February 15th, 2017


Thoughts on Moving to Kauaʻi

When we visited Kauaʻi in 2016, we weren’t planning to live there. Shannon had considered it a possibility, but I had always insisted that I wouldn’t want to live away from a city’s convenient public transportation, restaurants, mental health support resources, etc. Plus, I didn’t want to leave my friends. But on that visit, I just … fell in love with Kauaʻi and the joy of being around my in-laws with their positive attitudes and open hearts. I think it was the first time I’d spent much time around them since really getting into my trauma work and realizing how much I’d missed in my relationship with my mom, so I was feeling much more aware of the love and support Mary and Gary offer with absolutely no conditions or hesitation. After we got home from that visit, after I’d had time to sort of absorb the experience, I approached Shannon and told him I’d be interested in moving there … and soon afterward we started talking about it seriously. Now, it’s our plan for 2020, as long as nothing gets in our way. So on this trip, our 2017 trip, I was looking around me with fresh eyes, thinking about what it will be like to actually live there.

Of course, I’m used to how beautiful and quiet Kauaʻi is (especially compared to noisy, busy central Berkeley), but I appreciated it even more this time, imagining what it would be like to have all that beauty as a part of my life every single day, as something I might eventually even take for granted. I hope that never happens—I hope I live decades on Kauaʻi being thankful for its unique loveliness every single day—but I suppose the shock of it will subside with time.

I’m also used to the relaxed atmosphere on the island, which is one of the reasons I decided it might be a good idea to move there, as I think the quiet tranquility and general feel of kindness in social interactions even with complete strangers might be very good for my anxiety level and possibly even my mood stability. But I noticed it more on this trip and just soaked it in, imagining that being the norm rather than just “vacation mode.”


I thought a lot about the spirit of “aloha” on this trip, too, because I was thinking a lot about the culture of the island and how I could show respect to that culture. People often think that “aloha” just means “hello” and “goodbye” in Hawaiʻi, but it actually means something more like “affection, peace, compassion, and mercy” (per Wikipedia); and words like “namaste, peace, salaam and shalom have similar meanings” (also per Wikipedia).

State law actually mandates “the spirit of aloha” for its political representatives. An excerpt from Hawaii Revised Statutes (State Law) Section 5-7.5 states, regarding the spirit of aloha:
“". . .It was the working philosophy of native Hawaiians and was presented as a gift to the people of Hawaii. ‘Aloha’ is more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation. ‘Aloha’ means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return. ‘Aloha’ is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence. . . ."

The concept of “aloha” reminds me of much of what I like about Buddhism, and also something of what I like about myself. I think I have a tendency to want to reach out to people, to offer them kindness and respect, and so the idea of living in a place that tries to embody that idea as a core aspect of its culture is very appealing to me.

Native Hawaiʻians

I feel very uncomfortable about the situation of Native Hawaiʻians on Kauaʻi and in the state in general. The islands were basically stolen by the U.S. in 1893 when we annexed them without the agreement of the Hawaiʻian people. President Clinton even issued an official apology, United States Public Law 103-150, admitting that this was an inherently unjust action and basically just a really crappy move on our part and that Native Hawaiʻians have every reason to feel pissed about it. So I feel weird about the fact that Native Hawaiʻians now make up only about 9% of the population of Hawaiʻi, and that about 20% of them live below the poverty line.

On this visit, I noticed that the only places where we saw a lot of Native Hawaiʻians were fast food establishments (the Snack Shop in Kōloa and the McDonald’s in ʻEleʻele). Everywhere else, it seemed to be mostly white people, though there are also a lot of Asian residents on Kauaʻi (as many men from Asian countries were brought to work the plantations in the 1800s and early 1900s). I get the impression that there is considerable racial segregation on the island, not only with the Native Hawaiʻians holding separate from the haoles, but also with the people of various Asian ethnicities choosing to socialize primarily with people who speak their own language and share their culture. (I’ve gotten this impression largely from the fact that my mother-in-law, Mary, seems to be close friends primarily with a considerable number of Chinese ladies living on the island, so my sample size is laughably small.)

