Mango Trees on Kea‘ahala Road

Dennis Kawaharada / from Local Geography

… it hard to love de fruit
If I never did climb de tree.

—Everton Sylvester, “dilly dally”

Four large mango trees grew around our small two-bedroom house, one tree for each house lot along a graveled lane off Kea‘ahala Road. Originally from South Asia, brought to Hawai‘i during the nineteenth century, the mango flourished and became so popular it seemed everyone’s house had a tree. Varieties came from Mexico, the Philippines, Jamaica, and India.

I doubt if our landlord counted the trees as amenities of his property, but for the neighborhood kids, they were the main attraction. After school, on weekends, during summer, we climbed the trees and sat in the branches, enjoying the cool breezes, talking story, gazing out over the rooftops and fields, to see what was beyond.

We knew each tree intimately – where to place hands and feet on the trunks and branches as we climbed into the sun-lit domes of leaves. My favorite tree was the one growing above the corrugated iron roof of the outdoor laundry room, where sleek gray lizards laid small pearl-sized eggs, and black and yellow garden spiders hung webs in the rafters. (We tossed grasshoppers into the webs to watch the spiders rush to bite our offerings, wrapping them into gauzy bundles for later consumption.)

The branches of this tree were the best for climbing and sitting. We built a tree house out of scrap lumber – a fort for our war games, a private space away from home. My older brother, who later became a structural engineer, was the designer and construction chief.

The mango trees changed with the seasons. As the rainy months faded into memory and the days turned brighter, the sky bluer, reddish young leaves and sprays of small flowers sprouted from the weathered, age-cracked bark, and bees buzzed through the green space. As summer progressed, small bulbs at the end of long stems swelled into heavy fruit.

Our parents let us climb the trees without supervision, trusting we wouldn’t fall and injure ourselves. And we never did. Climbing trees seemed as natural as walking. We balanced as we moved out on branches to pick fruits that dangled like prizes at our fingertips. Summer was a time of feasting. We ate this most delicious of tropical fruits half-ripe, the flesh crisp and tart, with only a hint of the softer, sweeter, juicier ripeness to come. We peeled them with our teeth, dipped them into a sauce of shoyu and sugar, with a dash of salt and pepper, and devoured them down to their hairy seeds.

We foraged for other wild fruits. We ate the guava, from tropical America, brought to Hawai‘i in 1791. The seedy fruits were tasty, but eating too many could give you stuck-shit.

We ate the small blue-black Java plums, from Southeast Asia, which we made into a mash seasoned with salt in a mayonnaise jar.

We ate the wi (Tahitian apple or ambarella), originally from Melanesia and Western Polynesia. Two gray-barked trees grew in our front yard. The fruit had a spiky seed that reminded me of an underwater mine used to blow up ships and submarines in World War II.

We ate the yellow-green starfruit (carambola) that we discovered in a ravine in a cow pasture toward Ha‘iku Road. Indigenous to South and Southeast Asia and Indonesia, the starfruit came to Hawai‘i in the nineteenth century. It produces fruit twice a year, in May-June and October-December. (The fruit was also introduced to the West Indies, along with the breadfruit tree, to feed slaves.)

We ate the small red-yellow strawberry guavas, called “waiwi.” The slender tree, introduced from Brazil, has spread wildly up the mountains to 4,000 feet, crowding out native vegetation. The trees were so thick on a hillside we could descend from tree to tree rather than walk on the ground. As we climbed up a slender branch, it would bend down toward the next tree. We climbed onto the lower tree and let go of the first branch, which sprang back up behind us.

Of the native fruits, we ate the popolo, a tiny black relative of the tomato, which we found on bushes during our rambles through the fields. Some forms of this nightshade are poisonous, but in Hawai‘i the plant is medicinal. Much later I learned the popolo plant is a body of Kane, the Hawaiian god of life, and is considered the foundation of Hawaiian pharmacology. The raw juice from its leaves and berries is used alone or in compounds for respiratory disorders and skin problems, as well as a healing agent for cuts. A tea made from the tender young leaves at the tips of branches is a tonic for the digestive tract.

We ate the coconut, that intrepid oceanic traveler from tropical Asia. This tree is a body of the god Ku. Upright, with no branches to hold onto, it was hard to climb. We nailed hand and foot grips on a twelve-foot-tall tree to get to the green nuts, which we preferred when the meat inside was still soft, forming in the milk. To get at the meat, we pounded the stem-end on the asphalt pavement to fray the thick husk, then pulled off the husk in sections. After poking a hole in one of the eyes with a file or an ice pick, we drank the milk, then cracked the nut open with a hammer to scoop out the gelatinous meat. (Years later I learned from a Tongan friend how to husk and crack a coconut in the traditional Polynesian way, using a sharpened hardwood stick and a stone.)

Our favorite native fruit was the ‘ohi‘a ‘ai, or mountain apple, another plant in the pharmacopoeia of old Hawai‘i. The juice from its bark and leaves is used in remedies for sore throat, bronchitis, and consumption. Endemic to Indo-Malaysia, ‘ohi‘a ‘ai was carried as a seed east across the Pacific on voyaging canoes. Its lustrous red skin gives it the appearance of the Western apple, but its flesh is soft and spongy, full of sweet juice. We didn’t have a tree near our house, so it was a treat when a family that had one gave us a bagful during the mid- to late-summer season.

One day the Hamocons, who lived across Kea‘ahala Road, took me with them up the Windward Coast to Kaliuwa‘a, home of the pig-god Kamapua‘a, to pick mountain apples on the way up for a swim at the pool below the waterfall. We used a picker to get the fruit because the branches are weak, making the tall trees dangerous to climb.

On weekend mornings I woke up excited by the prospects of climbing trees or playing with the neighborhood gang, whose members were of Japanese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, and other European ancestries, pure-blooded and mixed. We played together by the seasons of sports and games – baseball, football, basketball; tops, yo-yos, kites, and eggets (as we called marbles). We played war or roamed the fields, pastures, and hills, foraging for fruits and finding secret places; we explored Kea‘ahala Stream, used red scoop nets to catch rainbow guppies and swordtails for our mayonnaise jar aquariums, and floated boats made from scrap wood down the quick current.

Play was sometimes delayed on Sunday when my mother decided that my brother, sister, and I should go to the Methodist Church in Kailua as punishment for fighting with each other or disobeying rules. In Sunday School we were supposed to learn how to get along with others and how to obey our parents. We sat on folding iron chairs in hollow-tile classrooms and read Bible stories about Creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Satan’s deception and the couple’s disobedience – eating the forbidden apple. God’s punishment seemed overly severe: banishment from Paradise, doomed progeny, a fallen world of tormented sinners and wicked infidels.

