Inspired by the incredible collection of stories that America Ferrera has lovingly compiled in the new book, American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures, I wrote this essay about my experience growing up between cultures in Hawaii and how identifying as a local (anywhere in the world) stems from an innate sense of belonging. #AmericanLikeMe
It’s Saturday morning, and I’m back in the cafeteria of the Pukalani Elementary School. There was about a one-year stretch in my childhood, where I remember being in this cafeteria every single day of the week. Monday-Friday, it was for the lunch hour. We had the milk cartons that you had to fold to pop open back then, and I remember, some enterprising kid figured out that he could sell little baggies of Nestle Quik chocolate powder so that we could transform our 2% into a special treat. On most days, our Principal would enter one of the side doors, pull out the comb from his back pocket and get himself in order before greeting us:
“Good morning boys and girls.”
“Gooooood mor-ning Mis-ter Kaw-a-ka-mi!” we all responded in unison.
When I was eight or nine our back door neighbor started his own church and he had been granted permission to use the Pukalani Elementary School cafeteria for his Sunday morning meetings. My family, or course, attended and we sang along during worship at the top of our lungs. We sang as if we wanted to make sure that God knew, that we knew, that wherever two or more are gathered in His name — that that’s what made it a real church… even if we were in a cafeteria.
In those tween years, Saturdays were spent in hālau hula — hālau means “a branch from which many leaves grow” or less poetically, school. In hula school, I learned to tell a story with my hands and the value of smiling gracefully. Because of my height I was always relegated to the second row. Still to this day, the boom tap, boom tap tap rhythm the Kumu Hula playing the ipu, a dried gourd used as a percussive musical instrument makes me stand up straight, hands on my hips — ready.
The call and response:
Are you ready?
Yes we are!
There I was in the back row, Saturday morning, knees bent, barefoot, shoulders back, hands on hips, smile on face, in the Pukalani Elementary School cafeteria, with my long straight brown hair, behind the girls with the long brown curly hair, and the long brown wavy hair — Alisa Tongg with the two gs. Hawaiian. And Chinese. Hapa Haole. Local.
I am a fifth generation Kamaʻāina. My great-great-grandfather Tong Lung, came to Hawaii, from China as a teenager to work as a contract laborer in the sugar cane fields. After laboring for eight years on the plantations of Honoka’a on the Big Island, he along with two other Chinese friends formed a hui and purchased 23 acres of land of their own to farm.
A hui is a word that has similar meaning in both Hawaiian and Chinese — it means society, partnership, it’s the joining of efforts, collaboration, community gathering and clan. When people in Hawaii form a hui, it means that everyone lives frugally, and works to benefit the good of the group — people often live many generations in one household and pool all their resources in order to make an investment that will elevate and further the entire family or hui.
When my great-great-grandfather created that hui it was the height of Hawaii’s sugar plantation era and it changed the trajectory of everyone’s life. He and his friends all lived and raised their families- in total: three wives and 31 children between them — together in a single dwelling house on their farm.
When he came of age, my great grandfather, Richard, my Tai Gung, left the communal hui home and farm on the Big Island to attend the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. It was during this time, exposed to a bigger world and so many possibilities that he, along with his younger brother Rudy, added the second g to our last name, starting the double g Tongg branch of our family tree. To this day, we’re the only double g Tonggs in the world and we all have roots in Hawaii.
In the early days of World War II, it was Rudy and Richard’s turn to create a hui for their generation, along with a group of like-minded small-businessmen, they started buying up properties abandoned by Caucasians fleeing the islands during wartime. When the war was over, their collective efforts had pooled enough wealth to buy up war surplus C-47s. And in 1946, they started their own inter-island airline to cater to local clientele. They wanted their airline to be “the people’s airline” (which ironically sounds very Chinese). Trans Pacific Airline quickly became endeared to locals for it’s cheerful pioneering spirit. The stewardesses were known to perform impromptu hula in the aisles and pilots regularly flew at low altitudes so passengers could view waterfalls and other natural wonders as they hopped between islands. Locals started calling it, “the aloha airline” and in 1958, the year my father was born, the company officially changed its name to Aloha Airlines.
My great grandfather was kind of a big deal in the Honolulu social scene. Not only was he a key member of these huis that transformed the culture and economy of Hawaii, he was also the premier landscape architect in the state — designing and building parks, gardens, and focal points for resorts, public spaces and private residencies too.
