I have been lucky enough to visit Hawaii four times so far. And, I can say without reservation that I loved it each time. I’ve rented open-air jeeps and driven around volcanoes and found deserted beaches. I learned to surf. I danced the hula, ate roasted pig and plates of fresh pineapple, and drank piña coladas. I visited Pearl Harbor, watched whales dive, and experienced magical sunsets.
I know this paragraph will sound snobbish and off-putting, but here I go: everyone speaks English so it’s comfortable and easy. And it’s American, so it’s clean and modern. There aren’t any bugs or snakes. Or exotic diseases. You can drink the water.
As a tourist, it is hard to imagine a more potent example of paradise.
But, taking off my tourist hat and looking at Hawaiians as fellow Americans, I start to feel a little more uncomfortable. They have a long and tortured relationship with the mainland U.S., and their rich culture, I feel, has been Disneyized for easy consumption.
After my last trip there I was determined to learn more about it and be a more responsible tourist. So, I read Sarah Vowell’s “Unfamiliar Fishes”.
Anyone familiar with Vowell (I wasn’t) will immediately see the error of my ways. Her book is very entertaining. But, even in the course of criticizing the patronizing way the missionaries and U.S. government treated the nation of Hawaii, her easy-breezy, overly-chatty tone manages to patronize its history.
I was enjoying the book so much as I read it, that it wasn’t until almost the end that I realized how cringe-worthy this irony really is. And how much I felt like the book was my fifth visit to Hawaii, where I thoroughly enjoyed myself but didn’t give the island or its people the respect they deserve.
In fairness, I did learn a lot. From the death of Captain Cook, to the influx of missionaries, whalers and sugar cane prospectors, I do have a much more nuanced understanding of the plight of the Native Hawaiians as their population was decimated from 300,000 to a mere 40,000.
But, as much as Vowell educated me that Hawaiians are sensitive to this day about their annexation into the U.S., I was left feeling uneasy with her flippant tone and the shallowness of her descriptions.
The truth is, I have been spoiled by all the effort that Ryszard Kapuściński, and other authors I’ve been reading, make to remove the “Us and Them” mentality, and explain history, places and cultures with sensitivity and depth. And, that’s just not the charter Vowell embraces. She is purely an entertainer.
I ate up her book, but it left me hungry, with the all too familiar guilt of a junk food binge.