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The First Time I Was Lei'd
NSE Participant, University of Hawai'i, Hilo

Grace and FriendMy Hawaiian exchange begins with the complete reconstruction of what locals would call mainland date and time. In the Hawaiian Islands there is something called “Hawaiian time.” This concept is comparable to “cabin time” or “Filipino time.” In Hawaii there is no ETA or rush shipping… Since the islands are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean-- things happen when they are bound to happen. In other words, nothing happens when you want it to. With my first encounter into island life I understood that we do not control time but are just mere onlookers.

When I arrived in the Hilo International Airport as an NSE participant I was on schedule, perhaps twenty minutes early, but for an unknown reason my bags weren’t on the airplane. I searched in vain for my two bags starting from the designated claim to the far end of the airport. Locals are very fond of parties, and love to celebrate in the middle of the afternoon so, maybe they were on break while I was frantically searching for my bags. A stressful five hours later, I realized how slow and relaxed island culture truly is. 

Most imagine the islands to be a tropical escape, or a place where life is continually better. Hawaii is much more complex than what the tourist industry and the media promote. The mention of Queen Liliokalani touches the hearts of the people who reside there, and many locals still believe Hawaii to be a monarchy. Having had no formal instruction about Hawaii’s past, I was flabbergasted to learn the extent of American intervention in Hawaiian sovereignty. The overthrow of Queen Liliokalani in 1893 was a revolution that largely impacted Native Hawaiians and continues to impact them today. For more info see: A Concise History of the Hawaiian Islands (Dr. Phil Barnes).

Preparing with host familyBut on a lighter note: I’d like to discuss the renowned greeting “aloha. ” It is one of my favorite pieces of knowledge I learned on academic exchange. For many of us, this greeting translates to “hello” “goodbye” or “love.” But in fact, Hawaiians traditionally said aloha to acknowledge the spirit that all beings share. Its original meaning loosely translates to mean, “My breath is your breath.” We are of the same spirit. Aloha recognizes that we all need air to live, and that we are connected by this need. And just so, it didn’t take long to realize that Hilo was a very welcoming place for all people. The locals are laidback and rural. Most speak pidgin a blended Creole language of Portuguese, English, Japanese, Chinese, and Hawaiian. At a barbeque the words “Es ono!” or “Broke da mouf!” means the food is incredibly delicious.

While in school, I met many friends in my Hawaiian studies classes: Ethnobotany & Ethnnozoology. Together we chanted in Hawaiian for permission to enter class, and practiced olelo no`eau (Hawaiian proverbs). My friends convinced me to join a halau which is a group for hula dancers. The girls would not take no for an answer, and honestly, it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. The halau consisted of other University of Hawai`i Hilo students who were majoring in Hawaiian Language & Culture, Agriculture, and Music. We traded recipes for poi (kalo), uala (purple sweet potatoes), and nui (coconut). We even picked lilikoi (passion fruit) off the UH campus vines to make lilikoi butter. Yumm..

Grace in Traditional DressBut mostly, I remember the first time I was lei’d. While learning beginner’s hula, I was completely amazed at the grace the halau exuded. Each step they took unfolded parts of a story that seemed to flicker from their hearts. Luckily, they allowed me to join! One of the songs we learned was written for Oueen Liliokalani. It relates the protection that the inactive volcano, Mauna Kea, provides along with the rain that produces life. Our kumu (literally: tree trunk, source of knowledge, hula teacher) told us we were to perform for UHH, and that we were to make our own leis for costume! Thirty of us wove ti and kukui leaves into five strand leis and flowered hairpieces. We were proud of our work and of each other. While getting to know myself through Hawaiian culture, I lost all concept of time and ate Spam musubi from a popular 7Eleven.

Academic exchange allowed me to explore an area of the world and gain credit for my BLA degree in English and Art. The exchange made the year in another state very affordable. I felt “no worries, bra!” Participating in NSE has been an opportunity of a lifetime, and now I am planning for a study abroad!

He lawai'a no ke kai papa'u,
he pokole ke aho;
he lawai'a no ke kai hohonu
he loa ke aho.

Literal: A fisherman of shallow seas uses only a short line;
a fisherman of the deep sea uses a long line.
“You will reach only as far as you aim and prepare yourself to reach.”