Stubborn Waters, or On Growing Up Local

“The persistence of Pidgin in the islands despite widespread assimilation of American culture and the concerted efforts of educators to stamp it out, suggests that it is less a matter of Pidgin speakers being unable to speak standard English but their choosing it as a symbol of local identity.” – Darrell H.Y. Lum, Local Genealogy: What School You Went?

          My father does not respect Pidgin, yet when he speaks to me with his half-broken tongue, I can hear inflictions of his past. Kalihi boy, Farrington grad, spent his days surfing off Sand Island; the rhythm of the water swelling in his youthful chest, I cannot recall what he tells me over-and-over again, but certain currents pull me down, leave me feeling Haole: “uneducated,” “welfare-cases,” “any-dipshit-could-write-that-shit.”
          He knows I write in Pidgin, I don’t have to tell him, but I do, every time. I explain to him the orality of the language, the difficulty in capturing something so natural and organic, free flowing. I tell him it’s like trying to translate the movements of the water into words; something felt, into something heard.
          He ignores my reasoning, he always has. This is his house, built by his hands. Bought the land when it was only dirt roads, Ag Land. Newly weds digging ditches in rain that made him forget the warmth of salt water, the comfort of those waves. Y’know how he is–my mother says, urging me to accept the debris that he’s become. His tanned flesh now pale, lazy and drooping, yet his trunk remains solid, and his hands are callous and splintered with fiberglass from years spent building boats.
          I like tell um, how much weight he wen put on me fo’ speak propah, wen weigh down my tongue. Dat my memory of Pidgin, stay da color of Chili Peppahs; one harsh crimson dat made me so thirsty I wen fo’get da kine bad words he wen teach me not fo’ say. I like tell um how y’know, disconnected I feel from dis place, from my friends, from my family. Dat wen I write li’dis, stay like I takin’ one part of me back. Like I on dat wave wit him, back wen he used to membah what was like fo’ grow up Dillingham. Fo’ hide up in da mango tree and tchrow fruit down at his faddah while he yellin’ at him fo’ get down–You fuckin’ kid, gon get lickins.
          But I don’t tell him this. I try to by lacing my stories with bits of his. My mother can’t believe I remember some of them, talking to me about how it really happened. I tell her it doesn’t matter; ask her if dad read it. Y’know how he is, son, he doesn’t like to read.
          Months pass without us speaking. He teaches my brother to read the tides, while I continually try to make my way in the water. Another publication, a reading in a few months. I have to tell my mother to make sure my father stays home. I want him there–I tell her, but y’know how he is.
          It’s my birthday and he hears I made the paper. My mom mentions something about my grandfather, that the story was about him. I brush her off–It’s fiction, it’s about no one.
          Least it’s in English–My father says, What’re they thinking putting some of that shit in the paper. Any uneducated idiot can write something like that.
          Y’know my novel’s in Pidgin, right? I mean like ninety-percent of it.
          It feels good to say it, to let that wave slip past my lips. But he rides it like he always has, smoother than I thought, laughs. My brother interrupts, something about fishing, and the party returns to the usual sense of ignored decay. I used to suppress these memories, only letting flickers of them back into my mind, but now there’s no need as I feel too aware of the corpse that lays floating in the water.

“The debate over pidgin may rage in educational or academic circles, but there’s no uncertainty among the students who answer my question: Pidgin is fo’ real. Don’t talk it if you can’t talk it, they say–but don’t dismiss it either. Even as pidgin evolves, it remains central to their understanding of what local is. Even kids who don’t speak it enjoy it, understand it, recognize it as the sound of ‘home.’”
Bill Teter, Listening With an Outsider’s Ear

