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Haole Survival Guide

By Wil Forbis

For years, I would mention to people that I grew up in Hawaii and the conversations would go something like this:

Me: Yeah, I was in Honolulu from the age of 5 to 18.

Them: Oh my, you grew up in Hawaii? Why did you ever leave?

Me: Well, I mean, it's okay, but there's a lot you don't hear about, a lot of racial.

Them: My goodness. The sunsets. Aren't the sunsets wonderful?

Me: Well, sure, but like I was saying there's a lot of tension between.

Them: And those waterfalls. Did you grow up on a waterfall?

Me: No. I grew up in a regular neighborhood with houses and apartments. No waterfalls.

Them: Oh and those glorious beaches. Could you surf to school? And the Hawaiian people seem wonderful. I still remember seeing Don Ho on "I Dream of Jeannie."

Me: Well, that's a complex topic. Most of my interactions with Hawaiians occurred when they were pressing me up against a locker or chasing me down the street yelling obscenities.

Them: Why aren't you wearing a lei?

So you can why, now, whenever the topic comes up the conversation is more like this.

Me: Yeah, I was in Honolulu from the age of 5 to 18.

Them: Oh my, you grew up in Hawaii? Why did you ever leave?

Me: Yeah, it was great. I love it. Hey, look at my new socks.

I came to the conclusion that it's basically impossible for people who have never been to Hawaii - scratch that - who have never grown up in Hawaii -  to really understand what life is like there. Short of a Vulcan mind meld, it's just not something non-Islanders can be made to comprehend.

Hawaii is doubtless the most unique state in the United States with its broad cultural and racial diversity. In many ways it better embodies the "melting pot" vision of America than even the streets of New York that lie underneath the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. And the mix of races there is distinctly different from the predictable blend of whites, blacks, Hispanics and - what the heck, let's throw in a couple Asians - that you would find in any other American state. Hawaii is a simmering stew of Native Hawaiians, Samoans, Portuguese, Filipinos, Okinawans, Micronesians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and of course, haoles - white folk like me. (Though the more common usage of the term is "Fucking haole" which could be a pleasant reference to our libidos but I'm pretty sure it ain't.)

And hey, it's a beautiful thing. It says something moving about the human race that people of such different cultures and backgrounds can live in relative toleration of each other. But the racial interactions of the place are far from harmonious. You learn soon after stepping onto the shores of any Hawaiian island and arriving into th public school system that there is a built-in pecking order between these races. It is, as follows :*

1) Hawaiians
2) Samoans, Fillipinos, Micronesians
3) Local Asians (e.g. Asians who have actually lived in Hawaii for generations), Portuguese
4) haoles
5) Fresh-off-the-boat Asians (Vietnamese, Cambodians - "Boat People.")

(* I should footnote: This list would change radically when you start talking about "polite society." Politically, Hawaii is dominated by Japanese and haoles, while Samoans and Native Hawaiians experience high degrees of poverty.)

What forces dictated the design of such ethnic ranking? First, the list above could serve a dual purpose of cataloging the order in which various groups arrived on the islands (Granted, haoles were really second, arriving in the form of the infamous Captain James Cook but have always had a separate presence.) Also, there's the matter of size. Hawaiians and Samoans are simply bigger than everybody else and could easily kick your ass. Thus it was an easy feat for them to dominate the playground.

But I read the paragraph above and see that I'm taking a disturbingly academic tone to the whole matter. What I really am trying to convey is that growing up on the lower end of this hierarchy could be a miserable, fearsome experience. Throughout most of my years in elementary school (things mellowed out a bit in high school), there was simply no telling when some moke (giant Hawaiian) who had arms like garbage cans and weighed three times your body weight would decide you'd done something to offend him and make a vow to bus' yo face up (bust your face up) after school. At which point you had three options: a) Tell a teacher (which any kid worth his salt knows makes you the lowest form of life on the planet, beneath the most primal plankton.) b) Escape, or. c) Confront. I'm proud to say I never took option a). I'm less proud to say I most often pursued option b), going to such lengths as hiding in classrooms for hours after school, or once, literally climbing over a building to avoid a bully at the gates*. Occasionally, I was forced to confront, though my fights were few and far between. For one thing, as you've probably guessed, I was kind of a pussy. But I'd already developed an interesting technique of joking my way out of a battle. If I could approach the situation with genuine surprise with the bully who had taken offense, I could show  that he must really be thin-skinned to have experienced such rage, and I could actually embarrass the guy for wanting to kick my ass. (Yes, this shit actually worked.) Furthermore, if I could ingratiate myself to the assembled crowd of fight-gawkers with a comedic handling of the situation, it became "uncool" to want to bust up my face. And nothing helps you develop a sense of humor faster than the realization that it can save you from getting a bloody nose.