The segregation of Native Hawaiʻians from haole society on the island had bothered me on previous visits, especially when I’d noticed that Native Hawaiʻians seemed to be simultaneously oppressed and fetishized, with so many of them living in poverty conditions while tourists attend artificially constructed luaus and hula performances to watch “the real Hawaiʻi” and expect the staff at their fancy hotels and expensive restaurants to look Hawaiʻian to give that “authentic” feel to their island experience. This felt really creepy to me.

But on this visit the segregation started feeling a little bit like Tallahassee to me, where all the low-paying service industry jobs are filled by black men and women, and all the higher-paying jobs seem to be filled by white people. I started wondering how many of the doctors on the island are Native Hawaiʻian. How many of the hotel managers? How many of the elite chefs? And am I inflicting my own biases on Native Hawaiʻians by even asking those questions of myself, since their culture might not value those kinds of economic measures of success?

What Can I Do About All That?

Even just visiting the island, let alone living there, I want to show respect to the native peoples, the native culture, and the native language (e.g., the correct use of the ʻokina mark in Hawaiʻian words). When we were getting off the plane in Lihuʻe, I asked the flight attendant if it is considered rude for a non-native to say “aloha” and “mahalo,” because I didn’t want to be presumptuous in using the native language, but she assured me that it was fine and urged me to embrace the local culture. I still felt a little weird about it, because I felt like a fraud using words from a language I don’t speak, words that are used liberally in tourist contexts, but then I thought about the fact that I never felt uncomfortable saying “bonjour” or “merci” when I was in France, but rather viewed it as a show of respect in making an effort to speak to people in their own language even if only a bit. So I tried to think of it that way on this visit, but I was still very shy about it.

And when I got home, I read a few articles online that talked about the overuse of the word “aloha,” because it has a deep meaning (as I described above) and is not simply a greeting. Apparently, one should not use the word “aloha” lightly, as you aren’t always feeling the complex nuances of the word every time you greet someone or part from them. If you’re feeling stressed or distracted or upset or something, then you shouldn’t say, “Aloha,” to greet someone. The word should be reserved for times when you are truly feeling the full meaning, or you are sort of watering it down and disrespecting the concept. I had noticed that people in the tourist industry tend to say “aloha” constantly, to the point of almost making the culture into a caricature, and had wondered about it. Flight attendants smile robotic smiles and say, “Aloha,” to every single person who boards the plane, and then, “Mahalo,” to every person who disembarks. It’s like wearing plastic flowers behind their ears—a fake sort of representation of something real. I’ll try to be careful with how I use “aloha,” and only say it when I really mean it mindfully, not just to casually replace “hello.” Even if most people on the island don’t care about the nuances, I want to be respectful.

With a bit of research, I found that the community college in Lihuʻe (not very close to where we’ll be living, unfortunately) offers classes in Hawaiʻian studies and Hawaiʻian language that I might find interesting and educational (as well as classes in culinary arts that might interest me), and Shannon pointed out that I might feel less awkward about the racial segregation if I work with the island’s branch of Habitat for Humanity or find some other ways of getting to know Native Hawaiʻians. That made me feel a bit better. I might not be able to make a difference regarding the far-reaching and long-standing issues, but it would mean a lot to me to just be able to reach out a hand to individuals and say, “I see you. You matter to me. I respect your right to this island. I want to know more about your perspective.” I worry that simply moving to the island, in and of itself, is an act of aggression toward Native Hawaiʻians—yet another haole taking over their land—but … well … the house we’re moving into is already owned by haoles. It’s already too expensive for most Native Hawaiʻians to afford. It’s part of a larger, existing problem that I can’t do anything about. But then we would be becoming some small part of that larger problem. It can tie me up in knots if I let it, so I’m trying not to let it.

