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Hearing Russian in the Kihei Times Supermarket

June 27, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama

I have been to Moscow, the capital of the now-called Russian Federation, in cold late February (I must have been nuts or younger) some years ago, and it was a surreal experience in a country really half-way between the West and Asia, in culture and mind-set, difficult to explain unless you experience a walk in Red Square among Russian families.

And so it was a moment of recognition when I overheard a grandmother scold her two grandchildren, both girls, in Russian, at the cashier’s line of the Times Supermarket in Kihei. I almost say something in my limited Russian vocabulary, but I restrained myself, as usually people start speaking more, quickly, and I run out of things to say (once this got me in real trouble in Seoul, South Korea, and I was kicked out of a taxi for my rude words in three languages).

But why and how was this Russian family in Kihei, so far from Russia?

Actually, spouse C. and I once met a realtor at a Kihei condo project who was originally from Russia (not only can I pick up foreign accents in English speech, but I can sometimes tell where Americans are from based on dialect – it also means I am listening intently, something people just don’t do much anymore).

So there are more originally from Russia in our midst on Maui .

Yet Hawai'i had Russian visitors from the early 19th century, even before New England missionaries arrived: Kauai had a small Russian trading fort – and an Orthodox church -- back in 1815.

In the early 1880s King David Kalakaua sent a diplomatic delegation to St. Petersburg, Russia, to witness the coronation of Czar Alexander III. On orders of the King, Hawaiian Kingdom Foreign Secretary Curtis ‘Iaukea presented to Tsar Alexander III the highest Royal Order of the Hawaiian Kingdom — the Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Kamehameha with collar. A few years later, Czar Alexander III sent King Kalakaua the Imperial Order of St. Alexander Nevsky, the highest Russian award (I wonder if it is exhibited at ‘Iolani Palace), and established a permanent Russian embassy in Hawai'i – symbolizing the close diplomatic ties of the largest country on earth and a string of mid-Pacific islands.

I mention all this since the Edward Snowden affair has thrust Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow into the media, and once upon a time the Hawaiian Kingdom was rather close with the Russian Czar, so far away in Moscow. Perhaps more Russian visitors will arrive on Maui in the future, and rekindle the long-lost historical relationship.

I remember Sheremetyevo Airport as a rather dingy place where I was afraid to eat anything, and very Asian-looking Russians would look at me (and I at them), they perhaps thinking that I may a relation or a friend from Uzbekistan or somewhere nearby (sometimes at the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center or Kahului Airport many Nikkei do the same on Maui).

That Edward Snowden is bunking in a tiny “capsule” hotel at the Sheremetyevo Airport “transit” area tells me that 1) he is running out of money 2) he is not claustrophobic and 3) he dares not to “cross” into “real” Russian territory, beyond “Passport Control” (although KGB and police agents must be waved through constantly). If he had asked me, I would have advised him not to travel to Russia – as I recall in my travels, it is a challenging place.


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