Feels Like Home
by Miya Lohmeier

Naoko takes every excuse to go back to Hawai’i. She left Oahu for Rhode Island 16 years ago,  and has returned at least ten times since then. The travel industry has moved on–to Costa Rica, to  Bali, to Palawan–but Naoko hasn’t. In her 56 years, she has lived in Japan, Texas, California,  Illinois, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Oahu was a four year stint, a single line in her  Wikipedia page, neither the place where she met her husband nor the place where she had her  daughters, but its clear waters and macadamia nut chocolates call her back like nowhere else in  the world. She visits her friends, sitting out on the lanai of one of their houses in St. Louis  heights, watching the neighborhood give way to the city, and the city to the ocean, the rugged  silhouette of mountains in the distance. She hikes the perpetually muddy trails of Mānoa Hills,  breathing the cool humid air, admiring the assembly of greens: emerald, olive, viridian. She eats;  teriyaki beef from Diamond Head Grill, fluffy, sugar-coated malasadas from Leonard’s, smooth  syrupy shave ice from Waiola. She swims in the ocean—its warmth and color has long ruined  any chance of her enjoying the drab beaches of New England. She drives up mountain roads  crowded with chickens to scenic viewpoints and around cliffs by the sea. 

“It felt like home,” she told me, “but I knew it was wrong to feel that way.”

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Hawai’i is the only state in America that has never had a white majority. In 2019, full and part  white people comprised about 43.5% of the population, while full and part Asians accounted for  57.3%. Within this number, Japanese people are the second largest population, narrowly behind  Filipinos. Both groups arrived in the 19th century to labor on sugarcane and pineapple  plantations. The first official group of Japanese immigrants arrived in 1868, as facilitated by  Eugene Miller Van Reed, a Dutch American. They were called the Ganenmono, “people of the  first year.” With 142 men and 6 women among them, marrying within the community was not a  possibility for most. Many of those that stayed on the islands wound up marrying locals. 

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My own memories of Hawai’i are scattered. I was there as a toddler, and my recollections are  brief, confused, illiterate. I have no linear story to tell. There is no clear picture of our life there.  The sensations are weighted with intangible feelings—the sunny excitement of our drives to the  north, the hot blue-white fluorescence of the apartment at night, the utilitarian plastic-wrapped  spam musubi. The sweet, rotten smell that emanated from the McDonald’s. I usually have to rely  on my family to name the places and recall what happened, but some stories were entirely my  own. They didn’t know about how I went to the stream behind the apartment complex. How I  scrambled through the trees to stand at the dusty river bank. How I threw rocks into the water,  dreaming of building a bridge of stepping stones to reach the opposite side. How special that  muddy, mosquito-ridden stream was to me. How it made me feel like I was really physically and  mentally there. 

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Reef shoes are essential when visiting Shark’s Cove. Situated near the northern tip of Oahu, the  rocky beach is often choked with visitors, locals and tourists alike. Clad in rash guards with  beach bags in arms, they clamber down from the parking lot and weave around the craggy  boulders. The sand here is especially coarse, consolidating into great big pebbles at the shoreline  that punish bare feet. The ocean here is not for wading casually; under the cool waves, there is  sharp coral to be minded, and among it, inky black sea urchins, bright yellow butterflyfish,  schools of striped convict tangs, pig-snouted triggerfish, and green sea turtles. Childrens’ eyes  dart about in search of them, and upon spotting an exciting creature, they rush above the water  and breathlessly call out its name— “Wana!” “Honu!” “Humuhumunukunukuapua’a!” There  are no sharks here, the name is taken from the shape of the rocks surrounding the cove. Directly  next to it lie the Pupukea tide pools, where the water is warm and the sea urchins are plentiful.  The rock facing the ocean is especially sharp—porous volcanic pumice carved into knives by the  bashing waves. 