The concept of Original Sin was strange. How could we inherit the sin of Adam and Eve, who weren’t even related to us? From pictures of them, I could see that they were haole, not of the ancestors of us Jepanis (locals of Japanese ancestry, from the Hawaiian word “Kepani”). How could we be guilty of a sin committed by a couple unrelated to us at the beginning of time? And why was the apple forbidden? My mother often brought home apples for us to eat from Dote’s Market on the corner of Kea‘ahala Road and Kamehameha Highway. And what was wrong with picking and eating fruit, which we also did regularly?

Christianity offered redemption through Christ. My understanding of redemption came from my mother’s cutting off the box tops of Rinso Blue laundry detergent and taking them to a Redemption Center to trade for bath towels. So redemption meant turning something worthless into something of value. But unsullied by Original Sin, I didn’t feel a need to be washed.

God seemed to be a possibility, so I tried praying at night before falling asleep. I never got a response or results, so I gave up. Unconnected to personal experience, family, or neighborhood, the Christian God and the Bible didn’t interest me.

When we got home from church, I took off my good clothes (hot, itchy gabardine pants, starched white shirt, and socks and shoes), put on my blue jeans with rolled-up cuffs and a T-shirt, and went out barefooted to climb trees. Years later my mother told me she never believed in God, but took us to church to expose us to Christianity (just as she exposed us to art and piano lessons). As adults, if we chose to, we could then select Christianity from the menu of religions, which also included Buddhism. By the time we got to high school, she felt she had exposed us to enough religion (and it wasn’t making us more obedient), so she stopped taking us to church. I ended up not adopting any formal religion or god.


My father never came to church with us. Dressed in his khaki shorts (old pants, the legs cut off, unhemmed and frayed), an old white T-shirt with holes in it, and slippers, he spent his weekends fishing or building boats in our yard. The first two boats he built, a fourteen-footer and a twenty-two-footer, were equipped with outboard motors he stored in our garage on wooden racks.

Later, after he and my mother bought a three-bedroom house in a subdivision a mile away from Kea‘ahala Road, he built a thirty-foot boat with an inboard diesel engine. It slowly took shape over three years, from plans he had ordered in the mail. An unfiltered cigarette hanging from his lips, wisps of smoke rising like dragon’s breath, he cut lumber; assembled the pieces with nails, screws, and glue; fiber-glassed the wood; and installed the huge engine. He guzzled a case of Primo beer a day on weekends and was still steady enough in the afternoon to hammer nails without bending them, and cut straight with a power saw along a penciled line while sawdust flew up, sticking to the sheen of sweat on his sun-darkened arms and face. His two fishing partners, the Hiroshige brothers, and my brother and I, helped him with the work. The job we hated most was sanding fiberglass: the little fibers of glass stuck in our skin and made us itchy.

My father moored his boats at He‘eia Kea Pier in Kane‘ohe Bay. He was a fisher of fish, not of men. We grew up on the seafood he brought home – ‘omaka, moano, uhu, papio, kona crabs, ‘ula‘ula, ‘ehu, ‘opaka-paka, hapu‘u, ‘ahi, aku, mahimahi, and ono.

From him I learned to love the ocean. When I was four or five years old, he dropped me into the murky green water off the pier, ten yards from shore, then walked around to some rocks and told me to come toward him. I dog-paddled over, easily. I’ve enjoyed swimming in the tropical ocean ever since – the buoyancy a relief from the weight of gravity. (In a faded Polaroid taken on Guam, where I was born, I’m sitting happily in small waves on a sandy beach; in another, I’m sitting on a reef flat with my mother. She no longer remembers telling me once that bathing in saltwater was a recommended treatment for ringworm.)

We swam at the pier at He‘eia while waiting for my father to come in from fishing. A few times, mysteriously, large, stingless jellyfish would swarm in, and we swam among them and tossed them around like footballs. We could see their innards through their transparent rubbery bodies.

In 1958, a shark bit off a boy’s leg near Mokulua in Kailua and the boy bled to death in the water; shark hunting was conducted. One day a sampan brought in a fifteen-foot tiger shark to the pier. The shark was hung from a hoist by its tail, its body sagging like a drop of oil; it seemed to have an odd, humiliated grin on its face, exposing its pointed teeth.

My father took us crabbing in the shallow muddy waters off of Kane‘ohe Beach Park, using round crab nets baited with bloody aku heads and guts we bought at Honda Store. We cooked the haole and Samoan crabs on the beach and ate them. We also went torch fishing in his boat inside the lagoon of Kane‘ohe Bay. Anchored at the edge of the reef, we waited for night, then lit gas lanterns to attract fish. We used bamboo poles and hand lines to hook ‘omaka, mamo, manini, and kikakapu, which was a favorite though it had very little meat to offer. When we were older my father took my brother and me out beyond the reef, past the last buoy, to troll. We looked for birds. The noio, a tern, gathers in piles above schools of aku, diving for the small fish that the aku chase to the surface; the larger boobies, indicate a school of mahimahi feeding beneath them.

On these trips outside the bay, I discovered the misery of seasickness. The undulating surface washed by the blazing sun offered no stable reference points; the blue-green water absorbed sunlight, and my eyes got lost, with nothing to focus on, no firm contours, uncertain where the bottom was. The boat pitched and rolled with the swells, the horizon rising and falling. I got disoriented. The engine droned, emitting noxious fumes. My stomach tightened around its emptiness. I sought refuge in the cabin from the heat, the rocking horizon, the nauseating fumes, getting up only to retch before returning to lie down and dream of the stable green island floating seemingly far, far away.

By the time I got to the ninth grade, I no longer wanted to go deep-sea fishing with my father and his two buddies, and took up surfing instead. The near shore waters were not as rough as the open ocean, and a surfboard emitted no fumes. I started a surf club with some schoolmates, and we taught ourselves to surf in the shore breaks at Kahana Bay and Kailua, then moved on to bigger, steeper waves. Ala Moana Park off the tennis courts, where the waves broke right and left, was our home break. My mother dropped us off there on weekends. Later, when my brother’s high school friends got cars, we went wherever the surf was up – Keawa‘ula, Hale‘iwa, the cliffs of Lae‘ahi. We lived by the seasons of waves, hitching rides on swells generated by trade winds or by winter storms moving eastward across the northern and southern Pacific. Hawai‘i was blessed with waves almost all year long.

As we grew up, the local knowledge we acquired from exploring our world was overlaid with various forms of cultural knowledge we got from school, the media, and family. Our first-grade reader was about Dick, Jane, Sally, and their dog, Spot. Most of the kids on Kea‘ahala Road didn’t look like, speak like, or act like the kids depicted in the books, but almost everyone had a pet dog.

