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Thoroughly Lived In

A return in body—and mind—to the reefs, streets, people, and outposts of Waikiki. Excerpted from the new issue of TSJ.

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1.

I was off the rock for seven years, a keiki o ka ʻaina in the U.S.A. For most of that time, I sat deeply reclined in the back rows of auditoriums, present in body if not in mind, as turtle-necked professors lectured on Le Corbusier and Koolhaas. I was the skeptical presence in a B.J. Penn t-shirt with a beanie pulled low over my eyes. Knowing nothing, I would raise an index finger and interrupt the men with tenure. “Yeah ok. Those guys are good but how do they handle when it’s overhead and throwing?”

Now I’m home. Walking through the cracked and sandy parking lot at Kaisers, I pass the showers and step onto the little beach. I pat a poi dog’s head, breathe deep, and stretch. I overhear an uncle telling someone about a movie where all the samurai get shot. There’s a bee struggling on the surface of the water, where it’ll only last so long, and canoes passing in the channel. Chinese on the rocks practicing tai chi in big, khaki pants. A wahine longboarding so beautifully she makes me feel young and nervous. The dead reef with a presence like a sunken graveyard.

I grew up in the mountains overlooking town. I’d listen to the trade winds blowing through the trees and look for Jackson chameleons. I’d watch birds dive at each other and stare for hours at the city through binoculars, the surf peeling soundlessly between the high-rises.

In America, my tiny radius felt entirely comprised of concrete and white noise, the endless, serialized faces of people I’d never see again. My classmates and I flowed together, in uniform pursuit of…something. The degeneration abroad felt very important—sacrificial and absurd, and I loved and hated it entirely. I was conceding nothing to the new culture while life screamed by. Not everyone from Hawaii has difficulties transitioning, but a lot do, and many aren’t even compelled to try.

The biggest thing was how persistent the islands ended up being in my mind. Was any of this better than Hawaii? Am I wasting my life out here? I asked the questions but already believed in my answers. Home had a way of distorting the present, whispering bullshit on all of it. “School for what bra? Working for what bra? Bring that wahine home, it’s head high and pumping. The boys are winning. The boys are killing it and you’re off doing what?”

2.

An uncle in the lineup slaps his stomach, calling it his offseason body and laughs. He’s 30-pounds heavier than the last time I saw him and still pumping through sections. A booze cruise comes into the channel, hot and howling, along with cries of hanapaa from the rocks. A beach boy screams chee on the inside. Then a honu pokes up with big eyes, saying how zet. And an old-timer enters the lineup saying how you, how you?

On the mainland, compared to the people around me, my situation was cosmic and special. They were all from the dumpy U.S.A., born to backwaters that exist only to leave. While they spoke of quiet, rural towns, farms and orange groves, fall colors and county fairs, I zoned-out and imagined horrible suburban grids extended to the horizon. I saw aimless youths, so bored they’d pick a point and just walk until dark, then call for a pick up. You can probably imagine I wasn’t popular.

The biggest thing was how persistent the islands ended up being in my mind. Life wasn’t experienced as much as compared to the memories of my youth, constantly. Was any of this better than Hawaii? Am I wasting my life out here? I asked the questions but already believed in my answers. Home had a way of distorting the present, whispering bullshit on all of it. “School for what bra? Working for what bra? Bring that wahine home, it’s head high and pumping. The boys are winning. The boys are killing it and you’re off doing what?”

Now I sit in this lull. I breathe and see a younger version of myself learning on the inside, figuring some turns and those little barrels. I see it going back to my dad and his brothers, their bodies wiry and raw, skating through town with identical bowl cuts. I see so many generations of bodies gliding into warm waves over and over.
To check out the rest of this feature, pick up a copy of 25.3.
 

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