He’d host many extravagant Chinese banquets and feasts, where every dish served had a symbolic meaning, meant to convey prosperity, status, health and good fortune. My grandfather, my Gung Gung, Dickie Tongg, would perform hulas in between the round banquet tables at these gatherings and celebrations. My dad remembers that in the midst of all the fancy and expensive morsels served, his grandfather, would serve this one out-of-place dish, it was minced pork and water chestnut patty on a small platter steamed with ginger and some preserved fish. Every time this dish arrived at the tables, my Tai Gung would stand up and talk to his honored guests about the importance of humility.
As a teenager, I fondly remember my father ordering this same dish, pork hash with ham yee, as a remembrance to his grandfather, when our family of six dined at a Chinese restaurant after church. Even though I loved the way this dish tasted, I always felt self-conscious when the waiter would walk through the dining area, bringing the steaming and salted-fish brand of aromatic platter past all the other diners to our table.
Decades later, just earlier this month, I saw this dish again on a menu in New York City Chinatown and asked my friend if she wouldn’t mind if I ordered it for us to share? And when I did, the waiter, visibly confused, confirmed with me three times, pointing and then underlining with a pen on the menu, my great grandfather’s humble food, “are you sure, is this what you want?”
“Yes, that’s what I want,” I said, nodding to reassure.
I want to remember what it felt like to be around one table with my sisters and my brother and my parents after church. I want to remember the pride that we felt for my great grandfather, his legacy and all that he accomplished. And even though I now live on the opposite side of the world, I want to feel connected to my story again.
When the pork hash with ham yee was ready, a waiter brought it to our table, almost put it down, but then thought better of it –turning back toward the kitchen. We heard him conferring with five other servers all dressed in black vests with ties, at the kitchen door behind us,
“Surly there was a mistake, no way these haole ladies ordered this dish.”
All the other servers pushed him forward back toward us and eventually, and carefully, he placed the platter in front of me on the table.
“Is this what you ordered?” He asked disbelieving, ready to whisk that salted-fish brand of aroma away.
With a big smile of recognition on my face, I answered, “Yes! This is exactly right.” And it was. It smelled the same, and looked the same, and instantly I was transported to an innocent time.
Our waiter was shocked. With eyes wide, double and triple looking us over, he said, “This is real Chinese people food.”
As I nodded to agree, I became someone who David, our waiter, felt responsible for — someone he felt connected to, someone local to him. Now that we had this dish in common, he felt so connected to us that he pulled out his phone to show us photos of his last trip home to China and his house in Guangdong province. He revealed that his wife died of cancer three months before and that he has two grown children, a boy and a girl. He shared with us that he’s kept his weight at 115 pounds and the secret to his good health was eating snake. Then he told me that the next time I come to this restaurant, to look for him — he’ll make sure that I get the lobster ginger scallion with two lobsters and a special Chinese price.
I’m very well aware that I don’t look Chinese. I identify, instead, as Local. I identify as Belonging. And food has a way of uniting people who don’t look like they belong together.
In Hawaii, Locals are from every mixture of racial background and we come in every shade of tan. Central to being local, like taking your shoes off before going into the house, is that intrinsic sense of belonging and being responsible to each other and the land. When you’re local, you are part of the clan, the extended family, the community, and being a part of this community comes with all the rewards and all the responsibilities of caring for each other. The Hawaiian word, kamaʻāina — children of the land, is the word locals use to differentiate our clan members from those who do not feel a connection and responsibility to the land.
It wasn’t until I came to the mainland that I felt that, for the sake of accuracy and college FAFSA forms, that I needed to qualify and explain my heritage — I was Hawaiian, but not Hawaiian. Just like all those other girls in the hula class Saturday morning across the islands, we were Hawaiian, even though our ancestors came from Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, China, the Philippines, Japan, South America, and the all over the West — we were Hawaiian because we were united in Aloha ʻĀina. That’s all we knew.
Aloha ʻĀina means to love the land. It’s the central idea of ancient Hawaiian thought — this concept — to Aloha ʻĀina, was what so many of our hulas were about — the connection between the land and the people, the ocean and the people and the people to each other. Later on, as I learned what it means to be Cherokee, I saw the concept of Aloha ʻĀina played out again and again in the rituals, ceremony and practices of all the Native American Indian tribes. In 1990, when my family watched the movie, “Dances with Wolves”, we felt connected to the Sioux tribe and their way of life — we watched their annual rite of passage for young warriors, of hunting for buffalo to provide for the tribe through the winter, and then we recoiled in horror as the camera panned acre upon acre all the way to the horizon to reveal buffalo carcasses skinned of their hides and killed for their tongues, left out to rot. It was a grotesque display of wastefulness and disregard. Even though this was a scene in a movie from another time and a different people in a far off land, as my family watched the horror of this scene unfold, we understood — those buffalo were killed by haole hunters. People with “no breath,” people who were not connected, and who were not responsible — in other words, not local.