On television we watched the slapstick of Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and the Three Stooges, learning from these cartoon characters how to tease and torment each other. We watched the happy-ending family shows like Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and Father Knows Best; and police dramas (The Untouchables, Dragnet) and Westerns (Have Gun, Will Travel, Rawhide) in which good triumphed over bad. On weekend afternoons we entered the cool cavern of Kane‘ohe Theater on Kamehameha Highway, next to Soeda’s Gas Station, to watch Hollywood fantasies for young boys – cowboy movies, war movies, and monster movies mainly, climaxing with violence and killing enemies and bizarre-looking creatures. We were being programmed to become citizens and soldiers for a far-off place called America, where everything was good. Could life really be that simple and simple-minded?


Immigrants from Japan, my grandparents brought with them their nineteenth and early twentieth-century Japanese culture to Hawai‘i. When my Hilo grandmother (my mother’s mother) visited for the summer, she took us to samurai and obake movies, which played on Tuesday nights at the theater. The samurai movies were violent like Westerns, but with heroes using swords instead of guns and with Confucian themes of loyalty to one’s lord, honor, and revenge. The obake movies featured white-faced female ghosts with long black hair returning from the misty land of the dead to avenge themselves on the living.

The obake movies gave us the willies on our walk home in the dark past a huge banyan tree with shadowy branches and roots hanging above the road in front of the Higashi Hongwanji church. This was an old dwelling reassembled near the theater by plantation workers in 1924 and moved to Kea‘ahala Road in 1929. The bishop of Honolulu sent priests over the old Pali road to Kane‘ohe to conduct services. For a short time, my brother, sister, and I went to after-school Japanese language classes held in hollow tile classrooms. But we complained to my mother that the rote lessons were boring, and she let us quit after we told her we would come home from school to do our English homework.

Our family was nominally Buddhist, but the only time we had to go to church was when someone died. At these funerals, the priest chanted, occasionally striking a bronze bowl with a wooden stick. We approached the altar and sprinkled incense into a bowl, then bowed to the golden statue of Buddha. The chanting was incomprehensible, and the adults didn’t bother to explain the rituals; everything seemed merely perfunctory. Like Christianity, Buddhism was unconnected to the world around me.

At home we read Shintofolktales about badger, fox, monkey, sparrow, sea turtle, and other animal spirits. Much later, in college, I read Shintomythology, which is based on the belief that nature, particularly extraordinary manifestations of mountains, rocks, clouds, rivers, waterfalls, plants, animals, and people, are kami, or spirits. This folk religion celebrates life and encourages worshipers to act for the benefit of and with gratitude to the community of multitudinous kami and people (ancestors and future generations included) who make one’s well-being and happiness possible. The emotional foundation of Shintois a reverence for the productive forces of nature, which is pure and innocent (no Original Sin, no need for redemption); and an abhorrence of impurity associated with decaying dead things.

The Shintocreation myth tells of siblings Izanagi and Izanami giving birth to the islands of Japan and its nature spirits; their grandchildren gave birth to the Japanese people, and in the next generation, the first emperor was born. When Izanami dies giving birth to the fire god, Izanagi goes to find her in the underworld and flees in horror and disgust from her maggoty, putrefying corpse.

From infancy, probably through my parents’ and grandparents’ influences, I internalized Shinto’s reverence for nature and ancestors and its abhorrence of decay. On Kea‘ahala Road I encountered decay in the form of a dog that had been hit by a car. Its body was split open, and its guts were crawling with maggots. I was repulsed by the sight and the nauseating stench. Izanagi washed himself in the Woto river in Kyushu to remove the defilement of decay and death. When I stepped into rotten mangoes or dog shit (which seemed all over the place on Kea‘ahala Road), I purified my foot with the clear, cold water from the pipe at the front porch.


My parents never encouraged or forced us to learn our ancestral language, history, and culture while we were growing up. Our Japanese heritage had been a stigma during and after War World II. Japanese immigrants and their children had to deny ancestral loyalties and ties for fear of being identified with the enemy and reviled as “Japs.” After Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor, my mother’s family hid a projector and some films of parties that my grandfather, a merchant, hosted for the crews of Japanese ships visiting Hilo.

But even without the war, Japanese traditions would have begun to pass with the passing of generations. In this new country, ancestral religion, heritage, and language didn’t seem to matter much for our survival or well-being. The ancestral gods belonged to another place, and the ancestral religion might be a hindrance to assimilation and success in the new country, so many immigrants adopted the religion of the majority, Christianity, as a sign of their new American identity.

V.S. Naipaul notes a similar loss of culture among the East Indian community founded by immigrants who went to work on sugar plantations in Trinidad and settled there during the nineteenth century:

… separated from the Indian earth, Hindu theology had become difficult… ; faith had been half possessed by many, abandoned by many. It had been part of a general cultural loss, which had left many with no strong idea of who they were. (India: A Million Mutinies Now)

Derek Walcott, on the other hand, notes in his 1992 Nobel Prize speech that the Ramayana is still dramatized annually in a field in an “ocean of cane” in Trinidad and that while purists might see the performance as “parodic, even degenerate,” he wants to see it not as a distortion or reduction of the original, but as an enduring and authentic profession of faith.

In Hawai‘i, both Buddhism and Shinto have persisted among the descendants of Japanese immigrants, Buddhism more widely than Shinto, perhaps because it has a more universal appeal, not as dependent on sacred sites and local kami who live in another country.


What counted most for my grandparents and parents in the new country was not ancestral culture or religion, but knowledge of English and Western culture and science, whose materialism and empiricism dismissed religious and spiritual beliefs as superstitions. If we acquired a Western education and entered professions, we could become members of the capitalist economy that was taking over the world. The benefits of joining and succeeding in this economy seemed unquestionable: it had developed the technology to impose its will on nature and people worldwide, and to produce and distribute enormous material wealth.

I felt the power of capitalism in Dote’s Market, when I accompanied my mother on her weekly shopping trips. The seemingly endless variety and supply of food and goods fascinated me. The store was a magical cornucopia. I wandered up and down the aisles amazed at the boxes, bags, packages, cans, and bottles from all over the world, all stacked in rows and tiers, towering above me. Near the front of the store were bins full of vegetables and fruits, mainly grown elsewhere and imported to Hawai‘i – apples, oranges, grapes, strawberries, potatoes, peaches, pumpkins, pears, artichokes, etc. I had never seen the plants on which these vegetables and fruits grew, but I knew how the produce tasted.

At the back of the store was the meat display, cooled by refrigeration, its glass window misty with humidity condensate. Alongside the cuts of beef, lamb, pork, and chicken, I sometimes recognized the fish my father had sold to Mr. Dote the previous day to pay for the equipment and gas he needed to catch the fish.

