When one thinks of Hawaii, gorgeous beaches, sandy shorelines, or balmy and beautiful weather come to mind. Beyond its physical allure, Hawaii’s distinct multiracial culture, rooted in an Asian plurality, adds just as much to its uniqueness and beauty.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 38% of Hawaii’s population identifies as Asian, versus 22% identifying as non-Hispanic white (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/HI). Many Asians in Hawaii have century-long lineages, tracing back to Hawaii’s sugar plantations. While on the “mainland” (what Hawaii residents call the 48 contiguous states), many Asian Americans are the first in their families to be born in the US, many Asians in Hawaii are third or even fourth generation Asian Americans. In a state where even McDonald’s serves rice, “Asian” is less of a lifestyle and more of an influence. In contrast to the rest of the country, where Asian-Americans often struggle with cultural dualities, Hawaii combines “Asian” and “American” into a singular identity, seamlessly and absolutely. A clear Asian American culture arises, where an Asian identity tempers with the unique multiracial “American” culture that surrounds daily life.
Typical Asian stereotypes, like the “tiger parent” or the prevalence of Asian customs in the home, are often anecdotal, recounted as exceptions rather than the rule. My family, like many others, only speak English. Rather than “overbearing” or “nosy,” my parents were particularly supportive of me during the college application process, encouraging me to apply to wherever I wanted to be. Asian food ranges from authentic to uniquely “local:” a Spam musubi straight out of a 7-Eleven comes to mind. At home, Asian-American is less “Asian” and more “American.”
However, even the definition of “American” in Hawaii differs from how it is often defined on the other side of the Pacific. In a state where no one race constitutes an absolute majority, and with almost 1 in 4 Hawaii residents identifying as biracial (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/HI), race is not nearly as impactful or controversial of an issue as it is on the East Coast. I clearly remember classmates in elementary school bragging about how many races they were. Looking at the faces constituting my diverse high school class at graduation, a similar sentiment comes to mind. My neighbors varied from Chinese to Japanese, Filipino to Hawaiian; my friendships from black to Pakistani, Muslim to Christian and agnostic. Identifying as part of one group and part of another has little significance: rather than valuing separate parts of a person, we valued them as a whole.
Hawaii’s culture raises valuable questions for the Asian American community at Georgetown and beyond. What does it mean to be “Asian,” “American,” or both? How do these dualities coexist in mainland America and influence perception of Asian Americans? In a world taut with racial tension, how does Hawaii maintain its unique culture, and what can we learn from this model about our own lives and relationships? I, and the rest of the Asian American community, continue to ponder these questions as we navigate our place in the world around us.