Hugs and Honis for my ʻOhana


Hailey Akau

Hailey Akau and her family.

By Hailey Akau, Assistant Multimedia Editor and Magazine Section Editor

My first year of college, I realized just how little my Hawaiian identity existed in Boston. I remember a distinct feeling of isolation as I came to terms with the fact that barely any of my peers understood that being Hawaiian meant something entirely different than being from Hawaiʻi. I found it difficult to relate to most of my white peers who had never listened to reggae or knew how to pronounce poke—and had never heard of Hawaiian pidgin. It was as though a piece of my identity was being repressed until those few times a month when I could call my parents and speak to them in the local Hawaiian vernacular. 

I had not realized how much of an impact speaking pidgin had on my sense of belonging until I reached a point in my life where it wasn’t normalized. 

When enslaved migrant workers were forced together under white landowners on sugar cane plantations in Lānaʻi during the 1800s, pidgin was used to bridge the gaps between the Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Portuguese, and English languages. As Hawaiian was the predominantly spoken language in the mid-to-late 1800s, most of the immigrants learned basic Hawaiian vocabulary and incorporated it into words and grammar structures from their mother tongues. After the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom at the start of the 20th century, pidgin became increasingly fused with English. In 1893, U.S. troops invaded the Hawaiian Kingdom and forced her majesty Queen Liliʻuokalani to surrender the sovereignty of the islands to the United States. As time went on, plantation workers started settling down and having families of their own, children were taught pidgin to communicate with the diverse population, thus solidifying the local language of Hawaiʻi. 

My father had grown up in a community that heavily relied on the use of pidgin for verbal communication. His life before kids was one stricken by poverty that he worked hard to climb out of. When I was born, he made a solemn vow to give his kids a better childhood than he had. We grew up on the island of Oʻahu and lived in a nice neighborhood known as Mānoa Valley. My sister and I were enrolled at private schools, took weekly piano lessons, and played club sports. But despite the sheltered life he had given me and my sister, my father was a “local braddah” at heart. 

At the age of five, I asked my mother why my cousins on my dad’s side “talked funny.” She explained to me in simple terms that they spoke pidgin. 

Photo: Hailey Akau

My Aunty Alaine would greet me at every family party saying, “Come give me honi honi,” and I associated those words with her heavily perfumed skin pressed against my lips as I planted a kiss on her cheek. My uncles would come in carrying cases of beer and immediately say, “Howzit?” as they smiled and shook hands with my dad. My cousins spoke differently, their vocabulary much more simplistic and lively than mine. At every single family party, my sister and I felt alien from those connected to us by blood. 

It wasn’t until I reached the sixth grade that I started understanding the social connotations of speaking pidgin. Pidgin is spoken mostly by people from lower class communities, mainly consisting of minority identities. The community I grew up in was predominantly Asian, so being both Puerto Rican and Native Hawaiian put me in the minority. I became hyper-aware of how my peers perceived me, with my darker complexion and curly hair being indicators that I was different. In adolescent years, conformity can feel like everything. In my private school, pidgin was barely used or only spoken outside of class.

As I became aware of the fact that speaking pidgin was associated with lower class communities, I noticed a difference between my father’s work voice and home voice. Dinnertime banter sometimes consisted of exaggerated retellings of stories from my paternal relatives with their ways of speaking becoming the butt of a joke. I would avoid inviting my private school friends to any of my family parties, as I felt somewhat embarrassed to be connected to a community so often mocked by the majority. I only spoke pidgin with my family. In all honesty, pidgin did not make much of an appearance in my life until my late teenage years when I started to pick up small accents and phrases from my father and his relatives.

Then, during my first-year college writing course, I read June Jordan’s essay entitled “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You” that explored the impact of reclaiming pride in Black English. She explained that it is a language associated with delinquency and was “beaten out of” Black children. They are taught to change their dialect, and in turn surrender their cultural pride. The rejection of this lingo contributes to the reinforcement of white standards and the inferiority of minority culture. Jordan’s words made me realize that I had done the same with pidgin. 

I had sacrificed an aspect of my identity to “proper English,” pushed aside my family ties out of shame and a desire to assimilate into the larger social culture, and found myself resentful of the social majority, who had taken the pride out of my heritage.

Slowly, pidgin began to make its way back into my life. I found community among the few other students that had come to Boston from Hawaiʻi, from my home. My friend Marisa and I would sit on the floor of her suite, wrapping nori around spam musubis while listening to music by Kolohe Kai. We would talk about how “Aunty gon lik me if I wen make anykine like da haoles” and how much we missed pipikaula and Portuguese sausage. We’d bring musubis to “local braddah Jaron,” and Uber to the Hawaiian Airlines terminal with our high school mate Lauren. I’d chat with Daria, who grew up in my same neighborhood, about flight costs around the breaks and whether she’d be walking her dog through Mānoa Valley. My mother started sending me Hawaiian food, and I would call home weekly, instead of monthly, to speak freely and listen to my sister complain about how “irraz my maddah being.” My dad would update me on my “crybaby Mary cousin La’i” who “wen nevah like give unko honi honi.” 

Now, I look back at the memories of my chaotic “local kine ʻohana” with fondness. The house is never quiet when we get together. And that’s just the way it will always be. I’m proud to call myself one of the few pidgin-speaking Hawaiians in Boston, and I hope my family knows it, too.