On Privilege: What The Big Island Taught Me

1.

“Where are you from?” The woman in the food truck pushes two iced coffees toward us.

“Oregon,” I say.

“But my mom lives here,” Kelly added. “We’re just visiting.”

I add cane sugar to my coffee and stir. I notice that the ice cubes are made out of coffee and shaped like stars. I take a sip and the sugar is grainy. I feel it crunch between my teeth.

2.

“Where are you from?” the woman asks. She is pouring green sugar flavouring over shave ice. My hair is limp and there is a sheen of sweat on my forehead.

“Portland,” I say. “Oregon,” I specify. The ceiling fan above us spins lazily and slight resentment bubbles to the surface.

“It’s been so hot lately,” the woman says, handing me two overflowing bowls of shave ice.

3.

“Where are you ladies from?” The waitress smiles as she hands us plates of lau lau, lomi lomi salmon, and rice.

“My mom lives here,” Kelly says for the fifth time since we landed in Kona.

The woman’s face crinkles into a smile. “Oh, that’s nice.”

“We’re just visiting,” Kelly adds. I pass my cup of tomato-spiked salmon salad to Kelly.

~

“Why does everyone think we’re tourists?” I ask Kelly later. “We’re not on Maui. We’re not staying at a resort. We’re not going to touristy places!”

Kelly shrugs. “Everyone here is from somewhere else.”

“If I was your mom and got that question all the time I couldn’t handle it,” I say.

“It’s a small island. They get to know you after a while.” Kelly shrugs again, unperturbed.

In Seattle, San Francisco, Sacramento, I blend it. I more or less look like a local. I sound like a local. I’m used to this privilege. No one asks me where I’m from apropos of nothing. The way I am painted with “otherness” here against my will is unsettling. I expect it in foreign countries where I don’t speak the language and my skin is the wrong shade.

This feeling of alienation is like a mouth sore. It would go away only if I could stop tonguing it. I begin to feel victorious when we go somewhere and people don’t ask us where we’re from.

Every “Where are you from?” becomes less of a friendly inquiry and more of an accusation. It begins to sound like, “Why are you here?”

We drive and drive. I haven’t taken so many road trips since living in Eastern Oregon, an hour from a movie theater. As Kelly drives down the windy coastal road, I stare out the window. I begin to take note of every “Keep Out,” “No Trespassing,” and “Kapu” (forbidden) sign we see. Kelly points out the native Hawaiian flag: red, green, and yellow with a coat of arms, including a kahili and two paddles.

“That’s some nationalism, right there,” she says. “You’ll also see it paired with an upside down Hawaii state flag.” And we do.

We pass a huge plywood board spray painted to say, “Get off Mauna Kea!!!” propped against a house. I feel a pang of guilt as I remember the spectacular sunset we saw on Mauna Kea the night before.

 

We drive through Waimea, a misty mountain town, and fall a little bit in love. The quaint buildings are dwarfed by towering Mighty-Joe-Young mountains in the background. The clouds fade to fog, and shroud the mountaintops. People on the coast dismiss Waimea for its mountain views instead of ocean views. They dismiss it for it’s light jackets and jean weather instead of tank top weather. I think for a moment that I could live here.

Leaving Waimea, on the way to Waipi’o Valley, we see a native Hawaiian flag with an upside down Hawaiian state flag flying proudly in front of a farm. I am reminded that I do not belong here. I am reminded that I am not wanted here.

My initial defensiveness begins to fade once I start researching the complicated past the Kingdom of Hawaii shares with rest of the United States. I read about Hawaiians waiting for ancestral land, even decades later. Still waiting. I begin to understand how this bitterness could creep into daily life. I begin to understand why they claim the land they have with “Kapu” signs.

If native Hawaiians are still waiting for their land, what right do I have to be on it?

You don’t have to look very far to see the horrible things that the U.S. has done in the name of freedom. Unpacking the privilege of being white and living in the U.S. is a complicated, years long process. It pales in comparison to what less privileged people deal with.

I try to step outside myself and let the resentment go. I try to let the privilege go. The next time someone asks me where I’m from, I smile and say, “Oregon. What a beautiful place Hawaii is.”

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