The State of Aloha

Every now and then, parents who’ve relocated from the Mainland will ask me about what it was like going to public school here. Some would ask if it was dangerous for me because I didn’t, you know, look “local.”

I didn’t think going to Baldwin High School was all that different from any other high school. There was nothing to compare it to. We had football games, a school paper, JROTC, punk rock and all the other things you’d find in any typical high school across the rest of the United States.

Of course, there were exceptions. Hawaii high schools are probably one of the only places where lockers and hallways are outside and exposed to the elements. I always thought how strange and stuffy it’d be to spend all that time enclosed in a high school between classes.

But these concerned parents weren’t inquiring about the school’s open-air campus. They were worried about what challenges their own children would face. Maybe they thought it was just like that cult movie “North Shore,” where Caucasians who dream of the islands from swimming pools in Arizona come out here and find a rude awakening as they try to drop in at a local surf spot?

Or maybe they had heard about an ominous event called “Kill Haole Day” – the traditional last day of school? I personally can’t remember a day where whites were targeted and faced a beating on the last day of school. Then again, there weren’t too many people who stuck around that day anyways. A few years back, columnist and fellow Baldwin alum Lee Cataluna caused a stir when she denied the existence of “Kill Haole Day.”

That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. In the 1960s, my friend at Kailua High School would ditch the last day of school and surf instead of facing a beating. There are other frightening experiences, too. About 20 years ago, Maui High School was the scene of a terrible clash between haole students from Upcountry and locals from Central Maui.

But racial tensions playing out in our high schools are much more complicated than “local” versus haole. Just before I got to Baldwin High School, the upperclassmen, teachers and especially the security guards were still talking about the biggest brawl they had ever seen. It involved something like 20 students fighting with one another. This conflict was not between haoles and locals, but among Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.

Recently on the Big Island, a school locked its doors for a few days due to escalating racial tensions. It wasn’t a traditional local conflict. The situation at Kealakehe High School in Kona had little to do with haoles at all. The conflict was between Micronesians and new immigrant groups from the Western Pacific on one side and Polynesian students on the other.

And not too long ago at a function at a high school in Honolulu, I discovered the conflict may not even be a racial one. I overheard two students teasing each other. They were teasing each other about who immigrated to the United States sooner – the old “FOB” (fresh off the boat) taunt. The retort was commendable: “I’m not FOB anymore.”

So even though the conflict playing out throughout our schools is often labeled and discussed as a racial one, that label is too one-dimensional. During the heyday of “Kill Haole Day,” whites from the Mainland were pretty new to the state’s public school system. Forty years ago, there still weren’t a lot of newcomers from the Mainland on Maui, aside from a few in remote parts of the island. And people remember how rough it was to be among the “hippies” in places at Makena and on the north shore.

Times have certainly changed. With more and more Mainlanders moving to Maui, entire communities of newcomers are not uncommon. The racial composition of the student body at my own elementary school in Haiku is dramatically different from my school days.

Unfortunately, the clearest way to identify newcomers to the island is sometimes the person’s ethnicity. Other times, as I saw in Honolulu, it’s by one’s accent. The conflict with haoles, Samoans, Micronesians or anybody else is a crude way of showing frustration with the changing times. It started with haoles and has moved on to the newest of the newcomers to the islands. So maybe it’s not a racial conflict at all. Perhaps it’s just a newcomer-versus-not-as-newcomer clash. And that’s not new at all.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”

The State of Aloha

Hollywood loves using Hawaii. Although producers, our government and most of public opinion welcome the brief economic surge accompanying the filming and production of major motion pictures, the movies themselves are pretty bad. “Battleship,” for example, is a forgettable action flick based on a board game showcasing American naval prowess – and Rihanna.

It’s safe to say that with little exception, most movies filmed in Hawaii – even the better ones – are seldom about Hawaii. Take “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” This very funny flick revolves around a heartbroken guy from Los Angeles. He ends up flying out to the Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu to forget about his ex-girlfriend only to find her in the room next door with her new British beau.

The only two “local” characters in the flick involved the gentle giant Kimo, the cook at the resort, and the aggressive and scrappy Keoki, who false cracks the main character when he sees him with his ex-girlfriend. These are the old, annoying stereotypes of local folks. In the end, the plot (and the characters) moves away from the islands and normal life resumes again in California. Hawaii becomes a distant, exotic memory.

But the locals in that movie were tame compared to Rob Schneider’s pot-smoking Ula in “Fifty First Dates.” He runs around with his five “keeds,” speaking pidgin lamenting about his overweight and unlovable wife. It was hard to believe that character got the green light in 2004.

Hawaii and its inhabitants are usually nothing more than a backdrop for the main plot and characters (who are almost always Caucasian). It’s nothing new. About a week after rewatching “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “From Here to Eternity” was on the classic movie channel.

Most of the action and drama took place on a military base, where just about everybody came from someplace else. Instead of stereotypes of local people, “From Here to Eternity” didn’t feature any local people. They were practically nonexistent.

Donna Reed’s character worked at the New Congress Club in Chinatown, where she made her money spending time with lonesome soldiers. And like the lead role in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” she came to the islands to get away from something on the Mainland. In the end – and after quite a dramatic ride – she packed up and boarded the liner back to the Mainland. She told Donna Kerr that she was never coming back to the islands. The final scene was a departure.

