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Bourdain’s Field Notes

Those of us who were not born in Hawaii, who do not live there, can be forgiven, I hope, for imagining it a paradise.

Hawaiians might want to disabuse us of this notion—patiently or maybe stridently, pointing out that unemployment on the islands is so brutal that young Hawaiians are finding it nearly impossible to find affordable housing in the communities they were born in. Or noting that traffic gets worse every year.

But we have a hard time seeing anything but gin-clear water, green mountains and the kind of place we’d like to die. Perhaps drifting off in a hammock, maybe with the sound of ukuleles in the distance. The only immediate sign of death is the shaker glass full of Mai Tai that falls from our liver-spotted hand.

And it is those things, surely; a place where a gentleman such as myself might spend the rest of his years, padding about in a sarong, smoking extravagantly good weed, eating pig in many delicious, delicious forms.

But Hawaii is actually much, much cooler than we know. MUCH cooler.

It’s both the most American place left in America (in the best and worst senses of that word) and the least American place (in only the best sense). It’s “Main Street” America in so many ways: Socially conservative, family-oriented, fairly straight-laced in its appetites, suspicious of outsiders and shot through with all the usual suspects of American business you’d want, need, and expect from Wasilla to Waco to St. Paul.

And it’s also deliriously, deliciously, not American at all: its spine, its DNA, its soul, the descendants of warrior watermen—the original people who navigated their way across the Pacific and settled the islands—and Okinawans, mainland Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese.

This is a glorious, deep gene pool stew where two people meeting at a party have to inquire who each other’s’ parents were and where they might have come from to untangle the question of exactly who’s who—everybody is too mixed up to hate anybody in particular.

I was treated with enormous kindness and generosity everywhere I went—nowhere more so than Moloka’i. My ignorance and naive preconceptions tolerated with patience and good grace. This is one haole who feels very, very honored, and grateful for the many kindnesses shown me.

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“A simple question like ‘Who is Hawaiian?’ gets you all kinds of answers.”

Local Lingo

Haole: a person who is not an indigenous Hawaiian.
Hōkūleʻa: a double-hulled sailing canoe; a replica of the kind of craft believed to have been used by ancient Polynesian navigators.
Friendly Island: A sardonic nickname for Molokai.
ʻĀina: Hawaiian word for “land”; it translates literally to “that which feeds you.”
Ohana: Hawaiian word for an extended circle of family and close friends.
Kūpuna: Hawaiian word for ancestors.

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