I was in awe of my mother’s ability to choose whatever she wanted from the shelves and bins, fill a shopping cart, pay for it with a twenty dollar bill, and bring it all home in brown paper bags. I helped her carry the bags in and put the goods away in our cabinets and refrigerator.


My grandparents joined the global economy when they left the rice fields of Hiroshima to start new lives in the immigrant worker communities forming around Hawai‘i’s sugar and pineapple plantations. My maternal grandfather established a wholesale and retail grocery and dry goods operation in Hilo, providing supplies for working communities on the Hamakua coast; my paternal grandfather worked as a clerk and delivery man for a plantation store, then bought some land in my father’s name across the road from a pineapple cannery in Kuiaha, Maui. He and his picture-bride wife built a store and restaurant, which my grandmother ran. Both grandfathers had the same dream: to make money so that they could send their children to college to become professionals. While they were successful in business, they didn’t want their children to go into business. In their eyes, running a business was endless work and full of uncertainties and anxieties; it was safer and more prestigious to be in a profession. They considered businessmen of a lower social status than professionals with degrees because of the Confucian respect for education and prejudice against trade and money.

My parents carried out their parents’ dream by graduating from college and pursuing professions. My father got a degree in electrical engineering, my mother in dietetics. We children were encouraged to follow the same path through college and go further, to get master’s or doctoral degrees. We, too, ended up carrying out our grandparents’ and parents’ dream: my brother became an engineer, my sister an orthodontist, I a college teacher and administrator.


After high school graduation in 1969, I left Kane‘ohe for college and travel. Under the spell of Euro-American capitalist mythology, I had come to believe that a meaningful life involved some kind of journey away from home and family, that to fully realize myself, I had to pursue a career or become famous or at least live in some center of politics and culture in the Western world, preferably New York, London, or Paris.

In the early 1970s, between semesters at the University of Hawai‘i, I flew to San Francisco and headed for New York by Greyhound, having said farewell to my family and thinking I would go to school and live on my own. The bus route went through landscapes and towns I had heard about only in cowboy movies – Sacramento, Reno, Winnemucca, Salt Lake City, Rawlins, Cheyenne, North Platte, Grand Island, Lincoln, Omaha, Des Moines, and Davenport. The people I met had unfamiliar names, accents, and interests; I had conversations and overheard talk in diners and bus stops about lives with pasts and futures unconnected to mine. Like the bus-travelers in Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” I was lost, looking for an America I had only imagined. The dusty landscape after the Rockies was flat and dreary. And there was no ocean, which disoriented me, so used to mauka and makai. A May blizzard swept the plains as the Greyhound rolled across Nebraska and Iowa.

In Chicago I bought a book of poems by Jorge Luis Borges; a haole high school teacher I had a crush on had introduced me to the Argentinian writer after graduation, loaning me her copy of Labyrinths. The clerk at the bookstore near Lake Michigan, a middle-aged white woman with a Midwestern accent, used the phrase “your people” when talking to me, as if we belonged to different tribes; and I guess we did. I liked Borges’ early poetry a lot. One of the poems, translated as “Plainness,” was about home: how the garden gate opens with the ease of an oft-consulted book, and inside we find familiar customs and a dialect of allusions, a sense of belonging to “an undeniable Reality,” like stones and trees. I decided to head back home – via Madison, La Cross, St. Paul-Minneapolis, Fargo, Bismark, Billings, Boseman, Butte, Kellogg, Spokane, and Seattle, where a friend from childhood through high school was attending the University of Washington. “Plainness” remained a favorite poem of mine for years.

In the late 1970s, as I was finishing coursework for a Ph.D. in English at the University of Washington, I was supposed to send out resumes, go to job interviews, and move and settle wherever I was offered the best-paying, most-appealing job. Instead, before completing my degree, I returned to Hawai‘i and found a job teaching at Kapi‘olani Community College in Honolulu.

In 1986, I moved to San Francisco. After two years of teaching as a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley and City College, I returned to Hawai‘i again.

Going away and coming back helped me to realize how rooted I was in Hawai‘i. A profession was not enough of an identity for me; I needed to feel at home in a particular place in the world. I wanted to live among family and friends, among people I’ve known since childhood. I enjoy running into or hearing gossip about schoolmates or friends whom I haven’t seen for a year, or five or ten or twenty, noting how we have changed or not changed, and talking about whether what happened in the intervening time is what we might have expected or not. We’ve become mirrors of each other’s growth, achievements, frailties, aging, and mortality.

I like living in a place I know well enough that I might get something to eat from the land or sea. Not that I dream of fishing for a living as my father did. My education prepared me to live an urban life and buy food at supermarkets and restaurants. I became a fisher and purveyor of thoughts, ideas, and information instead of real fish. But I feel secure knowing of a spot ten miles away on the reef in Kane‘ohe Bay where moano might be teeming; or of a ravine in Kawailoa or a gully in Kahana, where the mountain apple trees should be full of sweet, juicy red fruit in August. I like living in terrain marked by experience in memory.

Gary Snyder explains the special attachment we feel for the landscape of childhood:

All of us carry within us a picture of the terrain that was learned roughly between the ages of six and nine. You can almost totally recall the place you walked, played, biked, swam. Revisualizing that place with its smells and textures, walking through it again in your imagination, has a grounding and settling effect.

Living in one’s childhood landscape through adolescence and adulthood is even more grounding and settling than just revisualizing it while living somewhere else; we add layers of experience onto the childhood terrain as we grow and age.

The landscapes of O‘ahu offers emotional satisfactions to me through memories of firsts – the first mango and mountain apple picked and eaten; the first swim in the ocean; the first fish hooked in Kane‘ohe Bay; the first wave surfed at Ala Moana; the first love-making atop Pu‘u ‘Ohi‘a, the first hikes along the cloudy, boggy summit trails of the Ko‘olaus; the first interisland channel crossing on a voyaging canoe.

Of course, places change. And seeing them changing quickly and perhaps for the worse – more crowds and cars, more buildings and subdivisions, fewer fruit trees and fish – can also bring a deep sense of loss.


I was reminded of the deep connections among identity, terrain, and food by a description of the sacred song of a clan in Australia:

Karora, the ancestor of the bandicoot clan, has his own verses which he is believed to have composed, which describe himself and the place near where he originated; also the trees and rocks growing near his home, the animals nearby, the strangers who visited him; his wanderings and quest for food, and what happened when the time came for him to pass into his deep sleep. (Gunner)

Such knowledge of place, once taken for granted as essential to survival, is less valued today. Snyder observes that the leaders of modern civilizations “grew up with less and less personal knowledge of animal behavior and were no longer taught the intimate wide-ranging plant knowledge that had once been universal. By way of trade-off they learned ‘human management,’ administration, and rhetorical skills.” He chides, “Most contemporary Americans don’t even know they don’t ‘know the plants’ which indeed is a measure of alienation.”

