Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | hawai’i
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Sunday, September 16, 2007 Yesterday was a long day, and a preview of today's reunion. We started with the relaxed morning of papaya and conversation with Laura, but eventually moved on to the day's work: shopping at Costco and then the Star Market for the ingredients to make our "kakimochi" chips for the party. The chips are a favorite of our friends in Colorado – they're Mexican corn tortillas coated with a JA combination of sugar, butter and soy sauce – and although we figured Hawaiians surely must have this kind of cross-cultural snack all the time, it's relatively easy to make and tasty and we decided to offer to make it for the party anyway. Costco was a revelation. I'd been there, several years ago when I attended the JACL National Convention in Honolulu. But it seemed like they'd expanded their aisle of local goods, and throughout the store was an amazing array of Asian foods and products, from imported Japanese canned tea to spices. The local aisle had a dizzying selection of all things macadamia, as well as shelf after shelf of snack items like picked plums, li hing-flavored mangoes, dried shredded ika (cuttlefish) and dried octopus and squid, both in large jars or individually wrapped. Yummy… these are Asian equivalents of beer nuts at the bar. We wished we could get some of these more "exotic" items in Colorado Costcos, and also marveled that the Hawaiian population, which isn't all Asian by any means (although certainly "haoles," or Caucasians, are in the minority between all the Asian as well as Polynesian ethnicities), all buys this variety of products. Multiculturalism is simply in the air in Hawaii, like the humidity… and the wind.

It's great to feel so welcomed. Erin and I arrived late yesterday afternoon at Honolulu Airport and called up Regine Shimomura, a cousin I'd never met. She's the twin sister of Laura McHugh, who was stuck at a hair appointment. We're staying at Laura's home, so one we got the rental car, we called Regina to get directions from the airport to the suburban town of Mililani, to the northwest of Honolulu. What I remember from my childhood visit to Hawaii is the sun, the clouds and the wind. The clouds are always on the move, with the wind pushing them along. It seems like Hawaii is just always breezy.

For most people -- but I think especially for Japanese Americans, who tend to come from very defined communities bound together by geographic roots, generational branchings and, for many, the shared trauma of internment -- meeting a stranger and finding out you're somehow related isn't such a big deal. It might be novel, or surprising, but it's probably not a life-changing fact. My wife Erin and I joke that in Denver, there are only a few Japanese families, and that everyone's related, if not by blood then certainly by marriage. She plays the "six degrees of separation" game all the time when she meets a JA, and invariably finds that they have friends or family in common. For Erin, whose nuclear family all live in the area as well as a huge number of extended family members, funerals and holidays are like frequent family reunions. Not me. My family has always lived in a community and family vacuum -- an isolation chamber devoid of contact with relatives. We didn't live within JA communities, didn't grow up attending the Buddhist temple or Methodist church with other JA kids, and seldom saw or made contact with cousins, uncles and aunties. Even when my dad died, it was difficult tracking down the contact information for his brothers and sisters. Certainly, I've never had someone come up to me in Colorado and play "six degrees of separation" to see if we're related. But last weekend, I was in San Jose to attend the bi-annual Youth Conference for the Japanese American Citizens League (the APA civil rights organization for which I'm on the national board). Erin gave a workshop and the closing keynote speech for the conference, and I went to give a book reading and sign copies for the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. That's when my little isolated world was shattered. A young woman came up to me with a copy of my book, "Being Japanese American." She explained she didn't buy it at the reading, but brought it with her. She had moved to California recently from Hawaii, and her mother had sent her the book. And, she added, her mother told her she was related to me. WOW.

One of the cool things about traveling to LA is getting to watch KDOC, a local station that unearths old TV shows and airs them. For some reason, whenever I'm in town I get to tune in to old episodes of "Hawaii Five-O." The show is fascinating to me for several reasons. It fit my early attraction for TV action shows ("Dragnet" just didn't cut it) with its tire-squealing car chases and gun fights, and the cool, noir-hero cop Steve McGarrett, played by the square-jawed Jack Lord. It had one of the all-time greatest theme songs, which was recorded by the pioneering instrumental guitar-rock band the Ventures. It's a cultural snapshot of a transitional time in post-war U.S. culture, when the generation gap produced by the baby boom was bulging into college age, and pop style was evolving from '60s mod to '70s avocado and harvest gold. Most of the men still had Brylcreemed hair, and the women had big poofy hairstyles when the show debuted in 1968 (it ran all the way to '80).

jakeshimabukuro.jpgThink “ukulele” and you’ll invariably get a quaintly exotic image in your head (and the wrong pronunciation – it’s “oo-koo-leh-leh,” not “you-koo-leh-leh”): warm sun, swaying grass skirts, coconut bras, colorful cocktails with umbrellas, and palm trees and a beach in the background.

It’s true, the ukulele is a stringed instrument that was born in Hawai’i (albeit it has its actual origins in a Portuguese instrument that was brought to the islands by 19th century sailors) and given its name, which means “jumping flea” in Hawai’ian. And it’s also true that the ukulele, which basically looks and acts like a miniaturized, four-string guitar, has helped spread Hawai’ian music and culture for a century, since Hawaiian music first caught the fancy of mainlanders during a 1915 exposition in San Francisco.

But the cute little uke isn’t just a tool for strumming up tourism to Honolulu.