Nowadays in Hawaii, you can see the culture — largely because it has been commodified and put up for sale, making differentiating between real Hawaii and packaged Hawaii a difficult task.
As a U.S. state, Hawaii is an oddity. It is the only state with a majority group that is non-white, and two official languages. According to the 2010 census, 10 percent of the state’s 1.36 million inhabitants identify as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, while 23.6 percent describe themselves as biracial.
The names of streets and civic developments reflect prominent Hawaiian leaders. Bus drivers throw up the hang-loose sign to one another. Young people refer to elders as “uncle” and “aunt” out of respect, despite not being related. Locals talk about their allegiance to a long-deceased queen and groove to a musical style all their own.
Commercialism overruns the most-populated of the Hawaiian islands, assisting the thousands of tourists who arrive daily with the consumption of souvenirs and cultural experiences. Tourists pay big bucks to attend a luau, complete with a traditional lei greeting. Giving leis is one of the few ancient customs still openly practiced in daily life.
Modern leis are predominantly made of non-native materials and the International Marketplace in Waikiki sells hundreds of leis made of plastic flowers and shells — right next to the dashboard hula dolls.
During my stay in Honolulu five years ago, I spoke with Flip Cuddy, O’ahu resident and then-executive director of a nonprofit organization that promotes the advacement of Hawaiian culture.
“You walk down Kalakaua Avenue and see Gucci and Rolex shops,” Cuddy told me. “It looks more like Beverly Hills than Hawaii.”