Being a kid is complicated. There are rules, most of them unwritten, unspoken even, and heaven help you if you can’t unlock the secret code. Darrell H.Y. Lum not only has the key to the boy’s room in his collection of short stories in Pass On, No Pass Back!, he also has the contraband cigarettes.
And maybe a little something else.
The title refers to a kids’ game I remember well: somebody punches you in the arm, yells, “Pass on, no pass back!” and you have to find someone else to slam and pass it on. The playground politics in who you hit and how hard would make the UN weep. And Lum gets it.
Better yet, he helps us get it.
To anyone who grew up in Hawai‘i, Lum’s characters feel real. There’s tales of da Bag Man, karate class, scouts, toads, and mongooses from hell that still give me chicken skin. The stories are written in Hawaiian Pidgin English, a welcome sound of home for native speakers that adds another layer of authenticity to his words. Non-Pidgin speakers will have a tougher time, but it’s worth the work.
As a bonus there are also the comic strip adventures of Booly, Bullette, and Burrito by Art Kodani.
If you’re looking for authentic island writing, Pass On, No Pass Back! is fantastic.
Matthew Kaopio, the author of Hawaiian Family Album, is an extraordinarily talented mouth-brush painter. His illustrations intrigued me enough to pick up his book, but as good as they are, they aren’t the heart and soul of his book.
His book is classic talk story—kids bugging a busy grandma to tell them family stories from her youth. In the eleven stories presented here, Grandma passes down Hawaiian culture and traditions and teaches the kids how to find their way through many of life’s difficulties.
One of my favorites, Kāne-o-kekai: Man of the Sea, tells the story of a woman’s fall into the sea and her rescue by a great white shark. It reinforces other opinions I heard as a child that sharks were to be respected, but not necessarily feared, and that ancestors are always ready to help.
The stories are funny, scary, and heartwarming, the perfect length for just before bedtime reading for kids. If you’re looking for some authentic Hawaiian culture, this book’s a winner.
When emigrants came to Hawai‘i they brought their food, their traditions, their languages—and their supernatural beings. Like the humans, the supernatural beings mixed and mingled with the locals and resulting stew is a ghost story hunter’s feast.
Obake Files by Glen Grant is a collection of his scholarly research into Hawai‘i’s supernatural world culled from first hand experiences, archives, and newspaper accounts over 25 years. The spine-tingling, chicken-skin tales are told in a matter of fact tone that makes them far scarier than any horror novel. You’ll find stories of fireballs, haunted houses and buildings, calling and choking ghosts, night marchers, ancestral bones, and modern encounters with Hawaiian gods and goddesses.
As any Hawaiian will tell you, there’s more to our world than meets the eye. Grant’s collection is reminiscent of the stories I heard—and the things I experienced—living in Hawai‘i. The encounters are broken into short entertaining segments perfect for on the go, got a minute reading.
Last week I slipped into the Twilight Zone. It was an ordinary day at my computer when my cell phone rang. I glanced at the screen and saw an 808 number—Hawaii! Don’t know the number, but maybe it’s somebody calling about the book!
Double-blink. The words were slurred and so fast and unexpected it took a minute for my brain to switch gears and recognize Pidgin.
“Barry? You want to talk to Barry?” Said way too haole.
Longer pause, then slower, “Get Barry dere?”
“I’m sorry. You have the wrong number.”
We hung up.
I sat staring at my phone for a minute wondering what the odds where that such a misconnection would happen, thinking of the long ago commercial where somebody trying to call across town ends up talking to someone on the beach in Fiji.
I bet he dialed 801 instead of 808. Or a joke? One of my old friends playing a joke? But they’d have said something, surely.
I’d made it to the living room holding my cell phone before it rang again. 808! Same number. Here we go!
“Um, can talk to Barry?”
“Eh, cuz, I tink you get da wrong numbah. You like talk Barry, yeah?”
“Barry stay Hawaii, yeah?”
“You calling Utah, brah. Dis one Utah numbah.”
“Oh. Okay. T’anks.”
