A Rarely Seen Hawaii: Kristiana Kahakauwila’s This Is Paradise
Kristiana Kahakauwila’s first story collection, This Is Paradise, explores the yawning gap between the tourist’s conception of Hawaii as an idyllic tropical wonderland and the sometimes difficult lives of the book’s native protagonists. For them, life on the island offers beauty, but tragedy and conflict as well.
The title of the collection isn’t just an ironic nod to the bittersweet tone of the stories; it is also a challenge to the reader: Do you really understand Hawaii? How much are you like the mainland tourists depicted in this collection, most of whom are so captivated by the idea of Hawaii as a paradisiacal playground that they’re completely blind to the reality of the Aloha State?
This tension between Haoles (a Hawaiian word describing white outsiders) and natives is a recurrent element in Kahakauwila’s debut. Sometimes it takes the form of a direct conflict, but many times it manifests in the way that the tourists’ presence has changed the ancient culture of the islands. Vacation resorts are steadily encroaching on land on which native families have lived for generations, and the chain bars and restaurants that come in their wake are destroying local businesses and homogenizing the cities.
The paradise-seeking Haoles who occasionally cross paths with the natives of This Is Paradise are not only ignorant of the culture of the islands; they are also blind to its dangers. In the titular story, “This Is Paradise,” a young woman on vacation visits a nightclub and ignores the warnings given to her by a group of native Hawaiian girls not to leave with a suspicious man bearing prison tattoos. “You girls really don’t want visitors to have a good time, do you?” Later, the same group of girls finds her dead on the beach.
Sometimes the natives themselves become outsiders to their own cultures, be it by choice, circumstance, or a little bit of both. Some who go to the mainland for study or work find that they no longer feel at home when (or, rather, if) they return. In some cases, like that of “Pili,” a young gay man who returns home to care for his dying father in “The Old Paniolo Way,” feeling like an outsider is what prompted them to leave in the first place.
This Is Paradiseis a sublime collection of stories, at turns heartbreaking and even a little shaming for those who may recognize something of themselves in the book’s tourists. After finishing the book, readers will likely find that answering the question posed within the title isn’t as easy as initially thought. Paradise can indeed be found in Hawaii, but only at a hefty price: the destruction of an ancient way of life.
Midmorning the lifeguards fan across the beach and push signposts into the sand. The same picture is on all of them: a stick figure, its arms aloft, its circle head drowning in a set of triangle waves. CAUTION, the signs read. DANGEROUS UNDERTOW.
We ignore it. We've gone out at Makaha and Makapu'u before. We've felt Yokes pull us under. We are not afraid of the beaches and breaks here in Waikiki. We are careless, in fact, brazen. So when we see her studying the warning, chewing the right side of her lip, we laugh. Jus' like da kine, scared of da water. Haoles, yeah.
The tourist girl is white. They're all white to us unless they're black. She has light brown hair, a pointed nose, eyebrows neatly plucked into a firm line. She wears a white bikini with red polka dots. Triangle-cut top, ruffled bottom. We shake our heads at her. Our 'ehu hair, pulled into ponytails, bounces against our necks. Our bikinis are carefully cut pieces with cross-back straps and lean bottoms. We surf in these, sista. We don't have time for ruffles and ruching. But she does, like every other tourist. Her blue-and-white-striped hotel towel labels her for what she is.
So why do we look at her as we pass? Why do we notice her out of the hundreds of others? Do we already know she's marked, special in some way?
At the high tide line Cora Jones and Kaila Ka'awa pull on rashguards to protect against the trade winds, which are wailing this morning. The rest of us pretend we don't have chicken skin. We strap our leashes to our ankles, careful to piece the Velcro together, and then we jump on our boards and feel them skim across the surface of the water. Arching our backs, our hips pressed into hard fiberglass, we dig the water with our hands. We raise one foot for balance, and because we know we are silhouetted against the horizon, we hold our heads high, we point our toes. Our bodies curve upward, like smiles, beckoning those on shore to follow.
When we look back, the tourist girl is approaching the ocean's edge. She walks into the water, the small waves lapping at her feet, ankles, knees, chest. We see her dip her shoulders into the whitewash. We don't tell her to stay away from the retaining wall in front of Baby Queens or that today the current is moving from 'Ewa to Diamond Head. We paddle, and in a moment, we've left her behind.
Only local folks leave us money, placing it on top of the television in an envelope with the word "Housekeeping" printed across the front. We split the cash, tucking it into our shoes where management won't look for it.
We, the women of Housekeeping, get left other things, too, but by accident. The Japanese leave behind useful items: tubes of sunscreen, beach floaties, snorkel gear, unopened boxes of cereal, half-filled bottles of American whiskey, brand-new packets of travel tissues decorated with Choco-Cat and Hello Kitty, which our youngest girls love. The tissues we take. Even when management checks the pockets of our uniforms, they never think to confiscate packets of tissues. We don't get in trouble for bringing those home. The rest we throw into trash bags or hide on the bottom shelf of our carts to leave at the loading dock for night security. Management doesn't check their pockets.
