This is a hard one for most Mainlanders, but if you get this right, you’ll sound a lot more respectful. The term “Hawaiian” is only used to refer to people of Hawaiian descent. They comprise just under 10% of the state’s population. All others who were born on the islands are generally referred to as “locals.” This includes people of Asian ancestry, Caucasians, and people of mixed race.
When in doubt, just say “locals,” as in, “Where are all the secret surf spots the locals don’t want us tourists to find out about?”
Hawaii is the only state in the union that has two official languages: English and…(wait for it)…Hawaiian. You’ll see the option to use Hawaiian show up in places like banks or the DMV. You’ll hear Hawaiian spoken by airline attendants and in immersion schools from kindergarten to college.
Don’t worry, you’ll be able to get by just fine in English, but knowing a little Hawaiian can endear you to locals, who’ll appreciate your efforts. So it’s aloha for “hello,” “goodbye,” and “love”; mahalo for “thank you”; and Mele kalikimaka me ka hou’oli makahiki hou for “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” You got that? Now try saying you’d like to see a humuhumunukunukuapuaa the next time you go snorkeling. That’s a triggerfish with the snout of a pig.
When we hear someone honking or being impatient behind the wheel, we know odds are it’s a tourist in a rental car. Most drivers here take their time and are super courteous to runners and bicyclists who share the road with them. Why rush? Enjoy the view of the ocean. Roll down your window and take in the warm air. New York traffic will still be there when you get back. Slow down and let island time wash over you.
No, not poor King George. Hawaii celebrates Prince Kuhio Day on March 26 to honor the man who worked to preserve Native Hawaiian culture and practices until his death in 1922. On June 11, Hawaii celebrates Kamehameha Day to honor the monarch who first unified the islands and became Hawaii’s first king. So if you’re traveling on these days, look out for festivals, canoe races, and lots of cookouts at the beach.
Thanks to Hollywood movies, most Americans picture women in leafy skirts and coconut bras, gently swaying their hips. But from ancient times, men have also learned to dance the hula as a preparation for battle. Authentic, traditional hula (not the kind you see in Blue Hawaii) is very complex, telling stories about gods and goddesses, nature, and historical events. Male hula dance typically involves chanting, percussion, discipline, and strength.
Still can’t picture it? Check out the Merrie Monarch Festival, which takes place on the Big Island every April. It’s the Super Bowl of hula dance competitions and features many of the world’s best male groups bringing the house down (to the cheers of their ecstatic female fans).
Hawaii is the only state in the union where Caucasians have always made up a minority, accounting for less than 25% of the population. Who makes up the rest? Asians are actually in the majority at close to 50%, while native Hawaiians make up about 10% of the population, and most of the rest identify as mixed race.
So when you’re there, look out for a lot of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Filipino cultural influences. The island state is the home of Asian fusion cuisine, from spam musubi to plate lunches with kalbi and mac salad. Japanese words like tako (for octopus or squid) are part of local lingo. And when you’re in the farmers market, check out the native Asian fruits that have been brought over to Hawaii, including durian, the world’s smelliest fruit.
The Big Island (so named because it’s the biggest island) has eight of the world’s 13 different climate zones. By driving around the island, you can explore its wet, monsoon, semi-dry, and even its tundra climates. And believe it or not, you CAN ski on the Big Island. Mauna Kea is a volcanic mountain whose summit sometimes gets just enough snow for you intrepid skiers and snowboarders. There are no chairlifts, though, so you’ll have to go up by 4WD. Just imagine the après-ski drink you’ll have back down by the beach.
Although English and Hawaiian are the official languages, pidgin is used by many locals in everyday casual conversation, and you may hear some phrases used in ads on the radio or TV. It’s been influenced by the languages of the many immigrants to Hawaii, including Portuguese, Cantonese, Japanese, Tagalog, and Korean.
Unless you’re in a situation where locals are good-naturedly trying to teach you some phrases, just don’t even go there. It can come off as condescending. Stick to the common Hawaiian words, such as aloha and mahalo, if you’re getting tired of plain-old English.
You may notice signs by the beach or other parks that say kapu. This means it’s a sacred site — perhaps an ancient burial ground or meeting place for royalty. To the outsider, these places may not look special — heck, they may even just look like piles of rocks by the side of the road. But kapu places have special meaning to native Hawaiians. When you see these signs, be respectful and don’t tread on the ground, take souvenirs, or leave any garbage. And definitely no nude sunbathing.
Hawaii has its own unique culture and way of life. Sure, maybe you can’t get great bagels or Blue Bottle Coffee easily. Maybe the generous use of brown gravy in a lot of local dishes isn’t your thing. Maybe the sight of people wearing flip-flops to upscale restaurants grates on you. You’re out of luck.
But, hey, isn’t travel about getting out of the lifestyles we take for granted? Focus on what Hawaii is and not what it isn’t. You’ll enjoy yourself so much more.