For most of my teaching career, I taught foreign students working on an American college degree, so it was important that they learn not only English but culture, especially classroom expectations. And while I imparted American norms and customs, students showed me theirs.
When I demonstrated shaking hands — not too soft, not too firm, make eye contact — a student advised: “In my country, that’s rude.”
When I cautioned against plagiarism — taking someone else’s work as your own — another commented: “Where I come from, there’s a saying that all the poems have been written, all the stories have been told, all the songs have been sung.”
I taught students about the U.S., and they taught me about their countries. But now that I’m retired, I still find myself at cultural intersections.
It happened with my story about Onomea Arch, which I located on the Hamakua cliffs that stretch from Hilo Bay to Waipio Valley.
Immediately, a reader emailed me a Hawaii island map delineating moku — old Hawaiian districts. Hamakua, he informed, does indeed extend to Waipio but starts near Kukaiau, not Wailuku River. Here, where the cliffs begin, is Hilo Paliku.
This well-informed teacher scolded me. “If we are to properly aloha our aina, we must be correct about geographies.”
Ouch. Twenty lashes!
He’s right, but wait. I have always called the other side of the airplane bridge Hamakua. My learned reader conceded that many people, including song writers, make the same mistake, so I was in good, or should I say bad, company. Poring over the map he sent, I saw that Hilo moku extends all the way to Ookala. Who knew? Some apparently, but not me.
So I delved into it, finding that from old days, the town side of Wailuku River is Hilo One, for the long, black sand beach that lined the bay. From old photos, we see how spectacular it was before much of it got paved over as Bayfront Highway.
The other side of the river is Hilo Paliku, the Standing Cliffs. Once we cross the bridge, we become aware of the pali when checking out surfers at Honolii. We gradually climb — Honomu, Ninole, Laupahoehoe — this is still Hilo. Only when we pass Ookala are we in Hamakua.
As I wondered how it happened that so many of us refer to the entire coastline as Hamakua, he suggested one clue might be the large green sign at Kaipalaoa near the Hilo lighthouse with an arrow pointing to “The Hamakua Coast.” I returned to some of my references and found the misnomer in print, which means that this incorrect information has been seeping into our collective subconscious for decades.
So I stand corrected. It’s true that when I say, “I’m going Hamakua,”I’m heading toward Hamakua moku because this is island orientation. But if I refer to the entire coastline as Hamakua and in addition use western compass points such as north or east Hawaii, what happens to local history and perspective?
English reorients our island perceptions and culture often changes through language. The difference between foreign students and us, is that they know they’re learning another world view, whereas we might not.
Hawaii is unique in many ways, so we should not only be aware when our culture is changing but determine if that is what we want it to do. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Hamakua and Hilo Paliku. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to work harder to aloha our aina.
Let me know when I’m messing up. I know you will.
Rochelle delaCruz was born in Hilo, graduated from Hilo High School, then left to go to college. After teaching for 30 years in Seattle, Wash., she retired and returned home to Hawaii. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears every other Monday.