Hawaii is especially proud of our new president, Barack Obama. He was born here and spent many of his formative years living in Honolulu. We believe this time spent in Hawaii had an indelible effect on the formation of his character, because the history of Hawaii makes this place unique.
Of course, his other international experiences, such as living in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather, must also have had a big effect. Obama knows from his playground days that even those who speak another language and follow another faith are just folks like the rest of us.
And, even in Hawaii, he did have to grapple with his own identity. There are not a lot of African-Americans in the Islands, and the culture that a half-black child would experience anywhere on the U.S. Mainland barely exists here.
Besides that, of course, Obama's father was from Africa, so he didn't have the black American extended family that might have given him that sense of identity to balance what he experienced with his white grandparents. He had to seek out connections with the black American community.
But Obama grew up in a place with a unique take on racial issues. Hawaii Public Radio commentator Tony Oliver pointed out that, in Hawaii, "Our new president is a member of a minority, just like the rest of us. His self-confidence comes not from being a minority, but from being one of many minorities."
Oliver ended his commentary with this sentence: "Barack Obama is our first hapa president." If you are not from Hawaii, that probably means nothing to you. In Hawaii, it means a lot. Many Islanders are "hapa." The word is Hawaiian for "half," and its use tells a lot about the history of Hawaii.
Early on, Caucasian sailors married Hawaiian women, creating the first hapa children. Later, plantation owners brought in Chinese immigrants to work in the sugar cane fields, and soon there were Hawaiian-Chinese children. Intermarriage has been going on ever since, as various ethnic groups arrived to work on the plantations.
Now, it is not uncommon for someone to tell you his genealogy includes Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, French, Danish, Korean and Puerto Rican--or any other combination. Thousands of people call themselves "chop suey," or an old-fashioned word from the multicultural May Day festivals of my youth: Cosmopolitan.
Our Island lifestyle and values are grounded in the Hawaiian host culture, which invented the concept of "aloha" and demonstrated it by welcoming people from all over the world.
Many of us are related by marriage to someone of another race; it's hard to really hate another ethnic group when your favorite aunt happens to belong to that group. We share our food, our holiday customs, and the "local" style of talk and dress, and because we live on isolated islands, we have to rely on each other for survival.
Years ago, I appeared on a panel with two young black men who were representing the Black Power movement. We spent some time together afterward, and I asked them to suggest a book I could read, because I just didn't get it. I had spent much of my life living where the lines between races were blurred, more gray (or perhaps rainbow colored) than black and white.
They suggested I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I did, and then I understood better where they were coming from.
Mainlanders, accustomed to the sharp lines drawn between racial groups, probably have the same kind of bewilderment about race in Hawaii. One of the best things to come out of the Obama presidency would be to make the rest of the world more aware of how race relations work in Hawaii and how we manage to get along here.
We Islanders hope our new president comes home often. We will welcome him, but we will also try to give him enough space to enjoy the simple beauties of Hawaii. We have a custom of leaving celebrity visitors alone to relax; take note, national press, and back off as President Obama gets together with his high school basketball buddies, goes body surfing and stops to smell the plumerias.
In Hawaii, Obama can re-charge with the special energy that fed his soul in his growing-up years. This is the place that gave him the openness and the confidence to begin to heal those hard-edged divisions that plague our nation and our planet. May he visit often, and may the world watch and learn that Hawaii is more than just another pretty place.