Cameron Crowe has nothing to apologize for when it comes to his latest film, “Aloha,” except, possibly, that he made the film, which has a remarkably bad 18 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. His critics, at least the ones who contained their chagrin to the film’s casting and not its storyline, may have known this, had they taken Hawaii’s unique culture, history, and atmosphere into consideration, rather than blindly pursuing their own ideological agenda.
Five years ago, I married into a half-Hawaiian family that was, on the Hawaiian side, a mix of American-born and Okinawan Japanese, producing generation after generation of half- and quarter-Asian children who are not only ridiculously attractive, but also celebratory of their history and heritage. This, of course, makes for a rather lucky family reunion schedule—they normally take place in or near Honolulu—but it also offers an interesting perspective on just how different Hawaii is from the mainland.
Hawaii’s Interaction with the Mainland
America’s historical interaction with Hawaii and its native population has all the predictable elements: desire for control, overbearing management, and then, ultimately, an unauthorized land grab followed by decades of resentment. But Hawaii’s status as a tourist destination for Americans goes back less than century. Before that, Hawaii was a melting pot of seafaring cultures—the Japanese, Portugese, Tahitans, and others—where agricultural workers lived in close proximity on sugar and pineapple plantations, mixing cultures and influencing each other’s tastes in food, clothing, routine, choice of alcoholic beverages, and, most importantly, insect repellant strategies.
When Americans finally landed on Hawaii’s shores bearing potted meat and a need for a strategic military position, Hawaii had already become a multicultural society, albeit still skeptical of foreign dignitaries. That skepticism remains visible to this day, most notably in some graffiti on the left retention wall of Hawaii’s H1 that reads “Cook Got Cooked,” apparently in terrifying reference to the experience of Hawaii’s first Western interloper.
Hawaiians, native and otherwise, welcomed Americans, canned food, hamburger meat, and tiny bathing suits with their typical “aloha” spirit (ostensibly the subject of Crowe’s movie). By which, I mean that over the next several decades, they married them. Within a few generations, they were turning out babies that looked remarkably like Emma Stone (and, unfortunately for those of us who have to endure them, culinary creations of questionable merit like the “spam musubi,” a giant sushi roll made of rice, seaweed, and canned ham).
This isn’t to say that “quapa” (quarter-Asian) Hawaiians like Stone’s character aren’t rare. But “hapa” (half-Asisan) Hawaiians most certainly aren’t. And these hapa-Haole (half-Asian, half-white) kids are just part of Hawaii’s culture, a mark of the diversity and inclusion Hawaii has practiced over the course of centuries.
A friend or relative that, like Stone’s Allison Ng, struggles to explain a quarter-Asian heritage is a familiar character to those of Hawaiian ancestry. In fact, my kids, who are quarter-Japanese Hawaiian and half-Italian, will probably face the same questions. My husband, who is half-Japanese Hawaiian, is mistaken for everything from Hispanic to Greek. Explaining at cocktail parties how your family made it to the mainland is almost as interesting as how Islanders managed to settle in a Chicago suburb.
Cue the Identity Politics Stampede
As is typical of identity politics scholars, seeing Ng’s character for what Crowe claims he intended her to be—an expression of the Aloha spirit in herself, the child of historical Hawaiians who had embraced the multi-cultural landscape Hawaii offers—was something of difficulty. Instead of looking to apply how Hawaiians might really feel about their culture, or speaking to someone who had descended, like Ng, from a Hawaiian, Asian, and Caucasian parentage to see how he or she felt about Stone’s portrayal, they jumped to the easiest conclusion available, based on the limited experience with diversity one can gain in an almost universally-white academic setting. For people who claim to be preserving the last vestiges of Hawaiian culture, they’ve demonstrably experienced very little of it.
Obviously, my experience is limited, too. I’ve been a few times; I’ve learned the hard way that the Mai Tais they serve the locals are different from the ones they serve the tourists. I’ve noticed that you can order Spam and rice with your powdered eggs for breakfast in a McDonalds that has a better view of the ocean most Honolulu hotel rooms.
But most importantly, I’ve learned that to Hawaiians, the concept of family is most important, and that family is inclusive—of Hawaiians, of Americans, and, yes, of questionable dietary staples. Where it comes to the concept of “aloha” and the generations it creates, critical—not knee-jerk academic—thinking is warranted. We could learn quite a bit from the inclusion practiced in native Hawaiian culture, if, of course, we’re willing to let go of traditional notions of what that means in a Progressive context.