I’ve also looked for some books that might educate me a bit about all these issues and give more of the Native Hawaiʻian perspective, and found some on Amazon. I’ve been having a lot of trouble with reading for years now, but I still looked. Realistically, though, I think I’ll have an easier time learning from people than from books.

Other Minor Things

There are a lot of smaller, less emotionally loaded things I noticed on this visit about how our lives will change when we move to Kauaʻi. For one thing, people spend a lot of time in their cars there, because everything is very spread out. You might spend half an hour (or more) just driving to the grocery store. Some of the drives are very scenic, but it’s still a lot of time in cars. That will be a big change for us. Since I’ve been living in Berkeley, I’ve spent very little time in cars. I ride in a car maybe an average of once a month. Sometimes I have to take buses, but mostly I’m used to being able to walk to everything I need—groceries, pharmacies, restaurants, friends’ homes, the hardware store, many of my doctors’ offices, the art studio, Buddhist communities, the local community college, etc.—and that just won’t be the case anymore. It’ll be a completely different way of interacting with the world.

Because of the unrelenting humidity, everything rusts like crazy. Chain link fences need to be constantly maintained and repaired; garden tools need to be frequently replaced; even metal objects that rarely go outside are no exception. Everything rusts. The house we’ll be living in has a chain link fence which I suggested to Shannon we might want to someday replace with one of the low volcanic rock walls that a lot of people have around their yards on Kauaʻi. It would still require a bit of maintenance, as I’ve seen some of them crumbling a bit here and there, but it might look nicer (more organic) and require less vigilance than something made of metal.

There are TONS of bugs, including giant poisonous centipedes that invade your home and have to be cut into multiple pieces or they will continue to come after you. They’re literally like horror movie monsters. All food has to be stored in completely air-tight containers or it will be invaded by hoards of ants. Even containers that seem air-tight might not be good enough. Ideally, you need to use containers with screw-on tops or the creepy crawlies will somehow find a way in. Lizards and geckos also invade houses, but those don’t bother me so much because I think they’re cute. There’s nothing cute about poisonous centipedes or entire colonies of ants streaming through your kitchen.

The house we’ll be living in has a large yard we’ll need to take care of, most of which consists of a huge, useless back yard with a slope so steep you can’t plant anything on it or mow it with a mower. The current tenants hire someone who comes every two weeks to swing a weed-wacker on a rope to trim the fast-growing grass. Shannon and Mary talked about the possibility of putting fake grass back there to eliminate the need for such ridiculous measures, but I couldn’t tell if Shannon was joking or not. I think it sounds like a fine idea. I wouldn’t want to use fake grass somewhere where we would actually be walking or seeing it up close, but a giant useless slope that no one will ever actually approach … why not?

Hawaiʻi makes great use of renewable energy, and solar panels are everywhere: on top of public buildings, in open fields, and on top of a large percentage of private residences. Shannon and I are hoping to be able to afford to install solar panels on the roof of our house after we move there.

Our house is closer to a “busy” road than I had realized before really checking it out on this visit. When I say it’s a “busy” road, I’m talking in Kauaʻi terms, so there’s maybe one car every 10 seconds during the busy time of day … but that’s a pretty busy road on Kauaʻi. If we do plant an avocado tree, we will probably have to expect some of the fruit to be stolen by passersby, and the current tenants had a “break-in” recently in which some laptops and Kindles were stolen. I put “break-in” in quotes because of the fact that the tenants had left the front door unlocked while they were gone, and so the thieves simply opened the door and walked in, grabbed some stuff and walked out. I don’t know where these tenants grew up, but Shannon and I—both having lived decades in California cities—would never be stupid enough to leave our house unlocked and expect all our belongings to still be there when we got back. So I’m not too worried about home security.

Anyway, I think that’s all my thoughts on the Kauaʻi move at the moment. Lots of stuff spinning around in my brain. Still 3 years to figure everything out, and most of it we won’t be able to figure out until we’re actually there.