*I just remembered another great technique along these lines: Get detention that forces you to stay after school. "Gosh, I'd love to fight you Akune, but I've got this darned detention. Maybe next time." This raises the point as to why the fight wasn't simply postponed until the next day, but I guess it's one of the unspoken and curious rules of childhood that if a bully can't take vengeance within 24 hours of declaring his intention to, he has to let the matter slide.)

Faceoff at lunchtime
Let me tell you my favorite fight story. I was in the second or third grade attending Lunalilo Elementary school. For lunch we would all wait in line against the cafeteria wall and somehow during this wait I managed to insult a curly haired, half-Hawaiian kid named Sammy. I saw him pull back his fist for a blow to my stomach and immediately froze up. His fist came forward and right as he was about to hit me, I blinked. I started to feel a pain in my stomach and then I opened my eyes - right in time to see Sammy's fist bounce off the hard concrete wall. He completely missed me from point blank range! I burst out laughing, as did most of the kids around us. And here's the best part: Even Sammy thought it was funny and spared me his future wrath.

During most of my years under the thumb of such gargantuan forces, I, of course, had no appreciation for the uniqueness of the experience I was having. I had little tolerance for the thought that all this suffering might give me insights different from the average American white kid. But looking back, years later, I have two realizations. One, most kids, regardless of where they live undergo some torment at the hands of bullies. It's not an experience unique to Hawaii, though I do think it's substantially worsened by the considerable size difference between Hawaiians, Samoans and everybody else. But, two, it did give me a genuine appreciation for the wide gamut of cultures that exist in the world. In Hawaii, everyone is surrounded by people different from themselves, and I think that environment fuels a healthy curiosity about other people/races/places. Hawaii was "globalizing" decades (centuries!) before the term meant anything. I still think there's a breeze of intolerance that blows through the place, but in many ways, people in Hawaii are very tolerant. They have to be. (Part of such tolerance is fuel by Hawaii's very particular - and politically incorrect - humor, a subject touched upon in this interview with Hawaiian comedian Frank De Lima.)

And there's another, more personal, advantage to growing up in Hawaii. Once you get off that godforsaken rock and get to the mainland, there's a strange sort of camaraderie that occurs when you encounter fellow islanders. Years ago I was playing in a blues band in a dive bar in Seattle and several beefy Hawaiians walked in. These were the same guys who'd eagerly seek out opportunities to introduce my face to their fist in the sixth grade, but once I mentioned where I'd grown up they were excited to meet someone from home. We talked ("talked story" as they say on the islands) and got along great. Years after that I wandered into a party and was introduced to a Hawaiian tita (It's hard to clearly define this word - I want to say "fat lady" but there's more to it than that.) and the bonding was immediate. There was that sensation that we had known each other our whole lives because, in some ways, we had. There was a feeling that we had a secret, unknown, and unknowable, to the other people of the party. Growing up in Hawaii gives you membership in a Skull-and-Bones-like secret society, though one that places a higher reverence on musubi and SPAM than world domination. And with haole friends who grew up in the islands and now live on the mainland, I definitely share a bond that cannot be understood by others. There's a sense that we're a little different - probably a little superior - to the other white people around us. And if after years of tauntings, name-calling, threats and beatings I get to turn around and start to look down my nose at everyone around me - well, Goddammit - I've earned it!

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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email -

Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.