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There is a place in the middle of the Pacific where a fixed mantle plume under the Earth’s crust  generates abnormal levels of heat. From this heat, thousands of volcanoes have been born over  millions of years. As the Pacific plate above moved, old volcanoes became extinct, and new ones  formed. This undersea mountain range stretches all the way to the trenches formed by the Pacific  plate’s subduction beneath the Okhotsk plate. Most of the range are seamounts, not even  breaking the surface. The Hawaiian islands are the sole exceptions. They are young enough to  tread water. But slowly, they sink. Only the youngest still grows, nourished by active volcanoes.  Regardless the fading is a sight to see. Erosion washes away the islands, terraforming along the  way. It is easy. The land is made of extremely permeable porous rock—years of wind and rain  sculpted the landscapes, hewing cliffs, ridges, and valleys. Air and water brought other gifts too.  As is the case with far flung islands, Hawai’i acquired flora and fauna as they arrived on the  wind and sea. With rich volcanic soil, plentiful light and water, and few predators or competitors,  the new arrivals thrived. A relative lack of threats allowed new species to develop that could  comfortably eschew the usual protective adaptations. Birds forgot how to fly. Nettles forgot how  to sting. They didn’t need to anymore, in Hawai’i. 

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In the apartment complex, next to the laundromat, there is a grassy space encircling a great  banyan tree. It was a place for our community potlucks and Easter egg hunts, with the tree  presiding over all. Like other banyan trees, this one has strong, solitary branches that spread as  wide as a river delta. They congregate at the squat trunk—itself a network of distinct aerial roots  stretching to the ground. If only a person could be tiny enough to fit between the gaps, I  sometimes wondered. They would find themself in a forest made up of a single tree. Too big to  intrude, I had to look higher. The properly trained eye sees footholds everywhere. So soft hands  and feet rushed to faintly rugged gray bark. Pull, push, angle, balance. At about 15 feet above the  ground, there was a cradle waiting. There may have been a puddle at the base of the carriage,  perhaps a few millipedes. But it welcomed me in a way no other tree could. 

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The first human settlers in Hawai’i arrived around 400 CE from the Marquesas Islands in French  Polynesia. They brought new plants and animals with them—taro, sugarcane, bananas, pigs,  chickens. The Kānaka maoli people lived on farming and fishing, built numerous temples to  revere their gods, and developed art forms like the hula. More than a dance, hula is a practice in  storytelling. It takes on different styles and tempos, breathing life into tales of the past. The  Kānaka lived on the islands for many hundreds of years before Captain Cook first made contact  in 1778. Demographic analysis reported by the Pew Research Center estimates that there were  683,000 Native Hawaiians at that time. 

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Andy had left home before. In fact, he left home with more proficiency than any of his siblings  and either of his children. There had been college in Washington D.C. and a year of study in  Berlin. After graduate school back home in the Midwest, it had been two years in Massachusetts.  But Hawai’i was a new kind of distance—wider and more expensive to span. Departures aside,  he was rooted in a way Naoko wasn’t. While she had bounced between different parts of the  world growing up, his home was firmly grounded in Illinois. So when he left with her for  Arlington, his family watched with knit eyebrows. When they retreated even further, across the  ocean, the whispers got louder. How could she take him away right now? The farewell party was  tense. As the miles accumulated, Andy’s guilt nagged at him. He should be home. He liked  Hawai’i, of course. Oahu welcomed him in the way it seems to welcome all. The warm breeze,  the chirps of birds, and the sight of his girls playing lifted his spirits. But every joy was tempered  with the remembrance that his mother was sick. And he was not by her side

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On March 15, 1806, a flying fish had the misfortune of jumping onto the Inawaka-maru. Hirahara Zenmatsu, one of the Inawaka’s sailors, prepared a soup with the fish’s meat, and saved  the scraps to bait other fish. Zenmatsu and his fellow crew members had spent the last few weeks  preparing for death, after having been blown off course by a snowstorm during a voyage between  Shimoda and Hiroshima. For two months they had drifted further and further into the Pacific,  helplessly floating with their disabled mast. They were still close to starving five days after the  miracle fish, but an American trading vessel found them. Its captain, Cornelius Sole, spoke no  Japanese, but realized what had happened when he saw the men point desperately to their empty  stomachs. Aboard the Tabour, they were given cups of tea with sugar. 

