In 1996, I became the first instructor to assign R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s for classroom use. The faculty at Pomona College hired me to teach a course with a sufficiently boring title of my choosing: “Asian American Cultural Studies: Reading Nationalism and Life Worlds.” Perfect for an upper division seminar on Asian American literature.
I assigned Walter Lew’s anthology of poetry and prose, Premonitions, published by Kaya Press. Julie Koo, the managing editor at Kaya, suggested I also take a look at a recently published book by a “young Filipino American writer” from Hawai‘i. Sure, I said, add it to my order. I loved Linmark’s book. I found it strange, puzzling, and funky. It sounded like he listened to same music I did. I don’t think I or my students were quite ready for Rolling. Everyone in the class was drawn to the pop-cultural references like Charlie’s Angels (not the one with Lucy Liu in it, I’m talking about the original one) or Joanie Loves Chachi, and the whip-smart attitudes of the young protagonists. But a couple of things threw some of the students off. First was heavy use of pidgin. Not much on the continent’s soundscape sounds anything remotely like it. Zack’s characters gossiped, joked, and fought—all in their unique patois— code-switching when necessary. It’s a testament to the author’s ability to draw in readers who are not used to the cadence or context of pidgin. Second was the sociocultural dynamics of Filipino experiences in Hawai‘i. My students did their best to make sense of it: they did a lot of outside homework to learn about the island’s racial and ethnic hierarchies, the erasure of indigenous peoples, and the vicious nature of class warfare there.
What I loved most about the book when I first picked it up twenty years ago was how it was such a strong antidote to the everyday fantasies that many of us have about Hawai‘i. When I meet people who ask me about where I’ve lived and worked, I talk about my nine years in Honolulu. For those who’ve never been there, I can see their eyes glaze over. It doesn’t take too long for someone to ask a version of the same question I must have been asked hundreds of times since I moved away in 2011: “Why would you leave paradise?”
Even today, there’s no shortage of images that go right to that lizard part of the brain that conjures durable notions of scantily clad, ethnically ambiguous women serving umbrella-topped cocktails. Fantasies crash into each other—hypersexualized natives and militarized police officers—every week, reinforced by the re-boot of Hawai‘i Five-O. And do we really need to re-hash the weird treatment of native people in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, where the Allison Ng character (supposedly of Chinese and Hawaiian descent) was played by the Nordic Emma Stone?
It’s not just Hollywood trafficking in this zone. A major function of the state government is devoted, as you can imagine, to keeping the sacred cow of tourism well-fed and happy. Tourists—the state government prefers the more inviting term, visitors—spend about fourteen billion dollars a year on their trips to Hawai‘i, buying up nearly ten million air seats. And what do you suppose these visitors do not expect to see when they arrive? How about actual, everyday people trying to make ends meet in paradise?
Thousands throughout the state live paycheck to paycheck, cobbling together minimum wage jobs. How does a line cook who makes $1200 a month survive on $100, after paying for rent, utilities, food, and other bills? Or what about that waitress in Kona who works forty hours a week between two jobs, trying to raise two kids with her bartending husband? Or how about that single parent raising a fourteen-year-old and a nine-year-old on an administrative assistant’s wage of $12 an hour? If any of the families are lucky, they might land a spot in Section 8 housing, but you could see why they wouldn’t bother, given the how long the waiting list is. Some of the kids have access to the state’s Medicaid program, but that doesn’t cover the parents, leaving them with a health care plan that only a conservative could love: hoping (sorry, praying) not to get sick. Outside of the tourist’s gaze is what you would find in any city: high cholesterol, low paychecks, broken promises, divorce papers, passive-aggressive compliments, waiting in traffic, and small talk. The fantasy industry does more than hope you will never see any of this. The captains of industry always have a plan: Waikiki, the premiere destination spot for first-time tourists, is set up so you never have to leave that corner of Oahu.
Do yourself a favor. If you’ve never visited Hawai‘i or are planning a return, then set aside skimming the usual guide books. Instead, pick up Zack Linmark’s Rolling the R’s and get yourself into a conversation with someone about what the hell he’s writing about. You might find that there’s more humor, soul, and truth in his fiction than in a hundred guides promising you The Real Hawai‘i.