Did you learn pineapple makes a pizza Hawaiian? A Hawaiian shirt is a kitschy floral button-down only your middle-aged uncle wears? That Aloha translates to hello and goodbye, respectively? You’re not technically wrong on some of those. But let’s zhoosh up your cultural literacy.
It’s Asian Pacific American Heritage month. And while that encompasses the entire Asian continent, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia — May 1st was Lei Day, one of the biggest cultural celebrations in Hawai’i. So I’d love to share how we might better honor America’s 50th state.
I’m a “hapa” girl (meaning, I’m mixed-race Asian Pacific Islander). I was born and raised in Honolulu, and since settling down in the mainland over eight years ago, I’ve realized something: Folks are a bit fuzzy on the culture of Asian Pacific Islanders, and the islands themselves.
Let’s start with some basics. Hawai’i is my home, but I’m not Hawaiian (it merits emphasizing). Unlike other places — where birth or residency allows you to call yourself a Californian, Texan, or New Yorker — when we talk about this state, there’s a lot to unpack.
Geographically? It’s an over thousand-mile-long volcanic archipelago with eight major islands: Hawai’i, Maui, O’ahu, Kaua’i, Moloka’i, Lāna’i, Ni’ihau, and Kaho’olawe.
Politically? It’s a former kingdom with a long history of monarchs, feuding dynasties, and a fully-functioning (and still legally recognized) language.
Ancestrally? It’s a rich ethnic group that makes up the base of the country’s most racially diverse state.
So when we talk about Hawai’i and the people who live there, we have to remember the nuance. We have to remember American, British, and German businessmen and nationals who wanted better trade for two non-native commodities — pineapple and sugarcane — overthrew the kingdom in 1893. We have to remember it only received statehood in 1959, barely a generation ago. (My mother’s birth certificate reads territory. Mine reads state.)
Throughout that time, it’s been stripped down, packaged, and sold — over and over again. Yes, you can get your own slice of paradise here. Yes, you can book a fantasy resort equipped with roasting pig and exotic dancing. But there’s so much more to Hawai’i than that.
Despite tourism being a $17 billion contributor to the state’s economy, natives struggle with identity appropriation and sovereignty to this day. There’s the Akaka Bill that has unsuccessfully sought federal recognition similar to that of Native American tribes. There’s the Thirty Meter Telescope project that divides the scientific community about building telescopes on the sacred peak, Mauna Kea. There’s Chicago’s Aloha Poke Co. controversy, one of many mainland businesses over the years attempting to trademark bits of the Hawaiian language.
These issues can’t be solved in one day or in one heritage month. And I can’t speak on behalf of everyone there — certainly not for true descendants. But understanding is the first step. So visit Hawai’i. Celebrate its culture. Watch Moana and Johnny Tsunami ten more times. I love them, too. And use these tidbits to help you navigate the conversation just a little bit better:
- Pineapples are damn delicious. But they aren’t native to Hawai’i and can symbolize a very dark time in the state’s history.
- Hawaiian shirts are actually called Aloha shirts. They’re worn in professional or formal settings. If you’re looking at an authentic one — it’s an expensive, gorgeously crafted textile, originally designed by Japanese immigrant Chōtarō Miyamoto in 1935.
- “Aloha” is a deeply spiritual term indicating sharing, joy, affection, breath, and life energy (often likened to namaste). And it’s a state law. The Law of The Aloha Spirit defines the word as “the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the Self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others.”
- When you meet someone from Hawai’i, hesitate before calling them Hawaiian. It’s a sensitive distinction.
- The apostrophe-looking thing in Hawaiian words is called an ‘okina. It’s the 13th letter of the alphabet and it indicates a glottal stop. You’re welcome to use it, but it’s not necessary in American English.
- Next time you host an event with flowers, pig, and slack-key guitar — I recommend calling it a “tropical party” instead. It’ll stay true to your theme, but be a little more mindful.
And as always, mahalo plenty.
*This article was originally published for MINDBODY, Inc. internally—for a celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.