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The word we used to describe ourselves, both as individuals and as families, was hapa. It is a  word taken from the Hawaiian language, but then, it was taken from the English word “half”  before that. It means “mixed,” which was a needed word in 19th century Hawai’i, and even more  so now, with nearly one in four Hawaiian citizens identifying themselves as multiracial. Mixed  families are unexceptional in Hawai’i. The questions that other places demand—“Do you mind  telling me your ethnicity?” “Is that your real mom or are you adopted?”—are not necessary in 

Hawai’i. “It’s this state,” Naoko told her daughters with a sigh, “in Hawai’i, they would  recognize you instantly.” 

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They arrived in the 1820s in droves, eager to teach the Kanāka about their god. They decided to  stay on the islands, to raise their children there. Then their children started to cultivate sugar, and  with it, incredible wealth. Then they infiltrated the government–they were born Hawaiians, they  argued–and eroded the monarchy’s authority. They started their militias and got their guns and  told King Kalākua to sign their constitution—to sign away his power, to sign away the voting  rights of residents who did not meet the new standards of wealth, literacy, and race. That wasn’t  enough for them. Six years later, they took the throne from Queen Lili’uokalani. It was a coup.  They established a new nation, the Republic of Hawaii, and made Sanford Dole their president.  Today, his family’s pineapple plantation is a top Oahu tourist attraction on TripAdvisor.

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According to Pew’s estimates, the native Hawaiian population dropped by 84% between Cook’s  arrival in 1778 and 1840. 

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On May 5, 1806, the Tabour landed on Oahu. With the payment of the Japanese anchor and forty  axes, Kamehameha I agreed to host the eight men. Four years later, he would unite the Hawaiian  tribes and become the first leader of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, but in 1806, he had fifty of his  men construct a house for the Japanese. In the four days it took to build, Hawaiians brought the  men of the Inawaka gourds full of taro and sweet potatoes. Once the house was constructed, two  guards were posted outside, one cook was assigned, and crowds of tens of thousands gathered to  catch a glimpse of these men who looked so different from any they had seen. It is hard to  imagine a more hospitable welcome. The men of the Inawaka-maru stayed on Oahu for three  months before leaving with another American ship. 500 Hawaiians, young and old, came to  wave them off, and gave them taro, sweet potatoes, beef, pork, and chicken for the journey.

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The word “aloha” means both “hello” and “goodbye.” On the mainland, this is a fun fact. Trivia.  And they rarely mention a third meaning I was always taught. “Aloha” can also be translated as  “I love you.” All of these translations are a bit of an oversimplification. “Aloha” is an idea, a  way of being, that is rooted in love, compassion, respect, and harmony. 

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Put simply, Naoko was living her best life. Oahu was more than scenic beaches and towering  green mountains. It was a place where she felt herself fitting in comfortably—a place in America  where she was in the racial majority. A place in America where so many of the families looked  like hers. A place in America where her first language was included in signs and publications.  She couldn’t read kanji, but that was beside the point. Oahu clicked. In the mornings, she  strapped her younger daughter into a Ridealong bike seat and cycled through Mānoa, passing  rainbow eucalyptus on the way to preschool. In the afternoons, she had time to swim in the  university pool in between teaching classes and doing research. At nighttime, the family ate together in their dingy beige carpeted apartment, or got Korean barbecue, or went to a potluck or  a friend’s house. That had been the best part. In Oahu, Naoko had a community like never  before. Her colleagues were her friends and neighbors. They opened their spaces to her regularly,  casually, even as they left the university-provided faculty housing and settled in real homes. To  call it “paradise” is trite, an oversimplification. Insulting to the realness. But it was pretty great.

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The United States took five years to annex Hawai’i. American diplomats to the kingdom had  been involved in the coup, providing the military backup that clinched Lili’uokalani’s surrender.  But Grover Cleveland disapproved of the hostile takeover, and launched an investigation, even  requesting that the Republic restore the Queen. President Dole flatly refused. Once McKinley  was inaugurated, he signed the resolution that provided for the annexation in 1898. The United  States was unbothered by the Native Hawaiian protests, both peaceful and violent—what  motivated them to action was the arrival of more Japanese immigrants to the islands. The captain  of Japan’s naval activities in Hawai’i had denounced the overthrow, even attempted to recruit the  British to follow suit. Allowing such a strategically important fueling station to fall under  Japan’s control was unacceptable. So Hawai’i was made into a territory, and then a state in 1959.  It retains its military value, and defence is Hawai’i’s second largest industry.