I hung up the phone and looked up the stairs to see my daughter standing there, mouth open and catching flies. “Who was that?”
“Barry’s friend. He like talk story.”
“Never mind. Wrong number.”
“Mom that was so funny! I never knew you could talk like that! So fast!”
“Why were you speaking Pidgin?”
“Because he was.”
“Say some more!”
My son came around the corner. “You mean you got a wrong number from Hawaii and the guy spoke Pidgin? What’s up with that?”
“Da-na-na-na, da-na-na-na,” he sang, the theme from The Twilight Zone.
Tell me about it. Wonder what Barry’s friend thought when he heard Kahului tita coming via Utah?
Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, is famous for its moai statues that line the shore. Over the centuries, many western anthropologists and archeologists have tried to explain how a people without beasts of burden or the wheel managed to move massive stone carvings ten or more miles from the quarry to the seashore. If They Could Only Talk, in the July 2012 edition of National Geographic Magazine, explores a new theory proposed by Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo of California State University Long Beach. Oddly enough, it’s based on what native Rapa Nui islanders have been saying all along.
The moai walked.
The solution is elegant, practical, and based on physics. The statues are designed with pot bellies and rounded bottoms which allowed a few people using three ropes to “walk” the moai down the mountainside to the beach. It’s not perfect—and there are many broken moai strewn along the way to prove it—but it makes far more sense than any other “expert” opinion and fits into the native oral tradition.
My favorite line in the whole article is a quote from an islander who was observing an experiment by the Norwegian social scientist Thor Heyerdahl and his team in 1955 when 180 people strapped a real 13-foot 20,000 pound moai to a tree trunk and tried to drag it. “You are totally wrong, sir,” he said.
And he was right.
Which brings me to the real purpose of this post. Over the years as an amateur enthusiast of human migration and origin stories I’ve noticed a distinct lack of respect, credibility, and propensity to discount what indigenous cultures have to say about their past on the part of non-native social scientists and other academics. It’s the mistaken belief that outsiders with fancy degrees must know more than the people who have lived the history they are studying. The Phd-ers forget that human ingenuity, genius, and intelligence isn’t found in letters after one’s name, but in all human cultures across all centuries and environments.
Fortunately, as new DNA studies and other forensic disciplines are applied in anthropology, more credence is being given to oral histories and traditions as they are proving to be in line with the new data, often to the surprise of the experts who are taking a new look at some very old traditions.
In this more receptive environment, a few Hawaiian families are starting to come forward to share the knowledge they have kept private for centuries, some of which is very different from the accepted and established views. I can’t wait to learn more.
What about you? Do you have family stories and traditions that add new light to the “official” accounts?
My part-Hawaiian grandmother makes wonderful rice pilaf. It’s a recipe she learned from her Portuguese mother and she made it often when we came to dinner, usually with a ham. Buttery and full of mushrooms, light brown with beef stock and slightly sticky, to my sister Heidi and me the rice was something special we looked forward to whenever we made the rare trip from Maui to Oahu.
But six or more months can feel like a lifetime to a kid, and with so many new words in so many languages rattling around in a head, it’s easy to get confused.
Once when I was about six and Heidi three, our grandparents met our family at the airport. Heidi and I were jumping around like two puppies newly freed from a kennel: sitting on the baggage carousel, running around and around Grandpa’s legs, climbing up the short rock wall and walking along it—I’m sure we were driving the adults nuts. That’s when Grammie said the magic word: dinner.
“Grammie! Grammie! You going make rice?” I danced.
“Yeah, Grammie! Rice!” Heidi sang.
“Rice? What’re you talking about, rice?” Grammie said.
“You know, the kind you make,” I said.
“What are you kids talking about?”
Heidi and I looked at each other. It starts with a p… “You know, that pilau rice!”
“Pilau rice!” Heidi crowed. “Pilau rice!”
My non-Pidgin speaking mother looked confused. The blood drained from my father’s face. My grandfather looked nonplussed. And Grammie went nuclear.