“From Here to Eternity” was released in 1953, when Hawaii was still a territory. Fifty-five years later in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Hawaii is still just a backdrop for characters from the Mainland to indulge in escapism. While in this island paradise, the conflicts that they took with them are resolved, they grow, and head home happy.

Nobody around here seems to mind. The tax incentives are huge. When a Mainland production comes to the islands, our local media go wild. The television news features the latest big-budget production that comes to the islands. More earnest efforts to depict daily life in the islands are not met with the same enthusiasm. “The Descendants” didn’t get a buzz until it was deemed Oscar worthy. And there was not nearly enough buzz when our home-grown production of “Get a Job” was being filmed, edited, produced and distributed from Maui.

The scary part is that some of us discourage anything other than the stereotypes. Remember that “Saturday Night Live” skit with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson?

The Rock worked at a hotel restaurant reminiscent of the one in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” But this time the main characters were the workers playing the ukulele and wearing grass skirts. There were no gentle giants, no hotheads and no happy-go-lucky locals. The Rock’s character was articulate, sarcastic and witty.

When a guest commented that they must “love living here,” the response was downright vicious.

“My brother and I here live 15 miles inland. There’s a rusty pickup truck with weeds growing out of it. Yeah, that’s our house.” The Rock then chimed in. “Wanna come visit? It’s real easy to get to. Just drive through the shantytown, make a right at the meth lab, and you’ll see a 15-year-old girl who got pregnant by an out-of-town businessman. Then ask for her brother. That’s me.”

Then-Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona was not happy and described the skit as offensive. The Hawaii Tourism Authority – our government agency that promotes and encourages tourists to visit us here in the islands – announced that “anything that pokes fun, or puts us in a bad light, our culture, the Hawaiian culture, that affects all of us.” I agree. So how come no one was offended by the characters from the scores of movies over the past 50 years?

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”

The State of Aloha

Three unofficial holidays fall on the 1st of May. In Hawaii, there’s Lei Day, or May Day. This was a really big deal in elementary school. In the days leading up to the pageant at Haiku School, volunteering adults built a stage out of plywood and chicken wire and adorned it with dark green ti leaves and fresh flowers. In the meantime, each class practiced a song or hula. Lucky kids were selected onto a court that represented each island’s flower and color.

When the big day finally came, parents gathered with teachers in the yard down the hill from the cafeteria. We performed, and then we had a luau. I’m sure other schools had similar celebrations.

In high school, a substitute teacher told us about the other May Day she discovered while going to school on the Mainland. She was from the islands and was homesick. Then she heard about some May Day events at some building on campus. She couldn’t believe it. She was so excited to see lei, talk to others from Hawaii, and maybe even eat some local food again. When she got there, she was disappointed. There were no flowers. No locals. And certainly no hula.

Instead, she saw angry students who needed haircuts. They wore drab clothing and talked about things like class struggle, the Paris Commune and the Soviet Union. There was no food at all. So much for May Day on the Mainland.

I was reminded of that story when fliers started popping up around my college campus in California around the end of April. Sure enough, on May 1 there was a little demonstration with similar angry students in drab clothing. This time they weren’t talking about communism. They were more interested in the World Trade Organization, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and stopping the Gap and the aptly named Banana Republic from exploiting workers abroad.

The celebration of working people still occurs on May 1 in just about every country in the world except this one. In Latin America, El Dia del Trabajo is commemorated with parades, rallies and cookouts. The Eastern Bloc staged massive military rallies and parades. Ironically, it was celebrated in both West and East Germany. And what’s even more confusing is that both the extreme left and the right have claimed the holiday as their own. It’s still really big in Europe. Annual protests flare up in nearly every capital city throughout the industrialized world.

Not here. The United States government has made conscious efforts to end May Day. In 1958, President Eisenhower declared May 1 as “Law Day, U.S.A.” A federal statute even declares that on Law Day, Americans – instead of protesting and marching — should reaffirm their loyalty to the United States and respect the law. Law Day should be observed “with appropriate ceremonies and in other appropriate ways.”

It seems like something straight out of “Dr. Strangelove.” Back then, we were in the middle of a long Cold War and were downright fanatical about opposing anything that even hinted at communism. You’d think that all that stuff would have faded away, but every single president since the ’50s has declared the 1st of May as Law Day, and not a day to acknowledge international solidarity among the working classes.

And still May Day dies hard. Last year, thousands marched in solidarity in New York City to protest the excesses of Wall Street and the brutality of the capitalist system as a whole. This year was no different. Labor unions and other groups staged demonstrations across the country. They cried out for justice for undocumented workers, a living wage, and ending unsafe working conditions that may have led to death and destruction in West, Texas, last month. They continued to question the doctrine of an unbridled free-market economy.

At the same time, the American Bar Association still encouraged Law Day. Here on Maui, the Hawaii State Bar Association will hold a free legal clinic tomorrow at the Maui Mall from 8 a.m. to noon. Volunteer attorneys will be there to help anyone with legal matters of any kind.

Our clinic is a far cry from Law Day’s anti-communist origins, but it’s no demonstration either. It’s somewhere in the middle. Perhaps President Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Law Day proclamation summed it up best when he urged “all those members of the bar, the bench and the law enforcement system who work to improve the performance of this system – to make it more just, more effective, and more responsive to our people’s needs. America is grateful to them for their efforts to improve and extend legal services to the poor; to streamline the machinery of our courts . . . “

In the end, we get to have all three. Enjoy Lei Day, consider May Day, and see you on Law Day.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”