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Coral polyps live in an endosymbiotic marriage with zooxanthellae algae. The algae lives within  the coral, giving it its vibrant color and providing most of its nutrients through photosynthesis.  When coral becomes distressed, overwhelmed by extreme changes, it pushes its loving partner  away. The polyp then loses color and nutrients. This is known as “coral bleaching.” It is not  always a death sentence. If the zooxanthellae are allowed to return home, normal photosynthesis  can resume. But if not, the coral will starve and die. 

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As the story goes, the fire goddess Pele came across the handsome young warrior Ohia. Drawn to  him, she asked if he would be her husband, but he rebuffed her—he was already married. In her  anger and humiliation, Pele turned Ohia into a gnarled, ugly little tree. His wife Lehua was  distraught when she found out. She begged the gods for help. In their pity, they turned the young  woman into a striking red flower, and reunited her with her husband. The ohia lehua is often the  first plant to grow out of freshly laid lava rock. But it is not indelicate. Legend states that if the  lehua flower is picked from the tree, the couple’s tears over their separation will rain from the  sky. 

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Arisa, the older daughter, wondered how many years it would take for her to belong in Oahu.  Being a new student from the mainland did not do her any favors socially. Even as a fourth  grader, the colonial politics of it all was not lost on her. After all, Hawaiian colonial history was  a prominent part of the curriculum. Beyond that, the social structure of the classroom was oddly  progressive in its imbalance; Native Hawaiian kids had the most clout, followed by local non white kids, then local white kids, then mainlanders. Arisa fell into the last category. Being hapa, she at least wasn’t in the lowest tier of nonlocals. “Local” was an ambiguous, ever-changing  word, and it often fell out of her grasp like a water wiggly toy. Arisa would never be Hawaiian born, but she could theoretically outrank newer arrivals. Not local, but more local than them. She  counted years, compared them to other transplants. She made local friends. She took hula  lessons, joined Girl Scouts, studied the land, the plants, the animals. She waited for the day she  could earn it: the privilege to say, “I’m from Hawai’i.” 

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There is construction happening on a seaside lot in Waimānalo. It is an open secret that it will be  the site of an estate for the Obamas. The family already holidays in Oahu–the president’s  childhood home–every year. A multimillion dollar vacation property was the next logical step.  The site, which was previously home to a European-style estate owned by the daughter of an  eminent Chicago businessman, is in a precarious location. So close to the ocean, it is threatened  by tsunamis and rising sea levels, and its protective seawalls are aging. The plan is to rebuild and  expand them, which is controversial because, while seawalls hold back intense waves, they also  hold back sand. Thus, as sea levels rise and shorelines move inland, the beaches do not move  with them. They disappear; the island shrinks. Coastlines are public property, but the state often  fails to protect these spaces from privatization. Tourism is big money, and if the rich want to  build houses and hotels on the beach instead of further inland, they often will. In the case of the  Obama estate, that has meant exploiting legal loopholes to build the seawalls and to evade local  permit requirements. As their barriers go up, the coast hardens, and becomes inaccessible; sandy  beaches replaced by waves lapping at concrete walls. 

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It is said that Pele will curse anyone who takes a piece of the islands away. Rocks, sand. She will  torment thieves with bad luck. The legend originates from early rangers at Hawai’i Volcanoes  National Park, who hoped to dissuade visitors from taking volcanic rocks home as souvenirs.  Nonetheless, Pele’s power overcomes the confines of historical tradition. The park post office  and others nearby receive thousands of pounds of repatriated sand and stone every year with  messages begging for the goddess’s forgiveness.

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Five of the eight men of the Inawaka-maru died before reaching Nagasaki. One died upon  arrival. And the two remaining men returned to a Japan still under Sakoku. They were welcomed  home with suspicion and confinement. Foreign visits and international travel was forbidden as  the Tokugawa shogunate struggled to hold onto its power. The surviving sailors were detained  and interrogated—the fact that their voyage was an accident was irrelevant. One committed  suicide. Zenmatsu, the last one left, returned to Hiroshima and managed to record his tale for the  local Daimyo. He died within the next year, in his mid-30s. 