But while local knowledge acquired from living in the same place over a lifetime no longer seems necessary for day-to-day living, such knowledge is just as important for the long-term survival of a community as other kinds of knowledge. Local knowledge keeps us aware of changes as we recall what places were like years and decades earlier. And beyond that, we need to know what places were like before we were born, in generations past; what changes have taken place; what actions and events have contributed to the well-being of the place and the community (and who we should appreciate and honor); what actions and events have made it worse; what effect our own presence and actions have had. We acquire such knowledge from staying rooted and learning about local history and traditions. Without this knowledge, how can we determine what might be good or bad for the future?


During and after my university education, I began to feel a disconnection between the knowledge I acquired in school and from the media, and the place I lived in and the people I lived with. If family, community, and home were important to me, why wasn’t I taught more about them in school? I felt an imbalance: too much of my education was about people and places far away, not enough about home. We studied no local history or literature in high school, and at the university my education in English was Eurocentric.

My local knowledge felt incomplete, lacking the range, depth, and detail of researched and written knowledge we studied at school. I wanted to acquire more knowledge about home – its history, its stories, its sacred places – and to reflect on how to live well in this island home. I began reading local history in general and the history of the Japanese immigration to Hawai‘i in particular and asking older family members about their experiences here; later, when I began studying Western literature, I took an interest in reading literature by Asian American writers and local writers. Eventually my interest turned to the study of native Hawaiian literature.


Writers like Naipaul and Jamaica Kincaid have documented the alienating, destructive effects of a colonial education: by ignoring or demeaning indigenous and local knowledge and non-Western ancestral traditions, colonial teachers have made the colonized feel inadequate and inferior about their origins and homelands.

Naipaul was raised in Trinidad, an island north of Venezuela, where, as in Hawai‘i, sugar plantations were plotted and plowed into the tropical landscape. The owners brought slaves from Africa, and after slavery was abolished in 1834, immigrant contract labor to work the plantations. One of these indentured workers was Naipaul’s paternal grandfather, a Hindu of the Brahmin class from northern India who arrived in Port of Spain in the 1880s. Naipaul’s father, like my father and mother’s generation in Hawai‘i, took advantage of opportunities to advance in colonial society; he became a journalist and writer. Naipaul’s mother was a descendent of East Indians as well, her family owning land and a quarry on the island.

After excelling in colonial schools, Naipaul left at eighteen for University College at Oxford in England and never returned to live in Trinidad. In Beyond Belief, he tells us that he felt that the place where he grew up was small, empty, and incomplete. At first, he attributes his feelings to the heat and geography: “I used to feel that the climate had burnt away history and possibility. This feeling might have had to do with the smallness of the island, which we all used to say was only a dot on the map of the world.” (I’ve heard similar comments made about the climate and geography of Hawai‘i, by people who have left or plan to leave.)

Later, Naipaul speculates that it was his immigrant background that made him feel inadequate – the lack of extended family and ancestors, the fact that the past “stopped abruptly with a father or grandfather”; or because his immigrant ancestors were indentured, “I carried in my bones that idea of abjectness and defeat and shame.” “[The] agricultural colony, in effect a plantation,” he writes, “honored neither land nor people.”

In Middle Passage, about a trip he takes to the West Indies and South America, Naipaul expresses his utter contempt for the colonial society and people of his home island: “Like monkeys pleading for evolution, each claiming to be whiter than the others, [East] Indians and Negroes appeal to the unacknowledged white audience to see how much they despise one another.” His book, written for a white audience, expresses the self-contempt he attributes to other colonials. And it is clear from his descriptions of the “wild Indians” he encounters that he grew up in fear and ignorance of the indigenous people of the region.

Still later in his life, Naipaul began to glimpse another explanation for feeling that his home island was small and inferior: what was lacking in Trinidad was not the fault of the island, but a defect in his colonial education. While visiting a sacred place of the Minangkabau people in Western Sumatra, Naipaul wonders why he knew of no such places in Trinidad. He recalls “rocks with crude pre-Columbian carvings … hidden in a canefield” on the island of St. Kitts and a story about how natives from South America came in canoes to Trinidad and “performed certain rites or made offerings” in the hills, gathered fruits, and returned to the continent. But, he confesses, “I wasn’t of an age to want to ask more or to find out more, and the unfinished, unexplained story now is like something in a dream, an elusive echo from another kind of consciousness.”

Why hadn’t he been taught more in school about the traditions of his home island? Because, he explains, “the aboriginal people who knew about the sacred places had been destroyed on our island, and instead of them there were – in the plantation colony – people like us [descendants of Europeans, Africans, and Asians], whose sacred places were in other continents.” Uneducated about the place where he grew up, contemptuous of its people, cut off from his ancestral past, uncomfortable in the country where he resides, Naipaul doesn’t feel at home anywhere. His Nobel Prize biography notes that he “is unhappy about the cultural and spiritual poverty of Trinidad, he feels alienated from India, and in England he is incapable of relating to and identifying with the traditional values of what was once a colonial power.”

After his first visit to India in 1962, Naipaul dismissed his ancestral homeland as “an area of darkness”; after a second visit, twenty-seven years later, he writes that he succeeded in “abolishing the darkness that separated me from my ancestral past.” During this return visit, he finds that India has “progressed” and feels more comfortable with the country and its people. Still, he writes about India not as one rooted or centered there, but as an outsider, his observations and beliefs having been shaped not by the Indian reality, but by his colonial education in Trinidad and his upbringing in an immigrant Brahmin family.

In Beyond Belief and his earlier book Among the Believers, Naipaul is highly critical of Islam, whose conquests and conversions of peoples in Asia destroyed indigenous cultures and their sacred places. About Pakistan he writes:

All the history of the ancient land would cease to matter. In the school history books, or the school ‘civics’ books, the history of Pakistan would become only an aspect of the history of Islam. The Muslim invaders, and especially the Arabs, would become the heroes of the Pakistan story. The local people would be hardly there, in their own land, or would be there only as ciphers swept aside by the agents of the faith. (Beyond Belief )

While Naipaul has been criticized for his anti-Islamic prejudices, the problem is not that what he writes here isn’t true; it’s that he should have said it about not just Islamic colonizers, but about all colonizers. Most books produced by Western scholars, Christian and non-Christian, including Naipaul’s writings on Trinidad, have been just as destructive culturally to indigenous peoples and cultures as Islamic writings. The works of these scholars, served up in schools and universities around the globe, are as monocultural and fundamentalist as the works of Islam Naipaul is criticizing.