What mainland Americans leave behind makes us blush: used condoms under the bed, a turquoise bra with thick cups like soup bowls, pornographic magazines. We find a single blue sandal, a hairbrush tangled with yellow hair, a vibrating toothbrush, a stuffed bear with a missing arm and glass eyes. Such intimate pieces to forget.
Today we have been cleaning rooms for five hours, since six in the morning. Tucking the bottom sheets at least eight times, disinfecting the sinks and bathtubs, vacuuming the dark brown carpets. We have cleaned twelve rooms and have eight more to go. We pause in the hallway. We don't have time to rest, but we do anyway, just for a moment. The door to room 254 is open, and we watch a young woman tie a white wrap around her waist. Her polka-dot bathing suit is damp and turns the white fabric sheer, the red dots shining through like mosquito bites. She catches us watching her. "You don't need to replace the towels," she says, smiling. "Conserve water." Her teeth are coins, flat and shiny. We want to tell her to wear a thicker skirt, but it's not our place to speak to guests.
A young man appears from behind the wall and walks around the foot of the bed: "I already left mine on the floor."
The girl rolls her eyes. "Then pick it up," she scolds. She turns to give us an exasperated smile, and we are reminded of our eldest daughters: impatient with nonsense, bossing their brothers, keeping the house. This girl, like our girls, is the type a mother can depend on to do things: drive Grandmother to a doctor's appointment, cook breakfast for Papa, dress and feed the babies before school. We smile back at her. We feel as if we can trust her.
The young man finally emerges from the bedroom--shoelaces untied, hat pulled low over his eyes--and she smacks him lightly on the arm. "You take longer than a girl," she says. She laughs, a light, tinkling giggle. He laughs. They look at us, so we laugh. At the end of the hall, she turns and waves at us. We nod, small smiles tightening our lips, and then we enter the room to make the beds.
We think of her for the rest of our shift, chuckling at her bossiness and cheer. When we return our carts, the manager doesn't bother to check our pockets, which makes this a good day, and we decide the American girl has brought us luck.
The hotel is strict about a great number of our activities. They have rules on how to store the carts, what time to punch in, what time to punch out, how to answer the phone (always start with "Aloha"), how to arrange the pillows on the bed, how to report suspicious activity. The last rule was created to fight terrorism, though we wonder what kind of terrorists would stay in Waikiki. In fact, we don't entirely understand this rule or trust it. It seems designed only to make trouble for us. We've heard stories, after all, stories about workers like us who tried to obey the rule. Stories like the one about Janora Cabrera, who saw a man pressing a woman against a wall and reaching up her skirt on the penthouse floor. Janora told her shift manager about what she had seen. The shift manager reported it to the night auditor, who deferred to the daytime manager. Together, they reprimanded Janora. "You are only to report suspicious behavior," they told her. "You are not to involve yourself with our guests' lives."
Our shift ends at two in the afternoon, and we exit the hotel from the basement, a hot tunnel that smells of dryer sheets. This is where the housekeeping office is located and where we are kept, tucked away from the visitors who wander in and out of the front lobby. From here we cannot hear their sandals clap against the polished marble floors nor see their eyes widen as they first glimpse the Pacific through the glass windows of the lanai. We exit onto a sidewalk spotted with old gum stains and the faint red splatter of a spilled shave ice.
At the bus stop, waiting to go home, we laugh with one another. We talk of our husbands and our children. How fast they grow, our little ones, how quickly they move through school, through friends, through clothes. Already the youngest speak more English than we do, and the eldest make plans to go to college. We're proud of them, scared for them. We want them to go. We want them to stay in the house to help us. We even want, in some small part of our hearts, to send them back home to Pohnpei or Yap or Kosrae so they can really learn what it means to be one of us. Already they are American.
On the ride home, our shoulders ache and our shoes feel tight around our swollen feet. We close our eyes and let the bus's air-conditioning wash over us like a wave.
We tap the gas pedal, then hit the brakes again. Our cars lurch to a stop. Our heels and briefcases slide across the passenger seat, and one shoe drops to the floor with a hollow thunk. As successful career women we left work feeling powerful, but the traffic at Kapi'olani and Kalakaua has ended that. We might be the ones chosen to mold our islands' future, but we're stuck like everyone else, our cars moving at the speed of poi.
We stare into the four-story convention center, its glass walls lending the impression of a squared fishbowl. A dental convention is in town, and we watch as a cluster of attendees crowd the escalator. On the ground floor they shake hands and exchange business cards. One of them reaches into his plastic goody-bag to show off a collection of maps, pamphlets, and lastly some travel toothbrushes, which causes riotous laughter among the group. We are not privy to the joke, but our mouths are sticky from nine hours at the office. We could use those toothbrushes right now.