“PILAU rice! Pilau RICE! I do NOT cook PILAU RICE!”
Heidi and I were puzzled. We knew we were in trouble, but didn’t know why. “But we love your pilau rice, Grammie!”
“Yeah,” said Heidi, “We love it! We love pilau rice.”
The penny dropped. “Pilaf,” Grandpa said. “It’s rice pilaf.”
“Yeah, that’s what we said! Pilau rice!”
“No,” he corrected. “Not pilau, pilaf! Rice pilaf! Say it.”
“Pilau, I mean pilaf, rice pilaf,” we repeated.
But to this day, in my head, I still think of it as pilau rice!
Pilau: (nvs) Hawaiian for rot, stench, rottenness; to stink; putrid, spoiled, rotten, foul, decomposed. We couldn’t have come up with a worse insult if we tried.
My Uncle Dave Hopkins was a master of the green flash, that split-second when the sun dips below the horizon and a brilliant green flash lights the sky at sunset. It’s thanks to him that I saw it as often as I did growing up in Kalama Valley. We’d all be piled into his car coming around Hanauma Bay on our way to volleyball or back from the beach and he say, “Today’s the day!” and whip the car into the overlook turnout above Koko Marina. From there you can watch the sun set into the ocean, and we’d sprawl over the rock walls, relaxing in the tradewinds, waiting sometimes half an hour or more, and end up late to wherever we were supposed to be. Time was a flexible concept in Uncle Dave’s world. But it was worth it. Most times he was right. Long before anyone scientifically analyzed this phenomenon, Uncle Dave knew it was a matter of location, horizon, and atmospheric clarity. He’d watched a lot of sunsets.
Uncle Dave always had time to smell the roses, sample the kim chee, or teach kids how to catch crabs, boogie board, or the best way to set the volleyball just off the net for the perfect spike. Our families used to go beach camping and that’s where he taught me how to cook fried rice for breakfast using leftover rice we’d made with ocean water the night before. Uncle Dave loved to eat and knew all the best places around the island to eat anything—crackseed, shave ice, guri guri, teri chicken—he was better than a restaurant guide.
Like many people with big hearts and even bigger opus, Uncle Dave died young, too young, when I was a sophomore in college. I miss him. I’m sure he’s up in heaven yelling down at us to slow down, relax, and enjoy the journey. A hui hou, Uncle Dave!
Tips to Spot A Green Flash at Sunset
Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to see a green flash at sunset. But be careful; there’s a true green flash and a false green flash. The false green flash isn’t as spectacular; it’s more of a green haze over everything and lasts too long; it comes from staring directly at the sun as it sets and damaging your retinas.
- You need a clear, distinct, and distant horizon. A sun setting into the ocean’s the best bet.
- The sky has to be perfectly clear; no clouds, vog, or haze on the horizon.
- Position yourself so you’re looking right into the setting sun, but keep your eyes off the sun itself until just the barest hint is above the horizon.
- Don’t blink! A true green flash only lasts a fraction of a second. Watch for a green flash, flicker, or glow about the setting sun. If you look away and everything has a green cast to it, it’s a false flash.
- Have patience. Like my Uncle Dave and Uncle Kahana in One Boy, No Water say, you many see a green flash only a handful of times in a lifetime, but once you’ve seen it, you’ll never doubt again!
In One Boy, No Water each chapter begins with a word or phrase in Hawaiian or Pidgin followed by its definition. This structure uses ‘ōlelo no‘eau, wise or entertaining sayings that reveal a hidden truth. Hawaiian relies heavily on poetic imagery, riddles, and puns to communicate significant truths veiled under casual conversation. Words and phrases can hold hidden layers of meaning called kaona, which is why songs about mist or fish or flowers or wind can leave old folks laughing and young ones wondering what’s so funny. Examples of ‘ōlelo no‘eau can be found on the Internet or in this book of collected wisdom:
‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings
by Mary Kawena Pukui
Bishop Museum Press, 1983
Here are some of the newest ones I’ve come across:
· ‘A‘a i ka hula, waiho ka hilahila i ka hale.