About the time I was born, more native Hawaiians started embracing the language, history and practices of their ancestors. In 1976, a specially built two-hulled outrigger canoe named the Hōkūleʻa made a historic round-trip voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti and back, to reenact the voyages celebrated in Hawaiian legend. The crew used ancient and celestial navigation techniques and sailed almost 5000 miles in total. For many native Hawaiians, this feat inspired the start of a “highly emotional journey of cultural awakening” and pride, whose reach far extended from the participating crew and out to and through the communities on every island. In school, while y’all were learning about the Civil War, Christopher Columbus and our nation’s shameful stain of slavery, we were learning about how King Kamehameha united all the islands, the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by greedy haole businessmen and how to play the ukulele. We all knew how to pronounce Hawaiian words and what they meant: Pukalani, hole in the heavens; Haleakala, house of the sun; Ali’iolani (the street where I grew up), ruler of the heavens; A’ole, no!; Aloha, love, compassion and peace; Aloha Kakahiaka means good morning to you.
One Thanksgiving- our neighbor who had enrolled both of her children in a Hawaiian language immersion school in their attempts to connect back to their roots and their story, decided to use an ancient Hawaiian cooking technique to cook their Thanksgiving Feast — they dug a hole in the backyard and built an imu. An imu is an underground oven constructed with lava rocks, banana leaves and trunks, kiawe wood and parcels of lovingly ti leaf-wrapped meats and sweet potatoes that come out very moist (because of the steam) and delightfully smoke-tinged.
In typical local style, our neighbors extended the invitation and space in their imu for my family’s thanksgiving turkeys too. My mom prepped the two 25-pound birds by massaging them with butter and seasoning, and brought them over early in the morning to be lowered into the white-hot smoking pit.
For as long as I can remember food, good food, has been the big equalizer growing up — the potlucks after church or after high school girls basketball games were feasts of local food — lumpia, gaugee, pancit, macaroni and potato salad with namasu (a Japanese quick pickle), roast beef and brown gravy, Portuguese bean soup and sweet bread rolls, teriyaki beef, Korean chicken, meat jun, always rice, we voted with our mouths. And kalua turkey? Well that was the marriage of Hawaiian culture with the best American tradition.
For the rest of the day, as we waited for the kalua turkey to be ready, our family congregated in the living room enjoying each other’s company. My uncles took turns showing each other the latest chiropractic technique they’d gleaned from the street — I happily waited my turn for my back to be cracked and twisted, my neck and toes pulled too. And peppered in between all the familial lomi lomi and massages, we would talk story.
Talking story and finding connection through shared experience is so central to being human that we learn to tell our stories even without words too. In hula, you tell a story with your hands, and in cooking, you tell a story with what you shop for, what you grow, the rituals of preparation and you tell a story every time you bring something to the table.
One year my mother’s father, Grandpa Rodney, was with us for the Thanksgiving holiday. Grandpa Rodney is half Cherokee and from Arkansas, and came from a big family that, according to my parents, really loved ocra. When Grandpa Rodney learned that our Thanksgiving dinner would involve Stove Top Stuffing, his whole body tightened and he shook his head, “awwh, hell no!” That Thanksgiving, he set about making two trays of his famous, now infamous, cornbread-dressin’. It is safe to say that we all preferred the MSG boost that came in our beloved Stove Top over Grandpa Rodney’s lovingly made watery cornbread dressing. At the end of the night there were one and a half trays of it still and a grandpa with a hurt heart. We hadn’t just rejected his dressing, we inadvertently rejected his story too. Now that I’m older, I think back on this particular Thanksgiving heartbreak quite a bit and wish that I could try that cornbread-dressing once again — this time with new eyes, new taste buds and new understanding for all that Grandpa Rodney was sharing with us that day. To this day, even though I’ve apologized and begged him many times, he won’t share his cornbread-dressing recipe — he’s keeping it close to the vest — like his gin rummy cards.
