Thursday, December 08, 2016

Hang Loose

The first shaka I receive in Hawaii is from a lanky, fifty-something Utahn named Tim as he waits for me to pass through a gate so he can close and lock it behind me, and it is pure aloha. Thumb and pinky relaxed, not stretched wide, wrist loose with a little wobble. Smile up to the eyes. No wikiwiki, hurry. He will become an aikâni, a friend.

It's everywhere from there, polite acknowledgement in traffic, greetings and goodbyes, agreement and approval. Like "da kine," it applies to all things, to anything. Sign language. Palm or backhand mean the same.

Before long it's as natural as anything my hands have ever done. I catch myself casting this island authenticity on the mainland, arm out the window, merging in Wyoming, thanking a doorman in New York City. I teach my nephew, who growls the word long and low while he gestures.

It teaches me to bravely approach strangers who lift their hand in welcome. One query to a fisherman at Ho'okipa leads to an hour-long conversation and an armful of gifted avocados. It's the signoff after a pleasant interaction at the doctor's office, the grocery store, the Ku'au store where I get poke, with the cashier from North Carolina who bought a one-way ticket eight months ago and never looked back.

For me it becomes a symbol of Hawaiian language, born of saltwater, kai, and surfers, he'e nalu. It communicates hau'oli, happiness. I learn rain, ua, heat, wela, end, pau, child, keiki, elder, kupuna. When navigating the islands, mauka is towards the sea and makai is landside. I learn pali (cliff) and wahine (woman) and kâne (man) and hiamoe (sleep) and hale (house, home... I work with a man named Halealoha, "love of home") and the names of foods, fruit and meat. Alani for orange. I learn the names of animals, nene for goose, honu for sea turtle, mano for shark. Mano are considered manifestations of deceased relatives and are welcomed, not feared. Most Hawaiian words have more than one meaning or connotation or association, depending on context and tone. Hana means work or craft, but with hou (again, new) means "do it again." Encore. A hui hou... until we meet again.

The Hawaiian language has thirteen letters, eight consonants and five vowels, A, E, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, and W, and the 'okina, a glottal stop occurring at the beginning or end of words and between nearly all sequential vowels, diphthongs if you paid attention in middle school. A line over an 'a' means a soft, drawn out sound, the opposite of American usage. In fact there is no hard 'a' in Hawaiian. 'E' is ee, è is eh. W is pronounced v. Ha-vai-ee.

The only people who say "mahalo," thank you, are tourists and shopkeepers waiting on tourists. And some aunties who enjoy formality. "Tanks" will suffice for everyone else. "Howzit" is universal.

The shaka slowly makes me feel like I belong, as do the flight attendants on my regular flights and the evening officer at the airport exit who recognizes me now and the crotchety gatekeeper at the Honolulu Plumeria Lounge. At first the similarity of names baffles me: Kekoa, Keoki, Kaleo. Within a few months I can't remember why it was so difficult. I learn to pronounce place names without hesitation. Kawaihae. Waiehu Kou. Moloaa. Maalaea. Haleakala, which I butchered as a visitor. I learn when to loosen my tongue and breathe out and when to close my throat to stop the air.

I watch to see who else is at home here, longtime transplants like Tim, recent transplants who will stay. Who shakes hands and who greets with a kiss on the cheek, a shoulder press. A goat farmer. A pineapple farmer. A coffee farmer. To grow something in the red Hawaiian soil is to grow into the land. Haole is the term for a visitor, someone who doesn't grow into the land. Kama'aina is someone who does, a "child of the land." I hear the different inflections of "haole," when it's derogatory, someone who doesn't understand aloha. They're easy to pick out, the culturally frustrated and constipated and obtuse, the barbaric imperialists, the racists. It's their loss.

I learn to understand even the thickest, fastest pidgin, and the absurdity of white people who speak it, no matter how accurately or comfortably or even if island-born. It is not Hawaiian nor is much of it derived from native Hawaiian... the majority is a loose jumble of a slackened English and at least four different Asian languages. (It's actually not technically a pidgin, a form of simplified communication between two languages, but a creole language, a stable language influenced by many languages.) One native Hawaiian laughingly describes it to me as "lazy talk." But I find it beautiful, and to hear someone shift between pidgin and gently accented but proper English becomes a favorite thing.

"Shaka" is not a traditional native Hawaiian word (there is no 's' in the language) or symbol, and its origin has many theories, from a local maimed in a sugar mill to the WWII "V for Victory" to "bottoms up" to whalers indicating a diving tail. It may also have been the signature sign of a used car salesman named Lippy Espinda, a frequent extra in Hawaii Five-O, which is my least favorite story so probably the truth.

Whatever it means and wherever it came from and wherever it goes, it is Hawaiian and the unspoken essence of modern Hawaii, and feels like one of the few friendly things left in the world.


Anonymous Eugene K said...

Nice to see you blogging again! cheers.

December 8, 2016 at 3:22 PM  
Blogger A said...

Thank you! It feels good. It'll be a little more cheerful and less vague from now on. I'm working through some emotional things and I'm so glad this old friend is still here. : )

December 8, 2016 at 3:33 PM  

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