Monday, July 14, 2014

What Does It Mean To Be Hawaiian?

Laksa at Panya Bistro
The best part of thinking about what it meant to be Canadian was to be in Montreal during St-Jean Baptist Day eating hand-pulled Nouilles de Lan zhou in a large bowl, spicy, surrounded by people speaking Chinese.

Over the last couple of weeks, the best part of thinking about what it means to be Hawaiian was to be in Honolulu eating the laksa at Panya Bistro and the Belly Bowl ramen at Lucky Belly restaurant and driving my mother to hula lessons at the Alama Sisters’ hula studio.

My great-grandparents and grandparent emigrated to Hawaii from Japan, which makes me Japanese. But people who live in Hawaii are Hawaiian, like I guess I’m a Washingtonian when I’m living here along the Salish Sea. Sometimes my being Hawaiian when I’m Japanese gets confusing, especially when Polynesians in Hawaii speak for their native Hawaiian sovereignty.

Representatives of the U.S. Department of the Interior the last few weeks were holding public listening sessions with native Hawaiians on all the islands about if and how the federal government should approach recognition of native rights and claims. They listened and heard a long list of grievances from people who spoke of the injustice suffered from the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and the subsequent annexation of the islands by the U.S. government in 1898. According to news accounts, passions ran high and any proposed recognition with government-to-government relations similar to Native American tribal relations would be rejected. Restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom seemed to be the rallying cry.

True, unlike Native American treaty tribes, no treaties were signed ceding land and rights in supposed exchange for federal protection. Land was taken when the monarchy was overthrown and land became private and federal when the islands were annexed. Who are the legitimate heirs to the land unjustly seized and what would restoration of a sovereign Hawaiian government look like in the 50th state of the union?

Ironies in Hawaii abound. Native American culture hasn’t penetrated Northwest living except for place names and maybe the ambiance of Ivar’s Salmon House and the opportunistic faux-Salish logo motifs. Whereas in Hawaii, you can fly to and fro on Hawaiian Airlines, get your electricity from Hawaiian Electric, watch Mormons dance and sing at the Polynesian Cultural Center and imagine yourself at a broadcast of “Hawaii Calls” from the Moana Hotel (the First Lady of Waikiki), if you didn’t want to join the other tourists at the “Pink Lady,” the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

But there’s also too much of the faux-”A-looow-ha” and ugly his-and-her matching prints, badly mixed mai tais, rip-off coral jewelry; you know, the tourist stuff. But hula continues to be very popular, as is Hawaiian music, and my mother, as fully Japanese and as Hawaiian as when I’m in Hawaii, still goes to Saturday hula lessons taught by Puanani Alama (sister Leilani recently passed away) and Miss Yamauchi (Makaleka). Not far away at Yama’s Fish Market, you can get more good Hawaiian laulau, kalua pig, poki, poi, lomi lomi salmon and haupia than you can eat. And go deep into Hawaiian Art Deco, currently the major exhibit at the Honolulu Art Museum, or get lost in the Hawaiian and Polynesian exhibits at the Bishop Museum, or listen to the Royal Hawaiian Band on Fridays in the park for free....

If we are what we eat, then in Hawaii I was Hawaiian, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Mexican, Chinese. Didn’t get to Italian or Filipino this time.  On the Fourth of July, the flags were unfurled, the editorials written, the fireworks shot off. I made a bowl of baked beans, roasted some hot dogs and mixed up a potato salad for the family. I guess we were Americans that day.

Which brings me back to the bowls of noodles. To the laksa, the traditional Singaporean/Malaysian/Chinese dish made any number of ways with noodles, egg, shrimp, fish cake, beef strips, bean sprouts in a broth of beef stock, coconut milk, curry, fish sauce. "Noodle dishes are important in all cultures," Alice, the co-owner, says in a news interview, calling the food at Panya “comfort food.”

Belly Bowl at Lucky Belly
And the artisan ramen at Lucky Belly goes somewhere beyond all cultures. The Belly Bowl features in its broth belly bacon and sausage with bean sprouts, soft egg, wakame (seaweed), sesame seeds, green onion and ginger. Oh, and the noodles.

Next time we have something hard to talk about, we start with a bowl of noodles.

--Mike Sato

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