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Japanese Americans in Hawai’i were spared from internment. There were too many. They were  too important to the economy. 

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The game went like this. First, a bucket. A plastic beach pail was fine. Not quite the desired  aesthetic, but I wasn’t allowed to bring the pots from the kitchen outside. The hose came next; I  usually filled the bucket up about four-fifths of the way. Ingredients and seasoning varied.  Sometimes I foraged interesting plants, or tore up some blades of grass, or just settled for a  healthy sprinkling of dirt. But the key, irreplaceable ingredient was liquid soap. If mixed in well  enough, bubbles rose up, like boiling water. I knew better than to drink it, but I was pleased to  see my backyard stew simmer. So no, I did not dump it out right away either. I left it there, on  the single concrete step by the sliding glass door. I returned a few hours later. Every single time,  a little gecko floated in the potion. Dead. Belly up. I never knew if it climbed in and drowned, or  drank the soapy water. I mourned while I poured the pail’s contents down the storm drain. I  didn’t mean to hurt anything. But I did. Again and again. 

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Bring water when visiting Ka’ena Point. At the westernmost tip of Oahu, the path is long,  unshaded, and windswept. Do not swim. Just watch the water churn from a distance. Notice the  sea salt that accrues in the niches in the rocks. When you reach the gate, be respectful. The final  stretch is inside a bird sanctuary for Laysan albatross. They are a federally protected endangered  species. If you were to kill 11 adult birds and destroy 17 nests, they would put you in jail for at  least 45 days. That’s the precedent. When you reach the end of the path, step out onto the rocks.  There are tide pools to investigate. Tiny crabs and fish to spot. Eels to point out to your older  sister, only for her to turn too late. The body writhes away into the sea. Stop and look at the  beach. It is so white. When you look closer, you will see why. Mingling together, there are  millions of white pebbles and millions of fragments of bleached coral. 

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Nearly half of all Kānaka live outside of Hawai’i. The state has the highest cost of living in the  country. The tax rates are high, and most goods have to be imported. Property is expensive, in no  small part because the wealthy look to the islands for their vacation homes. Mansions that will be  empty eleven months out of the year preclude homes for the children of the land. Kānaka people  often leave Hawai’i when they lose their jobs. Sometimes, they simply leave to look for better  job opportunities. “Native Hawaiians abroad can rightfully be understood as economic refugees  from an economy that is skewed towards tourism, the military, and other economic forces,” says  David Chang, a Native Hawaiian raised in Wisconsin. The issue is particularly acute for Kānakapeople, who are on average younger, lower educated, lower employed, and lower income than  non-Natives in Hawai’i. 

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We left because we couldn’t find a house, because Naoko got a better-paying job at a more elite  institution, because where we were going would be close to Naoko’s sister. A connection that  could root us. Hawai’i was kind to our family—it looked at my sister and I without searching  eyes. It understood us as hapa, and in our years away from it, we have struggled to understand  ourselves as such. We cried in the airport. Oahu felt like home. But no. We have returned a few  times; after the first year, after Arisa graduated from high school, after I did. Naoko has gone 

back more, for conferences, research, even wrangling a class around the island to study settler colonialism. The last time we were all there together, an endangered Hawaiian monk seal came  to rest on Kaimana beach, at the local’s end of Waikiki. She gave birth. It was a sensation—the  daring foray into an area with so many humans. When we went to see, the land around the spot  where she and her pup rested was cordoned off. Human intervention prevented with a mere sign,  not even rope. Space reclaimed, protected, respected. There are places we simply don’t need to  intrude on. 

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In 1878, Lili’uokalani wrote a song. She was inspired by a departing embrace.

        Aloha ‘oe, farewell to thee;  

        The charming one who dwells in the shaded bowers;  

        One fond embrace, Ere I depart;  

        Until we meet again;  

        Sweet memories come back to me;  

        Bringing fresh remembrances Of the past;  

        Dearest one, yes, you are mine own;  

        From you, true love shall never depart.” 

Fifteen years later, her throne was taken, and her country was stolen.

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