Universalist belief systems like Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, capitalism, and Western civilization have used the power of mass-printed texts and, more recently, networks of audiovisual media to spread across vast territories and gain converts. Conversion doesn’t require a person to be related by blood to the peoples among whom the belief systems originated, or to live in any particular place. Abstractions like god, good and evil, property and money, truth and beauty can be applied in any place. And those who live solely by such abstractions can live anywhere, even if they feel at home nowhere.


Like Naipaul, Jamaica Kincaid was educated to believe that her people and her home island, the former British slave-colony of Antigua, were inferior and small. From a family of African ancestry and slave heritage, she notes in “On Seeing England for the First Time” that when she was a child, the word “England” made her feel “awe at its existence, small because I was not from it.” Taught a British history that portrayed her people as savages and slaves, she felt as if she were “nothing” – “incomplete, without substance.” When she visited England for the first time, she was overwhelmed by resentment, outrage, and hatred toward the country and its people; she felt like tearing England to pieces and crumbling “it up as if it were clay, child’s clay.” She expresses what James Baldwin calls “the rage of the disesteemed,” which is rooted in powerlessness.

Like Naipaul, Kincaid couldn’t stand to live on her home island; but unlike Naipaul, she couldn’t bear to live in the Mother Country either. In “Alien Soil,” she notes that “the trees so familiar to me from my childhood in Antigua do not now have a hold on me” because she associates them – bougainvillea from South America, plumbago from Africa, croton from Malay, mango from South Asia, breadfruit from the East Indies – with the history of colonialism and the racial and economic oppression she experienced as a child. Rejecting both England and Antigua, she settles in Vermont, where, on alien soil, she finds the freedom to appreciate nature’s beauty in flowers and trees there and to pursue her passion for botany and gardening.


In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hawai‘i, like Trinidad and Antigua, was transformed into a multiethnic society by Western settlers. By the second half of the nineteenth century, as the indigenous population declined from introduced diseases and poor health care, immigrant workers, mainly from Asia, were brought in and increased in numbers so that eventually they outnumbered the native population. As in many places in the world today, in Hawai‘i you are more likely to meet someone of non-indigenous than of indigenous ancestry. In the 2000 census, about twenty percent of the population reported indigenous ancestry; forty-four percent of the population had been born elsewhere; eighteen percent were foreign-born. (Perhaps the percentage of those with indigenous ancestry is somewhat higher, ancestral links lost in the tumble of interethnic marriage and adoptions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and by the middle of the twenty-first century, given the relatively high rate of interethnic marriages in Hawai‘i, the majority of people whose families have been in the islands for multiple generations will have some, though very few would have only, indigenous blood.)

For transplants and immigrants and their descendents and for many of mixed ancestry, the traditional unity of race, homeland, culture, and language (the monocultural myth that many still see as determining identity) no longer works. The possibility of this identity was lost to me when my grandparents left Japan. What is my language and culture? Not those of my Japanese ancestors. Where is my homeland? Not their homeland. And my race? Not their race. When they left Japan they severed my connection to the ancestral language, culture, and mythologies, as well as the local experiences of their childhoods. (What trees had they climbed, to pick what fruits? What rivers and bays had they explored, what fish caught and eaten?)

Hawai‘i today is a microcosm of multicultural societies forming all over the world, where immigrants, refugees, and transplants are shaping new identities in new homelands, and indigenous peoples face an onslaught of peoples of different ethnicities and cultures displacing them and transforming their homelands into something new.

Some immigrants, like Pico Iyer, have embraced a new multicultural identity, moving with apparent ease and comfort from place to place, culture to culture. Of East Indian ancestry, raised in England, then California, choosing to spend time in Japan while traveling the world, Iyer writes about experiences in Ethiopia, Nepal, Tibet, New York, India – an instant expert from observations of multicultural surfaces in each place he visits. In “Welcome to the Age of Tropical Classical,” he celebrates California’s “cross-fertilizing” “polyglot multiculturalism,” “wherein a Pakistani can talk with a Mexican in a Chinese restaurant and Native American moccasins are made in Taiwan.” A privileged global citizen, he accepts the notions of cultural diversity and home as anywhere he feels “centered,” whether it is a monastery “outside of time” in California, where he meets “Buddhist nuns and Oxford scholars” in retreat, or in some other spiritual place or experience.

Iyer contrasts Naipaul, “stiffly immured inside his Wiltshire cottage … refining the West Indies (and the East) out of himself,” to a multiculturalist like Derek Walcott, “a Dutch African born in British Saint Lucia,” who “shuttles back and forth between the islands and Massachusetts,” where he teaches, juxtaposing Greek and African gods in his poetry and “invigorating the classical forms he learned at school with his own West Indian words and names, while at the same time dignifying his beloved Caribbean with a classical high voice,” lamenting the lost of the indigenous tribes, but celebrating a new Caribbean culture that has grown from the Asian, African, and European roots of its people.

Walcott grafts Western allusions onto Caribbean places and peoples, likening Port of Prince to Athens or finding Helen of Troy in Santa Lucia. In “At Last,” he lambastes Naipaul: “You spit on your people / Your people applaud, / Your former oppressors laurel you. / The thorns biting your forehead / Are contempt / Disguised as concern.” Walcott offers the reader who doesn’t share his world of experience (and not many do) a multiculture made of words and images of many places, no longer of one particular neighborhood that writer and reader share, where both might encounter the referents of language. For a reader like me, Walcott’s is a poetry of allusions to multiple elsewheres (and my own writing, for most, would read as such.)


To be rooted is perhaps the most important
and least recognized need of the human soul.

—Simone Weil

Travels, readings, and experiences have made me a part of the multicultural world Pico Iyer describes. In my studio apartment in Makiki, along with koa and milo wood bowls and paintings, photographs and ceramic work by native and local artists like de Silva, Landgraf, Hamasaki, and Hokushin are Buddhist calligraphy from my grandparents and souvenirs and gifts from all over the world – stone fetish figures and pottery from the American Southwest; stylized depictions of killer whales in prints, cedar masks of hawk-man and frog-man, and eagle and raven feathers from British Columbia and Alaska; a jaguar-man mask and miniature figures painted with vegetable dyes from Mexico; an armadillo carved from the limestone of Yucatan; coconuts from the Marquesas incised with porpoises and human faces; a finely carved wooden moko from Rapanui, from an indigenous Catholic priest; a small wooden monkey from the Shintoshrine at Ise.

Most of the plants in the landscape outside were brought to Hawai‘i from other places – shade and ornamental trees like the monkey pod, the royal palm, and the shower tree, and fruit trees like the mango, the guava, and the Java plum. These imports have replaced the plants brought by kanaka maoli on voyaging canoes or that were carried here in pre-human times by winds, ocean currents, or birds.

