school in Hawaii was called Kill Haole Day. Haole is slang for whites in Hawaii. On Kill Haole Day, school children of Hawaiian ancestry harassed, and sometimes assaulted white children. I’m not making this up, google “Kill Haole Day”. This is the mentality of these bigots. The SNL skit was mild compared to the truth about Hawaiian racism. It’s not isolated, it’s ingrained in their culture. The irony, of course, is that without the “Haoles” and their tourist dollars, most Hawaiians would be living in poverty.

Kealohi 03.18.09 | 10:12 PM ET

I’m sorry Connie I don’t know where you get your information from. I grew up here from birth and have NEVER ONCE heard of a Kill Haole Day. That’s just ABSURD! Many of us Hawaiians are of multiple nationalities because our race has embraced the many other races that have come to Hawaii and also call this place home. Maybe you encountered a bad bunch of racists, which unfortunately can be found anywhere you go.  And for many who live here tourism dollars are a way of life, but tourism isn’t the only thing that sustains Hawaii. You may say poverty because some may not have wealth in terms of money, but many Hawaiians are rich in terms of family, culture and community and we are happy with the simplicity of life.

Kealohi 03.18.09 | 10:39 PM ET

Hey Connie I did google Kill Haole Day and I was surprised that it came up. Some of these articles are spoofs and others I question the validity.  Maybe it was a joke in schools before my time (I’m nearing 30), but I went to both public and private schools on different islands and have NEVER once heard of this.  I’m a part-Hawaiian (I’m also French, Irish, German, Spanish, Chinese and Filipino) and I would never approve or even joke about this.  Racism is not something that I grew up with nor is it ingrained in our culture.

Connie 03.19.09 | 12:36 AM ET

Kealohi, no disrespect intended but Kill Haole Day was no joke. I’m in my 60’s and I’m sure the situation has improved since I left in Hawaii in 1982 but you’re kidding yourself if you fail to acknowledge that there is widespread racism in Hawaii.  I know first hand that my 2 kids experienced the consequences of Hawaiian racism in school. Perhaps I should have told my 10 year old daughter after she arrived home on the school bus bruised and crying that Kill Haole Day is a joke. The school officials that I talked to shared your view that it was no big deal. That’s the reason my family left Hawaii. The fact that you’ve never heard of Kill Haole Day is proof that racism in Hawaii is swept under the rug. That’s like a Southerner being ignorant of Jim Crow laws or an Afrikaner knowing nothing about apartheid. Nothing personal Kealohi, I’m sure you and your family as well as many Hawaiians are not racists, but please, do a little research before making uninformed comments.

Julie 03.20.09 | 4:12 AM ET

I’m surprised i didn’t visit this for some time.

Anyway, I say this as one who is not yet in high school but almost. Though I don’t think that’s much of a difference. Anyway, Kill Haole Day is not swept under the rug in all schools/islands/places. Last year, when I was in 7th grade we learned about Kill Haole Day. I forgot bits and parts that we learned last year but in most schools, they try to not allow this to happen. I guess that it does tend to matter what school it is though. Most of our school fights in my school are not over race though, more like things in school or perhaps out like drugs. I’m not really sure.. I’m sorry about your daughter. That reminds me of when my brother’s science fair project was thrown away when he was in K. because it was about how the body works when you fart.. We got sent to a new school but went back to the school that my mom pulled us out of before I was done with elementary.

Sophia Dembling 03.20.09 | 11:52 AM ET

Thanks for telling us what it’s like now, Julie, and your story about your brother makes me mad! Scientists study what is interesting to them and if farting interested your brother, good for him for being curious! I hope it didn’t discourage him from following his interests. Maybe he’ll figure out something important about the human body some day.

Julie 03.20.09 | 11:16 PM ET

It made my mother mad, that’s for sure and the principle of the school we went to next told my mom that he thought my brother had Asperger when he was in 2nd Grade(He doesn’t, it’s usually if he doesn’t get his way or if he’s bored he doesn’t behave). Which also made my mother mad and she pulled my brother out and told me I could go to another school if I wanted to. My brother liked the first school we were in when we were in Oregon, so in the end, we went back to the school that took down my brother’s science fair poster. xP

My brother is more into math though, and putting things together.

Sophia Dembling 03.20.09 | 11:21 PM ET

You sound like smart kids. Sometimes you can be too smart for your classes, I think. I’m glad your mom let him know that there was nothing wrong with what he did!

Julie 03.21.09 | 4:31 PM ET


I think I’m more smarter in common sense than I am in school.
But my brother is a smart kid.

Sophia Dembling 03.21.09 | 6:57 PM ET

If you’re reading this Web site and thinking about these things we’re talking about here, then you’re obviously a smart, curious person! And I really appreciate that you took the time to tell us what it’s like for a person in school right now,. It’s hard to say whether fights about drugs are better or worse than fights about race! I think it’s very interesting that they talk about Kill Haole Day in schools. Do they talk about it so kids won’t do it any more? Or is it taught like history?

Tom 03.27.09 | 7:32 AM ET

For example, once, when I was visiting a guest ranch, the Hawaiian storyteller hired to entertain guests learned I was a travel writer and got all up in my face about how my type were destroying the islands for personal gain. It wasn’t a conversation, it was a tirade I couldn’t stop and it was so rough that other guests finally intervened and got him to back off. Wow, it must have been pretty bad situation. Tom

Julie 03.28.09 | 4:17 AM ET

Curious, perhaps. Smart? When I want to be of course! xD

They are both bad but both can’t be completely and fully stopped. And a place like mine.. we may not be poor neighborhood but still.. No worries for me, Drugs aren’t really an interest I have. Um.. for the Kill Haole Day, I think it’s both? Both so that it won’t happen and that there are such things that have happened in the past. I’m not completely sure though.

IndyMo 04.11.09 | 12:47 PM ET

I have a relative in So. Cal who’s parents died and left him a Condo on one of the main islands, and he told me that he & his wife tried living there for a couple of years, but then returned for most of the year to CA, because they felt so terribly “isolated & desolate” living there, and this was in large part due to the fact that the other islanders simply chose not to have anything to do with him socially. He said they weren’t mean or anything like that, they simply totally ignored them. That would do it for me too! And that’s why I put up with Northern winters-the people in the mid-west at least make one feel as tho one is living amongst fellow AMERICANS, and they still retain a few manners and civilities not found on either coast or off-shore (in my humble opinion!) IndyMo

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