It appears that, as a culture, we rear our children to fit in. And it breaks our parental hearts at the first sign that they do not. We attempt to protect them from being the last chosen for team kickball; from a lunchbox full of food that no other child would trade up for; from visible orthopedic shoes instead of Adidas; from finding their Valentine box empty. We live in a culture that has very narrow parameters for difference. Most of us grow up feeling marginal in some way – by virtue of the narrow boundaries of conventional acceptance and the harsh social judgment around those differences.
It was not like that among the kanaka maoli. The culture that we celebrate understood no two human beings had the same destiny; no one could dictate another person’s path; every life lent a unique contribution to the whole.
‘Iokepa says, “Even if a man sat under the coconut tree every day of his life and never lifted a finger to help, at the end of the day the community fed him. There may come a time (or there may not) when he’d stand up and utter the single word that the community needed to hear. No one else could judge that.”
These days it seems that our outsiders are speaking their wisdom loud and clear.
Barack Obama is twice cursed as an outsider. He is African American in a nation that still feeds off the collective residue and guilt of slavery. He is not white. But neither is he a grandson of slavery; his father was African. He stands outside the dominant Caucasian community and he’s marginal, too, among the African American descendants of slaves.
‘Iokepa was born and raised in Washington State – not on his native Islands. Unlike most Native Hawaiians, he does not speak pidgin. “I speak Hawaiian, and I speak English.” He was born free of the laws that oppressed his culture for almost 150 years. He is decidedly different.
Return Voyage speaks now outside of the Islands across the continental United States. After ten years of preparation, walking and living on each of the Hawaiian Islands, communing with the ancestors – we now speak the aboriginal message as outsiders.
This week the speaking tour landed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We were the guests in two homes for two very dynamic gatherings. In the first, a Jewish woman waxed eloquently about the nature of being reared Jewish in Louisiana – the necessity to fit where you do not into a fervently bible-belt Christian majority. She spoke of the compromises to faith and to self that it demanded.
In the second home, we were guests of first-generation Vietnamese immigrants, who struggle between the pull of their ancient culture and the attraction of their new home.
In the first family I witnessed enhanced creativity, gifted prose, and lively articulation. Within our second family, I saw the invention of ideas, philosophy, and intellectual discovery. In both, there was the transcendent birth of something powerfully new – something different. Each had one foot planted within the dominant culture, and one firmly outside of it. As a result of their heightened perspective, their less confined and clouded frame of reference, they were able to recognize truths that might well be hidden from the mainstream.
Mr. Obama, my husband, this voyage, the delightful Jewish family, and the charming Vietnamese one have reaped the rewards of a life apart. Each carries their soul’s gift – intensified by a deep sense of marginality.
‘Iokepa said, “Standing on the outside, looking in, we can see and hear more clearly the possible pitfalls of a culture or a people who are buying into something that is not authentic.” Perhaps that’s the greatest gift we can offer our children.