When one wants to dance the hula, bashfulness should be left at home.
· Hōhohua no ke kawa.
A deep diving place indeed. Said of a topic that requires deep thinking.
I kani no ka pahu i ka ‘olohaka o loko.
It is the space inside that gives the drum it’s sound. The empty-headed person is the one who does the most talking.
He manō holo ‘āina ke ali‘i.
The chief is a shark that travels on land. Like a shark, the chief is not to be tampered with.
When you ask anyone with any knowledge of Hawaiian history or culture to name the most culturally significant scholars who preserved ancient knowledge, Mary Kawena Pukui will top the list. More than any single person I can think of, her work paved the way for rebirth of the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970s.
Born in 1895 and following the ancient traditions of hānai, she was initially raised by her mother’s parents in Kā‘u on the Big Island. It was during this time that she learned to cherish her Hawaiian heritage and began building her formidable foundation as a Hawaiian scholar, dancer, composer, and educator.
Her grandmother had been a hula dancer in the court of Queen Emma and taught her chants and stories. From her grandfather, a traditional healer who was known as a kahuna pale keiki (obstetrician) who used lomi lomi (massage), laʻau lapaʻau (herbal medicine), ho‘oponopono (forgiveness), and pule (prayer) came her great knowledge and understanding of the Hawaiian people’s relationship between the spiritual and mundane.
Mrs. Pukui composed over 150 songs, recorded miles of audiotape, published over 50 books including Nānā i ke Kumu (Look to the Source), and co-authored the definitive Hawaiian-English Dictionary in 1957. Bishop Museum, that bastion of Hawaiian culture where she worked as an ethnological assistant, has preserved her notes, film clips, and oral histories. They are considered priceless.
In my mind, Mary Kawena Pukui stands as a giant among Hawaiian scholars. Hero worship isn’t going too far.
Which makes the story my grandmother told me all the more mind blowing.
It was a couple of days before the publication of One Boy, No Water. I’d called her to wish her happy birthday and to find out how the party she’d hosted—champagne and cake—for friends in her retirement community turned out. Talk turned to the book. Ever mindful about manners and proper protocol, she asked if I had an acknowledgement section in the book.
“Yeah, Grammie, I do.”
“Well, did you remember to thank everyone? You didn’t write that book alone.”
“Yeah, I thanked my family for their support, Kamehameha Schools for my education, and people like Mary Kawena Pukui for their preservation of Hawaiian history and culture.”
“Oh, Aunty Mary! Good, you remembered her.”
Aunty Mary? “Grammie, I’m talking about Mary Kawena Pukui, the mother of the Hawaiian Renaissance.”
“Yeah, Aunty Mary! After school, we used to go to Bishop Museum and run up and down the stairs and take all the covers off the displays and she’d chase us around the halls and finally call the police station (Grammie’s father was with the HPD) and say, ‘George! Your kids are driving me nuts! Come get them!’ Oh, we loved to tease Aunty Mary! She and my Dad were good friends. She used to come to our house often.”
And my mouth is on the floor and I start to think about it and realize that her family home in Kalihi was a block or two from Bishop Museum and my Grammie isn’t joking. She kept telling me stories and I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that the woman who wrote at least 20 books on my shelves about Hawaiian history and culture was Aunty Mary to my grandmother!
Blows my mind almost as much as the idea of Grammie and her siblings playing hide and go seek in Bishop Museum’s hallowed halls after school!
After a welcoming oli, Kumu Hula Barcarse taught us about the Hawaiian alphabet through a song and hula I learned when I was their age! These talented kids performed using kala’au (wooden sticks) and niu (coconut shells) and chanted and sang as they danced. One of the crowd favorites was a lively Samoan dance accompanied by Kumu’s ‘ukulele. For some of the kids, at four years old, it was their first ever performance. (Special aloha goes out to the Dads who performed with their kids. You guys get my vote for Father of the Year.)
Too bad Aunty was so busy watching na keiki, she only got a few photos!