When the table was set and every knuckle, joint and vertebrae of the extended double g Tongg family had been popped, it was time to open the imu and harvest all of the smoky bounty to serve for dinner. First the tarp with the soil atop was peeled back, then the burlap bags were removed and discarded in a pile on the side of the pit, as they poked through the layer of vegetation providing steam, all the things that had been placed in the imu early that morning were revealed. When our kalua turkeys emerged, we were shocked to see that the butter that my mother had massaged them with earlier, was still solid and present in the crevices. They were raw! Despite being placed in a smoking white-hot imu hours before, the turkeys were ice cold.
“Oh, bad imu”, was Uncle James’s casual response when the family was told that dinner would be postponed for hours!
I don’t know what we ended up feeding the gathered family that Thanksgiving, my father guesses that they simply put something else in the oven and everyone ate really late. I’m convinced that the reason why the “oh, bad imu” story was funny even in the moment, is because we all understood that the kalua turkey, although very delicious under normal circumstances, was not the point of our Thanksgiving meal or our family gathering. It was the elevation of togetherness — and the bad imu and delayed dinner was just an opportunity to remind us that we were all in it together.
I would learn this lesson that we are all in this together, again as an adult when I took my mother on a traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe adventure at sunrise off the south shore of Maui a couple years ago. Just like in Native American Indian traditions, our Hawaiian outrigger canoe guides started our excursion with a call to the four directions — through chant, our relationship to the moon, stars, sun, the ocean and the mountains was celebrated. It was on this day that I had the great fortune to learn that one of our guides, Mike Manu, had been one of 10 crew members to retrace the maiden voyage of the Hōkūleʻa and reenact the way finding experience on a new voyaging canoe called the Makali’i.
Mike shared that during this voyaging experience everyone had a special role to fill — like a big family. The canoe was the “mother” — “the canoe carries us, shelters us, stores food and water — feeds us.” The navigator was the “father” — he would study the stars and celestial bodies and decide the path for the family. All the other crew members were “brothers and sisters.” For the 28 days of his leg of the journey (from Hawaii to Tahiti) the crew was in tight quarters and exposed to the elements. Even though it was a tremendous privilege to be selected as one of the crew and they were on an exciting adventure, he shared that, “not everyone has a good day everyday out there.”
“When someone has a bad day on voyage you have to give them more aloha…more love,” Mike explained to us.
Sometimes giving aloha is talking story, sometimes it’s giving space, sometimes it’s creating a distraction to lighten the mood and make someone laugh, sometimes it’s sharing your secret stash of bite size Butterfingers. “When one person is off”, he explained, “Everyone else has to work harder to compensate.” And this dynamic can be perilous when you are all depending on each other for survival thousands of miles from shore. “The more you are able to keep everyone going with aloha, the more likely you are to survive and make it to your destination.”
As the Tahitian shore came up on the horizon, Mike shares that he understood the guiding theme and motto, “He wa’a he moku, he moku he wa’a” in a deeper more profound way.
The canoe is our island, and the island is our canoe.
We are responsible for each other, we affect each other, when our brother or sister has a troubled mental state-we cannot be separate and unaffected by what the other does. We are connected. Our resources are limited, and we are responsible for protecting them for the next generation. We are in this together. This is the wisdom that comes from living on a canoe….and from living in the most isolated population center in the world
The canoe is our island.
The island is our canoe.
Hawaii is our canoe.
America is our canoe.
The earth is our canoe.
The worst insult in the Lakota tradition is, “you live as if you had no relatives.” Native American Indians, Hawaiians, kamaʻāina, and my great grandfather, alike, are all in agreement that the single most important activity in life, is the making and maintaining of relatives — to live life where every action and decision is made with the benefit of the extended family in mind. And all of these different cultures had creative mechanisms, from formal to informal ceremonies, to reinforce and expand the social ties of the community, to make relatives of those who were not, and to create a local-identifying neighbor. Most of the ceremonies that bring people together, who don’t necessarily look like they belong together, involve the sharing of food.
And this brings us back to the awesome power of the shared table.
Here is my Theorem of Assemblage
If “Aloha is love”, and “God is love”, and “food is love”, and “we are what we eat”
Then, it must be true that where ever two or more are gathered, be it at the Thanksgiving table or the utilitarian lunchroom tables of the Pukalani Elementary School cafeteria, or a highly stylized long communal table set up in the middle of a creek, when we gather to share a meal and our stories, something special always happens. We become local. And when we become local we take responsibility for our connections to food, to our place and to each other.
The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.
Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono