Friday, January 31, 2014

Meditation: On Belonging


It starts in my head with a joke: "To be is to do" (Aristotle?); "To do is to be" (Nietzsche); "Shoo be do be do" (Frank Sinatra). It morphs to: To be is to long; to long is to be; to be is to long to belong.

Nowhere is belonging so longed for and being so suspect as in Hawai`i.

I was driving near Pearl City once, where I invariably get lost. I pulled into a church parking lot to look for someone to ask directions from. Opening the church door, I found a congregation of Pacific Islanders speaking a language I did not recognize, and realized this was a community I did not know. How often that kind of experience has repeated itself over the years, that sense of moving in and out of communities you might not see ever again. If one were to slice O`ahu like an onion, or like brain cells, you would see layers and layers of communities. Then you might see the Venn diagram that links them. Or you might not. It turns out that the move from layer to Venn diagram, from discrete communities to mixed ones, is a choice. And it's not always the choice you might suspect. Members of mixed families might choose to define themselves as parts of one layer; members of more mono-tone families might choose to see the diagram, the space (empty or not) that emerges between layers. Of course, when is "choice" really ever chosen in a place as fraught as this one?

Much of this negotiation of belonging has to do with names. Before you meet me, my last name marks me as Euro-American; before you meet me, my first name indicates I was almost certainly born in the 1950s or 1960s. After 1966, or thereabouts, the name "Susan" died out. There are complexities here, too, because our children bear first names from their places of origin, but our last names. You would not know that they are Asian-Americans if you only saw their last names, Webster Schultz. Their middle names link them to my father and to my husband's mother; like my name, they are old-fashioned Euro-American names. But their full names assert their entry into a mixed community created by adoption, migration, and, yes, love.

In her first documentary piece of writing, my honors student, whose family fled Vietnam in the 1970s, offers us her grandmother's Vietnamese name, but not the names of her other relatives. We have a hard time pronouncing grandmother's name, but she's patient with us. She tells us that the family experienced hardships, but not what they were. Name a hardship, I ask her. Her mother did not speak English well as a child, and was put in special education, says her daughter. And what is your mother's name? I ask. "Karen," she responds. My student's name is likewise "American." I ask if there is not a story in the move from a Vietnamese to an American name, and she nods.

Another local Vietnamese student in the class has a Vietnamese name. He does not communicate well with his family, he says. His father is a fisherman who leaves home for weeks, comes back only for short respites. He asks his father about the family's history by starting, "this is for a school project." The history is one of dislocation and work, further dislocation and more work. It's a hard story. I notice that the son, my student, also works hard, that what distinguishes him more in the honors class is his public school in a tough part of town, not his name.

Many of my students are the children of immigrants, others are native Hawaiian, sometimes with their own family history of migration out and back; the linguistic history of my English 100 class last semester was fascinating. At home, students heard Tagalog, Ilocano, Chinese, Vietnamese, Pidgin, Japanese, English with an English or a Canadian accent, Spanish. Hardly anyone had grown up in a family that spoke only English, even if that was their sole language. There were two Hawaiian students who spoke only English. One had fallen in love with Korean soap operas and wanted to study Korean. The other had been discouraged from learning Pidgin by her family, which had lived for a long time on the continent, and then moved back. Neither Hawaiian student spoke Hawaiian. Most of the students had some notion of judgment imbedded in them: either they hated the fact that they hadn't learned the other family language, or they hated that language. The choice of language seemed moral; students berated themselves rather than open up to the possibility that they had made choices as small children that they could not be held to account for.  Their narratives were narratives of choice--"at four years old I chose English"--not of larger historical or cultural or family issues.

That gets me to typos. Those of us who edit work in Hawai`i try very hard to avoid typos, not simply because they are mistakes, but because these mistakes contain meanings that are overdetermined. To get diacritical marks wrong in Hawaiian is considered an insult, though some Hawaiian writers (Sage Uilani Takehiro comes to mind) choose not to use diacriticals because there's more poetic ambiguity to be mined without them. Getting things wrong is what the missionaries did. They transcribed the Hawaiian language using letters whose sounds did not occur in Hawaiian. And much worse. So there's a history to orthography here that is incredibly complex--for Hawaiian especially. For the Hawaiian students in my English 100 class to speak only English reflected back on this history (though I've also had students from immersion schools who speak Hawaiian as well as they speak English).

The new Hawai`i Review came out this week. The design is beautiful. Many of the poems are deeply anti-colonial. (More on the content another time, perhaps.) There is also a typo. The poetry editor's name is No`u Revilla. Her full first name is No'ukahau'oli, but on the masthead of the new issue the name was spelled No Ľukahou Ľoli. This changed the meaning from "the pleasure is mine" to "the joyous sweat is mine" (not so big a difference, if you read No`u's joyous sexually charged poems). The editor's reaction was one of despair: she declared that the typo made her "want to die." (The editor is not Hawaiian; she is also not Euro-American.) She writes: "I am a guest/outsider/settler in an illegally overthrown, occupied nation, and I have just participated in the callous misspelling of the name of a kanaka maoli friend whom I am fortunate enough to work alongside."

She is not alone in using this language; it's been in circulation for nearly two decades now. Candace Fujikane, whose book Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life helped to institutionalize the term named in the title, has said: "You can’t talk about alliances between local non-Hawaiians and Hawaiians. If you’re not Hawaiian, you’re a settler and part of the colonial problem. You have to look at in what ways Asians in Hawaii have engaged in practices that obstruct Hawaiians’ struggle for justice." (2009) Fujikane and her co-editor, Jonathan Okamura, are also not the original authors of this idea. I do not know that she is, but Haunani-Kay Trask was the strongest voice in asserting the non-belonging of Asians, as well as Euro-Americans, in Hawai`i. On the first page of the Fujikane/Okamura book, Trask is quoted as writing, "Hawai`i is a society in which the indigenous culture and people have been murdered, suppressed, or marginalized for the benefit of settlers who now dominate our islands" (2). The history is very bad, as Barrett Watten would say, but for the editor of a literary magazine to feel herself charged with a perpetuation of "murder" after noticing a typo is surely not a solution. It feels like another act of violence.

So the editor is hardly the first person to describe herself as "guest," as "outsider," as "settler"; she is hardly the first to do so with self-lacerating tones. She is not the first, nor will she be the last, to make an outright assertion that she does not belong here. That she is perpetuating a historical wound by way of the typo. I wonder why the self-laceration: she works hard, she publishes work from Hawai`i, she participates in communities on the island. She is a lovely, caring person. I want to hug her.

But I also want to suggest that these self-lacerating terms, these terms that mark people as outsiders no matter how long they live here, that these terms are paradoxically intended to mark those who use them as belonging. (I would like to thank my friend, Vera Lee, for helping me with this during a conversation some months back.) This is a difficult paradox to explain (to myself, let alone to anyone else). But to say one does not belong is to establish a stable identity position based on blood. To be "guest/settler/outsider" is to be somewhere, here but not of here. It's not to float, it is to be, and to be certain. To be [choose your term] is to belong in however difficult a way. But it also tells those of us who do not use the words "outsider" and "settler" to describe ourselves that we are that. It pre-judges our choices. It suggests that my students who are trying to deal with family stories of flight (including students from Vietnam, Cambodia) immigration, changes of language, that these students do not belong here either. That they inhabit that space of "not-belonging" that is not liberating, but which hurts, lacerates.

More difficult, perhaps, to let those titles go, to be here without longing to belong, without the judgment. It's appropriate that there are "slashes" between those words, for they are judgment words. To say: I am here, I do no intentional harm, I do good work. My life a gerund, not a noun. To put the emphasis on process rather than on static position. To think long and hard about these issues, and then to let oneself long--to let oneself be--that is my hope.


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