Our boundaries

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A poet once wrote, "If once you have lived on an island/You'll never be quite the same." But I think we all live on islands. Some are literally small bodies of land surrounded by water, such as the one my grandson David lives on, but most of us live on islands that are bounded on all sides by customs and inherited traditions and expectations and geographical terrain. -- as surely as the Pacific Ocean surrounds David's Kauai. We may travel to far distant places; we may even live for extended periods of time on some of them. But always to some extent the land which was around us as a child is what forms us, it bonds us to itself as surely as a newborn is bonded to its mother, and -- indelibly -- it shapes our perspective.

"Where is the island you live on?"

This island-born grandson, who is himself the son of a third generation islander, recently asked that of me, his grandmother, born in the center of Illinois, a state which might well be considered, literally as well as figuratively, the center of the whole United States, a state where most of the waves are made by wind blowing across hundreds of acres of open prairie planted to green corn and soybeans, and the only islnds are the huge barns and the white farmhouses surrounded by pine trees planted to at least temper if not break the winter storms.

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I tried to explain to David about Illinois. I showed him a map and put his finger on the dot that stood for his mother's hometown. He did not understand; his perspective has been shaped by living each day of his life within sight of the ocean.

David has expounded to me in considerable length on the ecology of a tidal pool, and at four he explained how the sugar can progressed from the field, to the mill, to California, before it came back across the ocean and was sold at Matsuura's Grocery Store. But I'm not sure he would recognize a silo or a combine or a snow plow. Though he knows about boogie boards and barges and sea urchins and stick fish, he has never seen a train or boxcars. (However, from his living room window he regularly watches barges, loaded with boxcar-like containers, carrying anything from building materials to an order from Sears Roebuck from Honolulu to Port Allen or Naweliweli Harbors.)

My grandson has often seen whales slice the ocean's surface, but he has never seen a squirrel or a snake. He likes rice -- with a lot of shoyu sauce -- but not potatoes. He leaves his shoes at the door as he enters his public school classroom (or his home), and he does not own mittens, boots or a coat, and he has never seen a furnace, or storm windows, or ridden in a car with a heater in it.

One of his two teachers is a haolem (white foreigner) from New York State name Mrs. Kunimura, and the other is a local Japanese named Mrs. McDowall, which I find ironic but he accepts as natural. His best friends are named Kinalu and Koa, and last year his nursery school was held at the Koloa Buddhist Hongwanji.

How then could I expect David to understand that at his age my "island" was Pine Knot School where everyone looked alike, dressed alike, where everyone ate soup beans on Monday and fried chicken or pan-fried beef on sunday? Or even for that matter how could he understand his mother's island, a small town and a generation later, where everyone's name was easy to pronounce and where the water in which she swam tasted of chlorine and not of salt?

If either of us, his mother and I, had been asked at his age, "What are you?" we would have answered, "American." David, however, though his mother is a haolem from Illinois and his father a Honolulu-born full Portuguese, would answer automatically, "Hawaiian," as I suspect, would Kinalu and Koa, and all the other children in his classroom.

And as he grows older it will seem natural to him for the head of the Farm Bureau to be a taro farmer and for the price of papayas or the prospects for increased prawn aquaculture to be more important than reports of the corn and soybean markets. Because his perspective is not shaped by Illinois where farms are measured in hundreds of acres, he will not find it amusing as I did to see a classified ad in the "Garden Island news" wanting someone to sharecrop two and a half acres!

David will be able to wear a leim with grace and not self-consciousness, and I don't believe his perspective will be as limited by logic as mine has been. After all, he lives on an island where the blessing by a Hawaiian priestess, or kahuna,m of a painting that mysteriously keeps getting wet is reported as naturally on the front page as is the regular meeting of the county council! The blessing is witnessed by the museum curator and the artist, and the kahunam is quoted as saying that the reason the painting keeps "crying" is because it is of a waterfall where a Hawaiian princess died, and that in her blessing she directed the spirit to leave the painting and be at rest. When I inquire later I am told -- by those surprised that I would even bother to ask -- that, yes, of course, there was no further problem and that the painting was then hanging in the local junior college, and with ture aloham politeness, I am invited to go see it!

I think often on the way David is being molded by his island. I consider how my way of looking at the world has been shaped by the "island" where I grew up as a child. And, furthermore, as I read the news stories of Begin and Sadat and Carter signing a peace treaty, I knew they, too, were bonded to their own islands; yet, they are an example of how people canm manage to transcend the perspectives of the islands of their backgrounds and cultures.

But it isn't easy.

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