One morning, a flock of never-before-seen-or-heard green parrots flew by my balcony, joining the manu-o-Ku, or white terns, and nineteenth and twentieth-century arrivals like the mynahs, doves, sparrows, and rice birds.

One night a friend invited me to go sucker-fish hunting with him in Nu‘uanu stream. He was going to sell the fish he caught to an aquarium shop. There were no sucker-fish in the streams during my childhood. The fish we caught back then – mosquito fish, swordtails, and guppies – were introduced in the nineteenth century, the mosquito fish to eat larvae of the mosquito, a pest that arrived in Hawai‘i in water barrels aboard sailing ships in the early nineteenth century.

The sucker-fish was brought to Hawai‘i by aquarium shops in the 1980s. These large, grotesque brown catfish were dumped into streams when they were no longer wanted, and flourished, their large sucker-mouths making them well-suited for life in the fast-water running down from mountains to sea. That night, in half-an-hour, wading upstream with a scoop net, John caught fifteen fish – one over ten inches long.

In the new century, a small, high-pitched frog that hitched here on la‘au malihini from Puerto Rico spreads through the islands, singing neighborhoods awake at night.

Still, with all that is new and changing, there are enduring elements in the islands – the land forms and rocks; the ocean swells and waves, the winds, rains, clouds and mists; the weather and seasons. I feel familiarly attached to these. Unlike Iyer, I don’t feel at home anywhere and everywhere. Unlike Naipaul and Kincaid, I didn’t experience my home island as small, poor, empty, incomplete, or unreal. Hawai‘i feels rich and full; what is real to me are the beaches and ocean where we swim, fish, surf, and sail; the places where we picnic or camp; the mountains where we hike; the trees we climb; the local fish and fruits we eat. What we learn in school and from the media about the world beyond is interesting, often fascinating, but not as fundamental or real as what we experience.

My choice to remained rooted in the islands where I grew up is a privilege made possible by the hard work of my family and community. When I reflect on my grandparents’ decision to leave their ancestral homeland – a tremendous break – I wonder, if I were in their circumstances, would I have made the same decision? Or would I have chosen to remain with the ancestral spirits in the homeland? And given the changes and uncertainties of our global age, would there come a time when I might feel compelled to move away from Hawai‘i? Many have already departed seeking better jobs, new homes, new destinies elsewhere: about a third of those born in Hawai‘i during the past two decades are gone. Snyder writes:

For most Americans, to reflect on “home place” would be an unfamiliar exercise. Few today can announce themselves as someone from somewhere. Almost nobody spends a lifetime in the same valley, working alongside the people they knew as children. (The Practice of the Wild)

The song of the immigrant who seeks a better life in another country is often one of nostalgic longing for what has been left behind – a childhood and familiar foods, places, family, and friends; perhaps a rural past and ancestral traditions. These are replaced by an urban present and future in which the immigrant doesn’t quite feel at home. Everton Sylvester, an immigrant poet living in New York City, writes in “dilly dally”:

I rise each day
To yet another shock
From dis alarm-clock culture.
And I miss de sound
Of my big red cock
As him beat him chest
And crow welcome song
To de sun
From de fowl-shit covered
Guava tree pon de hillside.

Everton has tasted the fruit of the Big Apple, but misses the indigenous guava; he worries that the more apples he eats from the bins at the Korean grocer’s store, the more likely he will “dilly dally” in America, living ambivalently, the less likely he will find his way home:

Cause each time I bite de apple
It swallow a piece of me
Still it hard to love de fruit
If I never did climb de tree.

In the mid-1980s, when I was in my 30s, Esther “Kiki” Mookini, a Hawaiian language teacher at the college where I teach, introduced me to a vast collection of native traditions, recorded by indigenous scholars and published in newspapers and books in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – knowledge and wisdom gathered during two hundred generations of living in the islands.

Excited by the possibility of acquiring some of the indigenous knowledge I had missed while being educated in colonial schools, I began reading as many works in translation as I could find in the library and bookstores. The stories weren’t about my ancestors: Papa and Wakea, the earth mother and sky father of chiefly Hawaiian and Polynesian genealogies and creation stories, are as alien to me as Adam and Eve. But the stories of the Hawaiian gods, demigods, and ancestral spirits, unlike Biblical, Buddhist, or Shintostories, were full of allusions to, information about, insights into the place I call home; they taught me things about Hawai‘i that no other kinds of stories could.

Haunani K. Trask points out that colonial scholars have distorted native history, turning a “rich historical past” into something “small and ignorant.” Colonial educators in Hawai‘i, like those in Trinidad and Antigua, have made many native and local residents feel small and insecure in our island home. This smallness is a state of the imagination imposed on the colonized by the colonizer. If we are taught the place we live in or who we are is not important, if our ancestors and heritages are ignored or demeaned in what we study, we end up believing that we are insignificant and inferior.

Epeli Hau‘ofa, whose ancestors are from Tonga (islands physically small, but never colonized), writes that his ancestors, in their myths and cosmologies, conceive of their island world in a grand way:

… comprised not only of land surfaces, but also the surrounding ocean as far as they could traverse and exploit it, the underworld with its fire-controlling and earth-shaking denizens, and the heavens above with their hierarchies of powerful gods and named stars and constellations that people could count on to guide their way across the seas. Their world was anything but tiny. They thought big and recounted their deeds in epic proportions.

In their epics and cosmologies, kanaka maoli conceive of their homeland in the same grand way. Hawai‘i is center, not periphery. Native stories and chants praise the beauty and richness of the islands – the steep green pali of the Ko‘olau mountains of Kane‘ohe; the wild rocky coastlines and seas of Makapu‘u famous for its uhu, or parrot fish; the rainy, rainbow-filled, kalo-planted valleys of Honolulu. These stories brought the landscapes of my childhood to life in my imagination, making them grander than my personal experiences of them, with ancient histories extending into a mythic past and spiritual realms unseen. The stories identify spirits that dwell in, on, above, and below the land and sea. Kane, the god of life and life-giving water, is in stone, whirlwind, rainbow, star, owl, bamboo, and popolo, and in rain and rain-clouds:

Where is the water of Kane?
Over the near-shore sea, over the far sea,
in the wind-blown rain at sea, in the rainbow,
in the reddish billowing cloud, in the low red rainbow,
in the low hanging clouds,
There is the water of Kane.

