Is Hawaii perfection in racial relations and culture? Not at all; no place is free from problems. But it is far from the barrage of bigotry and bitterness that pervades some areas of American politics. It’s hard for anyone to understand that behavior who has been brought up or lived for many years in Hawaii. Kim Iannetta, whose father founded the Honolulu Academy of Arts and who is a well know jury consultant, finds it difficult herself and said regarding race relations in Hawaii, “Sometimes we have trouble here like everywhere else. But it is not nearly as bad as it is on the mainland.”
I lived in Hawaii 28 years, and five additional years of long-term visits, in many areas on Oahu, from a downtown apartment to Waianae country. For many years I lived at Punahou Gardens, a condominium complex on Wilder Avenue in Honolulu one block from Punahou School in the late 1970’s. As President of the Board there, I met many people who worked at the school, graduated from it or had children attending at the time. It was not uncommon to hear about someone who attended Punahou on scholarship. It is known for its superior education and faculty. I finished the marathon the year he graduated from high school and used the running track and sidewalks surrounding the school for training.
I began to learn the culture of the islands in earnest in my work as an entertainer and learned to appreciate what it meant to live in "the gathering place."
Obama was born at Kapiolani Hospital, close to Punahou School he attended and not far from the University of Hawaii where his mother got her Ph.D. In the 1960’s and 70’s it was a relatively small medical facility with focus on individual needs and patient care. It is one of the best-known and better-respected hospitals of Hawaii.
I learned early on in Hawaii that the accent is not on what one owns or what one does for a living but one’s ideas, culture and ethnic background. This promotes pride in diversity unlike anywhere I have lived or traveled. The more mix one has in one’s background, the higher the status one has. As a teacher, counselor, entertainer and writer I managed my life the way many people do in Hawaii, by juggling several jobs simultaneously, since the cost of living is high. But this only adds to the multifaceted life and experience one gains from interacting with people of so many backgrounds on so many levels. It allows one to appreciate “a gathering place.”
Even government leaders interact with each other and the public in a spirit of aloha. It is not uncommon to see the Mayor of Honolulu, Mufi Hanneman, at the local theatre or Governor Linda Lingle at a local neighborhood function.
Today I remember Hawaii as I reflect on the changes in my life and in the world now. I know what it means to live in a place that values all races and cultures and where diversity is the byword of community. And I wonder how those who have not had this experience can contemplate the worst while never knowing the best.
The idle gossip and negative talk about Barack Obama’s character and personality do not fit the assessment of those who know him best, in Hawaii where he gained an international view early on from the perspective of a multicultural milieu. The following is a quote from the 2007 Punahou School Bulletin made by Greg Orme, Punahou Graduate, class of 1979 and now a building contractor:
“He had a worldly view. He would talk about people in Pakistan and was a lot more aware of Middle East politics than anybody I knew. He was following conflicts around the world and talked about it all the time. He read a lot on his own, too---books on philosophy. So we’d talk about world politics or existentialism.”
Obama lived simply in a two bedroom apartment Orme remembers as well.
“It was Toot (Obama’s grandmother) and Grampis in this small apartment and us two six-footers.” Orme remembers, “We’d raid the refrigerator, and then go to his room. He’d put on his earphones; he liked to listen to Stevie Wonder and jazz, like Grover Washington. So hed have the earphones on and read his books.”
Another classmate of Obama, Darin Maurer, also from the 1979 class, who is now a minister, said of Obama, “He was so smart.” Maurer recalls when Obama had a term paper due, he went home at lunch time, typed it out, then handed the paper in during that same afternoon. “He wrote it on the typewriter,” Maurer told the Punahou School Bulletin, as she discussed what the Bulletin writes as “Obama’s seemingly effortless ability to formulate and organize complex ideas. She goes on to say, “It was just amazing he could think that coherently and not rewrite the paper.”
Obama loved to play basketball with his Punahou friends and still does it for recreation. Here is a picture of one of the coaches at Punahou School, Milt Kanehe, now retired.
Shortly before the election a local fellow of Chinese, Hawaiian and English ancestry sent me a story from the Punahou School Bulletin. I read for myself what I had heard from other friends how Obama was so loved in Hawaii. Those who know him recognize the value of a life where one interacts with a cross section of people, especially during formative years. It is something I value as well as I think about the platform Obama stands on as he looks over the country and sees its diversity as well, even as he mourns the fact it doesn’t have the pride in that as does Hawaii.
I am happy but dismayed as I write this story because I know no matter what I say or believe there will always be those who will think differently. I recognize race is a barrier for some Americans and the need for others to have conspiracy theory as opposed to empirical judgment to guide appraisal.
Hawaii is a melting pot where nothing’s perfect but where people are perfectly trying to get along and do the right thing, as I believe is the path of the President. His life in Hawaii gave him a good beginning from interaction with many cultures and beliefs, because Hawaii celebrates this as the way to live.
Today I reflect on the paradise I left and my present reality, so different from the life I once lived, as I prepare the papers to sell what was our last home in Hawaii while an investment property is pending as the economic recession has caused me to do. I grieve about severing one of my final ties with the islands, but still proud to have lived so many years in the “gathering place” where easy smiles and congenial people are part of island culture.
Obama sees the world as do people of Hawaii, as a garden of many flowers, of different shapes and hues. If others could know that lifestyle, and understand its meaning, perhaps the racial rifts could mend and people might love the world even as they love this country and be proud indeed of its diversity.