Publication on Friday: Beijinger in Hawaii

Basking in tropical humility

It’s been 10 days since I last heard a car honk. Actually, make that any kind of vehicular honk, be it an electric bike’s urgent “beep beep”, the angry bleat off a truck horn, or a frantic bell ringing atop tricycle handle bars.

No, I haven’t gone deaf. I’ve been in Hawaii. Here in Honolulu, the sky is insanely blue and when people say it’s “foggy” outside they refer to clouds draping over mountain sides.

With abundant natural blessings, people on the Hawaiian islands are understandably relaxed. Gone from my line of vision are the scowling faces of Beijing traffic wardens, bureaucrats, and street vendors. Instead, everyday I’m greeted with beautiful, ethnically ambiguous faces, glowing tans, and the jolly vowelled sounds of “Aloha!”, “Mahalo”, and “Mele Kalikimaka!”

Basking in tropical humility

“Chilling out” Hawaiian style didn’t come to me naturally. When my plane landed, I got my Chinese elbows ready and was gunning for the aisles to race to a good spot in the immigration line. But as my fellow passengers began asking each other with the gentleness of lambs, “Would you like to go first?” I backed down with shame.

Soon, the island calm infiltrated my city skin. I, too, started waving “hello” to strangers in cars at intersections. Coming upon other tourists, I offered to take their pictures. On a grueling hike, I smilingly accepted the gift of a makeshift walking stick from another hiker, then made good on my promise of giving it to someone else when I finished.

What’s happening here? Is my urban grit turning to mush with the tropical humidity? Surely, there is something unpleasant about Hawaii!

Well, yes, there are bad things about Hawaii. Foremost in my complaints is that Wi-Fi isn’t free at Starbuck’s like it is in Beijing. My cup of English Breakfast now only buys me the right to sit on an earth-toned sofa, listen to an ambient coffee company CD’s, and pay $5 for two hours of Internet access. Two hours!

Compared with Beijing, the food in Hawaii is also expensive and not that varied. I’d be hard pressed to find hummus or chorizo here. There are plenty of good local eats, but they’re usually heavy meats, piled in a heap, and served at a restaurant with the word “shack” or “station” in its name.

It’s also a myth that everybody is nice in Hawaii. There are many residents who resent the outsiders who come to crowd up their beaches, compete for waves (“jocking for position” in surfer slang), and push up real estate prices. Locals wear their discontent with outsiders on cheeky car bumper stickers like, “Slow down, this ain’t the Mainland” (referring to the 49 other American states) or “If you like Kauai, send your friends to Maui.”

I’m fine with trading in winter winds for the ocean breeze and small inconveniences for a few weeks. Eventually, the thing that gets to me is how nobody in Hawaii ever seems to have anything to do, anywhere to be. Grown men stand around beach parks holding beers every day of the week. Supermarket cashier ladies chit chat with customers in great detail about what’s cooking for dinner.

All this “laid-backness” isn’t bad, but for a city slicker like me, it can make me long for the rude honk of a car horn!


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