I was excited and awe-struck by towering orographic clouds forming over the summits of the Ko‘olaus, high clouds sailing in trade winds above Honolulu, and dark low clouds from the west bringing the long winter rains that flooded the streams. There was something mysterious in the clouds and rains, something spiritual and sacred. The chant of Kane gave this spirit a local god-name. And Kane is just one of the four thousand gods, the forty thousand gods, the four hundred thousand gods, each representing some life-giving aspect of the land or sea: Lono, Kanaloa, Ku, Haloa, Pele, Hi‘iaka, Laka, Kamapua‘a, Maui, Kaulu, La‘amaomao, Ku‘ula-kai, ‘Ai‘ai, Maikoha. Later I recognized the similarity between these local nature gods of Hawai‘i and the kami of Japan. My family and teachers knew little or nothing about the Hawaiian gods; but these gods are the local, enduring spirits of the place I call home. I didn’t feel a need to worship them, so much as respectfully acknowledge their presence.


Snyder, like Naipaul, has noted the lack of indigenous traditions and sacred places in his home in the Sierra Nevadas of northern California; unlike Naipaul, he looks forward to their recovery:

The original people here, the Nisenan …were almost entirely displaced or destroyed during the first few decades of the gold rush. It seems there is no one left to teach us which places in this landscape were once felt to be ‘sacred’ – though with time and attention, I think we will be able to feel and find them again.

The “we” includes multiple future generations. The twenty or so years Snyder has spent in the Sierras at the time he wrote the essay is a very short period, not long enough for an individual or family to become rooted in a place, though it might be considered a beginning. (I laugh when I hear transplants to Hawai‘i say they have been here a long time – five years. Five years? Try five generations, or fifty.)

Sacred places come into being from the experiences of people living dependent on the land and sea for many generations, with native sons and daughters telling and elaborating stories and passing them on to their children and grandchildren. And the sacred places may not be the same places forever – new ones emerging, old ones disappearing.

As I studied native traditions, I came to believe that the geographical knowledge and cultural values they embodied fit Hawai‘i better than the knowledge and values we learned from Western culture; and that the way of life transplanted in Hawai‘i by American colonizers was making the land and sea less healthy than they were in the past.

Makiki, where I live, is a typical urban residential neighborhood of the global capitalist economy. The terrain is dominated by buildings, mainly high-rise apartments like the one I live in. Property lines divide space and place so restrictively, children might find it difficult to explore or to walk anywhere other than in square blocks along sidewalks, or from block to block in crosswalks. Traffic is so heavy at rush hour, wandering could be hazardous to your health. It would never occur to me to go outside of my apartment to pick something to eat. The mango trees in the neighborhood are fenced-in, kapu to those who live outside the fence; and the apartment building I live in doesn’t have any fruit trees in its asphalt parking lot.

Makiki stream, which has been converted into a concrete drainage ditch, formerly fed a productive irrigation system for raising kalo and freshwater fish (‘o‘opu, or gobey, and ‘opae, or shrimp). Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa writes of her people: “The Hawaiian does not desire to conquer his elder female sibling, the ‘aina, but to take care of her, to cultivate her properly, and to make her beautiful with neat gardens and careful husbandry.” The ‘aina (literally, “that which feeds”) is parent to all, every person a family member fed by its bounty. In 1792, Archibald Menzies, the naturalist aboard Vancouver’s Discovery described the plantations inland from Waikiki, fed by Makiki, Manoa, and Palolo streams:

We pursued a pleasing path back into the plantation, which was nearly level and very extensive, and laid out with great neatness into little fields planted with taro, yams, sweet potatoes, and the cloth plant. These, in many cases, were divided by little banks on which grew the sugar cane and a species of Draecena without the aid of much cultivation, and the whole was watered in a most ingenious manner by dividing the general stream into little aqueducts leading in various directions so as to supply the most distant fields at pleasure, and the soil seems to repay the labor and industry of these people by the luxuriancy of its production. (qtd. in Handy and Handy)

In 1831, the Russian traveler Kotzebue noted that fish for consumption was raised in the ponds for kalo:

…The cultivation of the valleys behind Honolulu is remarkable; the artificial ponds support, even on the mountains, the kalo plantations which are at the same time fish ponds. (qtd. in Handy and Handy)

Today Makiki stream is polluted with garbage, trash, pesticides, and toxins from gasoline and automobiles. Health officials warn that any life-form caught in this stream, or any other in Honolulu, is hazardous to your health. My journey from Kea‘ahala Road to Makiki is on the trajectory of Hawai‘i and the planet’s journey from a rural past to an urban present and future. Makiki is a convenient place to live while working in the city, but not a place to raise children. It’s too easy to be detached from the land in a place like this, to live in the global multicultural world created by the media. At night we watch television images of people who live far away, not the local dance of clouds and stars above us; children kill aliens on computer screens in preparation for one day wiping out the unseen enemies of American capitalism with the push of a button.

The din of traffic is continuous from the streets and freeway; in the early morning before dawn, when thieves roam, cars lining the streets like alien beasts wail as their metal skins are violated. Meanwhile global temperatures are rising, melting the polar ice caps and the snows of Kilimanjaro; fisheries collapse; Brazilian and Indonesian rain forests are cut down; panda habitats shrink in China; and oil-drillers explore the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, set aside for now to protect polar bears, musk oxen, wolves, caribou, and millions of migratory birds.


Could the revival of native culture steer Hawai‘i toward a healthier future less dependent on the global economy? That doesn’t seem likely to me. Most of us have become too dependent on its goods and services to survive outside of it. And as it spreads over more and more territory and consumes more and more of the world’s resources to continue the expansion without which it would collapse, fewer and fewer people will find alternative ways of living feasible, even at its margins.

But given the anxieties and uncertainties of the modern age, it’s comforting to me to imagine in an urban landscape, surrounded by streets and towers of capitalist wealth, the very different way of life that flourished here a mere two centuries ago. It seems important to keep indigenous traditions alive, in sacred spaces set apart from the modern world, and to pass the traditions on to future generations because like dormant seeds, given the right conditions, that way of life might flourish again in new and unimaginable ways. (One native Alaskan leader has said that his people are waiting for the tide of global capitalism to ebb in order to revive what is left of their traditional way of life.)


Midway through my life expectancy, in my 40s, swept along by a current in a direction I didn’t want to go, I felt a need to create mental maps of where I had come from and to consider what I was doing here and why. In the context of world history, I wanted to make sense of my immigrant heritage and Japanese ancestry, my growing up and living in the islands, my Western education and career, my travels, and my studies of local and native history and culture. I wanted to see if it was possible to chart a course against the flow. As tentative maps emerged (these essays, written and rewritten), I found my prime meridian ran not through Greenwich, God, America, or the Bank of Hawai‘i, but through the mango trees on Kea‘ahala Road. In the deep, broad, confused, and confusing flux of our global age, these trees, alive in memory, served as a reference point from which to determine how far I’d traveled and which direction was home. (Four decades after we moved away from Kea‘ahala Road, when I drove by the old house to photograph the trees, they were gone.)