Updated: Jun 28, 2022
A lump formed in my throat as I walked into the office. The lady sitting behind the desk looked up.
“You malihini? You here to register?”
I nodded, having only understood part of her question.
She smoothed her brightly colored long dress, tucked a stray hair back into her messy bun and adjusted the flower tucked behind her ear. In one fluid movement, she zipped from behind her desk, snatched up a form, slapped it on the countertop and shoved it in my direction.
“Here. Fill out da pukas and tell me when you all pau.”
I looked at the form and back to her.
She glared at me through her cat-eyed glasses. “Fill out the form. Let me know when you’re done.”
My eyes pooled with tears. I sniffed discretely, took a deep breath and, in my best handwriting, printed in the small boxes. As I listed the classes I had been taking in my prior high school, my tears trickled down my cheek.
I didn’t want to live in Hawaii. I wanted to go back to Alabama. I hated moving. I hated being a military dependent. Yet going back was not an option.
As the registrar worked on my class schedule, I looked around the office. Sunlight spilled in from the glass-louvered windows. The bulletin board, designed to welcome visitors, was bordered in bright blue scalloped trim, with the high school’s name cut out in bright orange and stapled against a white background. I couldn’t even pronounce the name of my new high school.
The registrar handed me my schedule and introduced me to the student aide, who would escort me to my first-period class. I glanced at the student and back to the registrar. Could you really wear short shorts, a spaghetti-strapped tank top and flip-flops without violating the dress code? I blinked rapidly and followed the aide.
A narrow one-way road snaked through the sprawling campus. Fragrant plumeria trees shaded the grassy areas between the widely-spaced buildings. The morning sun was hot and I quickly worked up a sweat in my long pants and closed-toe shoes.
The aide opened a classroom door and the teacher paused. My heart pounded; I always hated being the new kid, and I especially hated being the center of attention. When my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit classroom, I got the first look at my Spanish teacher. My Chinese Spanish teacher.
He introduced me, slaughtering my last name, and pointed me to an empty desk. My head dropped as I navigated the uneven rows of occupied desks. I struggled to understand the teacher’s choppy enunciation; his words were foreign. Not his Spanish words, his quasi-English words. It was my introduction to Hawaiian Pidgin.
In my second class, a curious student blurted:
“Hey, Haole girl, where on mainland you from?”
What did he call me? And did he want to know where I was born or where I moved from? I decided on the latter. “Alabama.”
He snorted. “Fo real, brah? You talk funny.”
I talk funny? I swallowed hard and I decided I would keep my mouth shut for the next three years. I sat quietly, observing and listening carefully. I longed to hear a familiar “y’all.”
A girl in fourth period invited me to eat lunch with her. She was from California; I was grateful to talk with someone I could understand. We got our lunch and I followed her outside, through a throng of students congregated under the canopy of a large tree, and over to a corner of the second-floor courtyard. She sat cross-legged on the concrete, her tray in front of her. I did the same. Our corner offered a view of the crowd we had just navigated. I had just taken a bite of my taco when I heard yelling.
“Eh, braddah, whatsa matta you?” A large boy shoved another large boy.
“Whatsa matta me?” He shoved back. “You whatsa matta me!”
Someone nearby hollered “beef,” and students circled the fight and cheered. Un-phased, my new friend kept eating.
Soon several other girls joined us. Some looked like me, which I now understood to be “haole,” others were “locals” and didn’t look like me. Both groups began to ‘talk story’ about classmates and offered me unsolicited, but sage advice…scary advice.
“You see that girl?” I followed the pointed finger to a girl sitting on a bench, smoking a cigarette. “She a tita. Don’t make her mad, cuz she buss you up.”
I swallowed hard.
Another lunchmate warned of Kill Haole Day; a non-sanctioned, free-for-all day when locals bullied the haoles, sometimes throwing punches, other times raw eggs, and even on occasion, spraying Nair in a girl’s hair. I nervously wiped my hands on my pants.
By the time the release bell rang for my last class, I was emotionally and mentally slap-worn-out. I found my way to the school bus-loading area and sat on the concrete steps, my eyes cast downward. A guy sat beside me and introduced himself. Gradually, more military kids congregated to wait for the bus to the base. I exhaled. Perhaps I would make friends.
The following months were difficult. I ditched my accent and listened more than I talked. I was thrown into a diverse ethnic culture where the students weren’t just black and white; they were Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Portuguese and Pacific-Islanders. I realized if I wanted to be a friend, I had to take the initiative to be one. If I wanted to be encouraged, I’d have to find someone to encourage. I climbed out of my introverted shell and went all-out-extrovert.
By the time senior year rolled around, I was fully immersed in a solid group of friends. When it came time to leave the island, I cried just as many tears as I did when I had arrived.
Over the years, I’ve always considered the move to Hawaii a major pivot-point in my life; everything in my life changed, and in my opinion, not for the better. I always felt the move robbed me of what-might-have-been.
What if we had stayed in Huntsville? How would my life be different? Would I have gone to college since my circle of friends had been academically high-achievers? What would I have studied in college? What career would I have chosen? Who would I have met along the way? Where would I be now? Who would I be now?
I started writing this story as part of an assignment to write about a life event; I wrote the above. We were later challenged to explore the event through a different lens and add to our story. I rephrased my what-if question to what if we hadn’t moved to Hawaii?
As I dug deep, explored and typed, tears unexpectedly filled my eyes. I discovered, contrary to my decades’ old thought, I had not been robbed of the what-might-have beens, I had been given a gift of amazing opportunity.
I would not have spent summer days on the beach. I would have not seen breath-taking sunsets over the Koʻolau Mountains. I would not have paddled an outrigger canoe in Kaneohe Bay near Chinaman’s Hat. I would not have hiked Aiea Loop, or seen the wreckage from a WWII bomber. I would have not attended a church youth retreat at enchanting Pu'u Kahea, a grand old home on the grounds of a former sugar plantation. I would not have tasted li hing mui, pineapple fresh from the field, or gotten shave ice every day after school. I certainly would not have worn shorts, muumuus, and “slippahs” to school, nor would I have gotten floral leis on graduation day. I would not have friends living all over the world. I would not have countless precious memories.
More importantly, I would not have learned to notice the new kid and make them feel welcome. I would not have learned to listen more than I talk. I would not have learned to take the first step to make a friend. I would not have learned to use my God-given gift of encouragement.
I would not be who I am today. And for that I say, “Mahalo ke Akua.” Thanks be to God.
Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. ~ Ecclesiastes 3:11a