We could also use massages and an end to this traffic. Esther Lu could use a glass of wine, which she would sip on the couch when she finally reaches her condo. Laura Tavares would like two hours of television, preferably the Food Channel. The rest of us want a personal chef. Lacking one, we'll probably call our parents and see what they're having for dinner, which we do on more evenings than we'd care to admit. One more benefit of returning home to the islands.
Despite our tendency toward culinary laziness, our exhaustion is not allowed to overtake us this evening. Tonight, we're celebrating. Laura just submitted her proposal for a LEED-certified resort on Maui, and we hear her firm will win the bid; Kiana Naone was promoted to Politics Editor at the Honolulu Advertiser; and Esther will take the lead on a high-profile murder case that all but promises her making partner in a year. After years of part-time jobs and student loans and late nights with a desk lamp's yellow light on our books, we've made it. Or are making it. Or are close to saying we will make it.
It doesn't hurt that we're from here. We are considered by our peers to be local women who've done well, left but come back, dedicated their education and mainland skills to putting this island right. We speak at civic club gatherings and native rights events. We are becoming pillars of the island community. We are growing into who we've always dreamt of being. But sometimes, late at night and alone beneath the hand-stitched Hawaiian quilts we can finally afford to purchase, we wish we had followed our law and grad school boyfriends to D.C. or Chicago. We could have foregone being pillars. We could have been regular women.
Meeting room doors are flung open and dentists stream from the fishbowl. The day's activities at the convention center are ended. The dentists cross the Ala Wai Canal, swarm the bridge on Kalakaua Avenue, and the traffic stands completely still as our cars are consumed by a mass of people armed with travel toothbrushes. Some jackass honks his horn like it's going to move the herd. The dentists all look so similar, with their neatly cut hair, ruler-straight teeth, and habit of striding with purpose, as if their assistance is urgently needed elsewhere. We can't help but wonder which of them are single.
In this moment of exit, their spirits high from presentations on the latest anesthetic or whitening solution, the dentists forget where they are. Hawai'i has less tropical flavor than they recall from the morning, less exoticism, less beauty. Waikiki has become like any other city strip. We'd like to tell them that Waikiki is nothing more than a succession of Hyatts and Courtyard by Marriotts, Cheesecake Factories and Planet Hollywoods, Senor Frogs and dingy Irish pubs with names like Murphy's and Callahan's. We'd like to tell them the real Hawai'i is elsewhere, hidden in the karaoke bars on King Street and on Waimanalo's ranch lands, in the view of the Mokes from Pillboxes and along the beach by Dillingham Air Strip, the portion of North Shore where only locals camp. We could tell them, but we say nothing.
Our cars inch forward. We stare out the windows, bored. A woman in a polka-dot bikini and pareo is shopping in one of the ABC convenience stores. Why do women from the Continent think they should shop in their bikinis? She buys two bags of Kona coffee, four boxes of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, a string of cheap Pacific pearls, and a stack of postcards featuring various beaches all bathed in the reddish light of the same sunset. Her brother--same ski-jump nose, same narrowly set eyes--holds up a T-shirt, pointing proudly to the central image: a hula girl wearing a coconut bra, grass skirt, and lei. The hula girl's skin is fair, haole skin, and we're not sure if this makes the image better or worse.
The light changes. Our cars inch forward again. We return our gaze to the dentists, whose spouses are waiting for them in front of numerous hotel lobbies. The spouses are tired and hungry and pink as boiled shrimp from their day at the beach. The kids--all ages--are bored or playing video games or asking when they can next swim in the hotel pool. We pretend that, if on vacation ourselves, we would act differently--hike Koko Head, attend a bon dance, visit the Palace and learn about the Hawaiian monarchy--but deep down, we know we'd do the same as they: venture no farther than the nearest Starbucks.
In front of Denny's, one of the kids whines, "I wanted Mickey-ear pancakes," and the mother says to her husband, "Next year, Florida." We want to tell the boy we understand: Hawai'i lacks a Toon Town and roller coasters. And outside of Waikiki, the native dress seems suspiciously similar to what's on sale at Macy's. Hawai'i is no fantasyland.
Men fill the Lava Lounge the way sand fills a tidepool: at the edge of the rock walls and then creeping toward the center. A game is on--at the Lava Lounge, a game is always on--and a spontaneous moan issues from the bar. The men's faces tilt upward, in the direction of the big-screen TVs mounted above the top-shelf liquor, and their arms are crossed in such a way that their beer rests in the crooks of their left elbows. They speak to each other out of the corners of their mouths, analyzing plays and players and, maybe once, a woman who crosses their field of vision. They are not immune to us, but they aren't ready to pursue us yet either. In the meantime, we order dinner and describe the waves we caught this morning.