WHILE STANDING in the courtyard of one of the oldest hotels in Waikīkī, I noticed a large monkeypod tree standing tall above a clean, well-trimmed lawn. It was magnificent, with branches that reached wide and a canopy that welcomed you in. However, there was something different about this particular monkeypod tree.
Anyone who knows anything about monkeypod trees knows that they make a huge mess. In addition to the falling leaves and stems, the seed pods regularly fall to the ground to make a sticky clutter. Pedestrians walking near monkeypod trees usually drag their feet, trying to scrape off the remnants of sap and seeds. A clean ground beneath a monkeypod tree is basically evidence of 24/7 efforts by hotel workers to clear away debris so that tourists can enjoy the beauty of the tree without having to face its messy nature.
Hawaiʻi is painted as an island paradise and multicultural melting pot. A typical visitor spends nearly $200 per day in Hawaiʻi, while houseless individuals set up tents in whatever sidewalk or park is available to avoid the city's "sit-lie ban" to make tourists feel more comfortable.
Hawaiʻi is painted as an island paradise and multicultural melting pot.
On one block, there are high-end shops like Tiffany & Co., Coach, Gucci, and Chanel. The next block over hosts women in sex trafficking, where they are sold to men looking for some "entertainment", and then leave the community within a few days with no sense of accountability. We feel entitled to enjoy ourselves and relax to escape the harsh realities of life while on vacation; thinking about these issues on vacation makes us weary when we just want to have fun. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and I wonder what this can look like even when we're on vacation.
Several years ago, I used to work for a large Native Hawaiian-serving organization and my office went on a huakaʻi (field trip) to Waikīkī to learn about the history, culture, and significance of this well-visited location. We wanted to see Waikīkī beyond what tourists see. Our guide, Uncle Kamanaʻo, shared about growing up in the area, playing with his siblings, and picking limu (seaweed) from the beach to take home for dinner. King Kamehameha even established his first residence in Waikīkī and made it his headquarters. I am grateful to Uncle Kamanaʻo for sharing his experiences and passion for the community he once called home.
What struck me, though, was how different Uncle Kamanaʻo's stories were from the Waikīkī that we now see today. Just feet away from where Uncle Kamanaʻo used to pick limu for dinner are restaurants that sell dinners costing more than what he now makes in an entire day.
Growing up in Hawaiʻi, I often avoided Waikīkī because I didn't like the crowds and traffic. To this day, I feel pain visiting that place, seeing tourists from the United States, Asia, and other places around the world consuming an intentionally landscaped, "pretty" version of Native Hawaiian culture and the many other cultures of Hawaiʻi. The culture of the land is sold, and yet there are few kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) and kamaʻāina ("Locals" who were born and raised in Hawaiʻi) who benefit.
The culture of the land is sold, and yet there are few Native Hawaiians and "Locals" who benefit.
Instead, the people and the true history are hidden away so that visitors can avoid feeling uncomfortable during their stay in "paradise".
My heart hurt as God spoke to me through that monkeypod tree. I felt both frustrated and grieved as I remembered the community that I call my people. I longed for something better for the visitors to Hawaiʻi as well — the ability to see the people and their lives with more depth, the desire to listen well to the stories of the community and the land, and the aloha (love) of Jesus that moves us to act justly, show mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
a community of contrasts
I wonder if the 8.6 million visitors to Hawaiʻi each year truly see the Native Hawaiian, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Samoan, Korean, and Micronesian workers who clean hotel rooms, sweep sidewalks, and cook food. Sadly, tourists never need to have meaningful interactions with workers as they never see the concentration of poverty, the buildings in disrepair, and the homes of the people who work unseen as well.
What could it look like for Christian visitors to take notice of the sex trafficking industry, drug epidemic, rampant homelessness, or the illegal occupation of Hawaiʻi by the United States since 1893 that has led to the highest incarceration and poverty rates for Native Hawaiians? A mere 3.5 miles away from the monkeypod tree lies the Palolo Valley Homes, and just 6.5 miles away lies Kuhio Park Terrace — some of several other low-income public housing projects in inner-city Honolulu.
What could it look like for Christian visitors to take notice of the sex trafficking industry?
Dynamics are similar in our ancestral countries in Asia, where we see beautiful beach resorts filled with foreign visitors, while residents sometimes live in squatter villages.
Caring for the poor, hungry, and imprisoned are at the heart of Jesus' message. My family has been trying to see Jesus in the people around us — those He calls "the least of these". When we go out for dinner, we save our leftovers to offer to uncles and aunties living on the streets. A mentor of mine also goes into Waikīkī to look into the eyes of women who are prostituted and held captive. She listens to their stories, offers flowers to affirm their beauty, and seeks to restore their God-given humanity.
She listens to their stories, offers flowers to affirm their beauty, and seeks to restore their God-given humanity.
While eating at a restaurant, take some time to get to know the workers by asking them about their backgrounds, families, and interests. Then take a peek into the kitchen to see who is working back there and if there are differences between them and those working at the front of the restaurant. When checking into a hotel, and service workers take your bags, ask them about their last vacation and the last time someone took their bags.
the intersection of asian communities
At the same time, we see various groups of Asians on different sides of tourism transactions. Many Local Asians who were born and raised in Hawaiʻi, and recent immigrants who now call Hawaiʻi their home, serve in working class jobs as maids, vendors, and custodians. Meanwhile, wealthy businessmen from Japan own a significant chunk of Waikīkī and profit from the selling of Native Hawaiian culture and land to others like themselves. Many visitors from China spend twice as much as a typical visitor.
Even friends contribute to the shaming of Hawaiʻi's people by making fun of our language, customs, and ways of life. Many Asian American friends plan destination weddings in the islands, and enjoy being around other Asians without having any meaningful connection to the land or community.
Many Asian American friends plan destination weddings in the islands, and enjoy being around other Asians without having any meaningful connection to the land or community.
Once while I was camping, a middle-aged Asian American visitor commented that my accent was "interesting". Pidgin (also known as Hawaiʻi Creole English) is the lingua franca of the Local community that developed when Japanese ancestors worked on the sugar cane plantations alongside other ethnic groups from China, Portugal, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Korea. They use Hawaiian grammar with English vocabulary, and words, cadence, and intonations from other languages. My "accent" is normal in Hawaiʻi, and yet I was made to feel foreign in my own home.
Every vacation destination has a unique proximity of locals who are likely very different from the people who visit. When you go on vacation in Hawaiʻi, Asia, Cancun, or somewhere else, do some research into the area you're visiting and get to know something about the people of the land. Who are the indigenous people, and what are their stories? What's a current social issue that the community is facing? Is there a community event that you can attend that draws more locals than tourists?
Instead of consuming the tourist versions of the cultures while on vacation, notice the sacrifice behind the nice things you see. Beyond the romanticized version of our favorite destinations, you can uncover the unflattering reality or hidden beauty of the people who are making great sacrifices. Privilege comes with sacrifice. How can we develop a clarity of vision to see what is unseen?
Privilege comes with sacrifice. How can we develop a clarity of vision to see what is unseen?
Jesus' exhortation to love our neighbors as ourselves is the second most important commandment. It's easy to forget this when we're trying to rest or have a good time while on vacation. With opened eyes, we can show true honor as we recognize that we desperately need each other, because our stories are tied together. Jesus' love, grace, and forgiveness never go on vacation — let's take what Jesus stands for, on ours.