          I do not speak Pidgin, and by that I mean I tend to rely on my father’s proper English rather than the language I was accustomed to growing up in Kahalu?u. In fact, for most of my writing career I never wrote in anything but standard English. This was not because I didn’t understand or appreciate the language; rather my father’s attitudes toward Pidgin—which I associated with local culture—left me feeling dislocated from Hawaiʻi.
          It wasn’t until I began studying Faulkner, and his use of stream-of-consciousness, that I began to take an interest in Pidgin. The first story I wrote evolved from earlier experiments with composing narratives out of just dialogue. I used exposition sparsely and dialogue tags only when absolutely necessary. This accomplished a more natural feel to the character’s conversations, a “talk story” style that helped me to reconnect to my local roots as I became more and more aware of how engrained Pidgin was in my identity.
          In Growing Up Local, the anthology in which all of the quotes I’m using are taken from, Darrell H.Y. Lum begins Local Genealogy: What School You Went by presenting a quote from Stephen H. Sumida’s And the View From the Shore. “…in the native Hawaiian way, personal introductions include these questions: What are you called (i.e., your given name)? Where are you from (i.e., your neighborhood or district)? And who is your teacher (i.e., your school or the way of thought to which you are loyal)?” It can be argued that this was adopted in local terms as: What’s your name? Y’know so-and-so? Where you from? And what school you went? Sumida continues, “This local ritual is expressively a way for two people to begin discovering their relationships to each other, however distant […] It is a way to begin weaving their histories together—and this defines friendship, or an aspect of it, local style.”
          Another way in which the designation of local is earned, is through the knowledge of local culture, i.e. Pidgin. “[…] local culture has often been characterized as a culture of resistance against the dominant white culture and rooted in the struggles of Hawaiʻi’s sugar plantations,” And later, “Not only does Pidgin promote a sense of community, it challenges our assumptions of language and culture. Pidgin serves to unify local culture and to critique the dominant one” (Lum 12-13).
          My father is a proud man, born working class; his family struggled to make a home without the means to provide for the long-term. His dream was not that far from the social myth of the American one: to own his own house, start a family, and insure his kids got a quality education and made something of themselves—a reflection of his successes. Inadvertently, part of his dream also became about keeping us from experiencing the same culture-rich, local childhood he had had. We grew up local, living like we were Haole, not sure of which we were.
          Writing Pidgin for the first time didn’t just feel natural; it functioned as a catalyst to renegotiate a sense of my local self. As complicated a statement as that may be, I believe the language has the same sense of community that Lum refers to in Local Genealogy. Bill Teter, a self-proclaimed mainland born “outsider in the pidgin debate” sees it as “central to the understanding of what local is;” A language that seeks to unite, regardless of economic, ethnic, or cultural background.
          The sense of “home” I’ve been referring to, the sense of being local is the sense of feeling a part of a place; a part of a culture that exists on a social level. Local culture does not supersede Kanaka Maoli culture, the culture of Hawaiʻi, nor does Pidgin exist as a native language. These two things (local, and Pidgin) instead are born out of a complicated past, a contemporary and problematic Hawaiʻi, and an identity crisis that effects all who live here.

“When I go back home and visit my folks and look into their faces or walk around the neighborhood, I know what used to be called Local is just about gone—the people and places woven into meanings which even those people barely understood. Some will go back and try to keep the petroglphys protected, the wrought iron shiny, the traditions and families perpetuated. But most things change.”
Eric Chock, I Wuz Hea

          What does growing up local mean? What’s the relation in regards to the prevalence of Pidgin? These are important questions, two of many that are impacting the current perception of culture in Hawaiʻi. I do not have the answers for them, and do not believe I ever really will. I write in Pidgin as a way of reconnecting myself to a home I barely knew. A small house built on Ag land, back when Kaneʻohe had only dirt roads, by my mother and father, who used to surf off Sand Island and grew up in Kalihi. I write in Pidgin because somewhere in that house I used to live, I had a room, and scribbled on the wall are three words I know my father understands; the same three words he felt making his way through those stubborn waters. I wuz hea.

Talk story

  1. Darrell Lum says:

    Betchu your father proud, but no can show it or say um out loud. Sometimes I see that my own son takes offense whenever I say something not meant to be be critical jes one observation, but ho, he come all mad. My wife says cuz he respects me so much. I donno. Maxine Kingston once told me that even if it is fiction, your family will see themselves in whatever you write, intended or not. So dey going get pissed if you neva put dem in, or dey going be pissed dat you neva tell da story exack like dey went learn um. No can win.

    And yes, local is not Hawaiian; our history is as complicated, contradictory, biased, fragmented, and troubled as any other. But by accident of geography and hospitality of a native people, now "I stay hea." And isn't that what we all want in the end?

  2. BetweenWatersUnseen says:

    Aloha Darrell,

    First of all, thank you for your insight. I deeply appreciate it. I think you’re right, and my mother has told me it before. I think it’s just difficult being a creative and open person, not to have that pride shown verbally/physically. Not to mention the difference in generations. I think he grew up with that old idea of masculinity, and also because of his hard upbringing, built a lot of emotional walls. Part of me would like to include a section about what he did bring to the table, quite literally, with his love for hole-in-the-wall okazuya and bento places. I mean I still remember every Saturday, him either taking us someplace or picking up plate lunch or manapua. Lunching at Kakaako li’dat.

    It’s funny because this essay originally sprung from some reactions to my own Pidgin work; reactions that surprised me considering all of the literature and scholarly work, not to mention the evolution of Pidgin, and the fact that it’s still prevalent. I mean in this day and age for someone to say, "It's too much, and us Haoles have to slow down and try to catch this voice and understand it." I dunno, I just don’t get it. But for me it doesn’t matter, it’s like you said it’s a part of local history as well as all our histories. It’s all around us, and for good reason. You captured it perfectly.



  3. BetweenWatersUnseen says:

    I would like to say to, that the negative reaction is not the common one. For every one like the one I mentioned, there's several more encouraging and positive responses. Which says something to me as well about the scope of Pidgin and how many folks it really touches on multiple levels.

  4. Darrell Lum says:

    Now you got me tinking. For me, I donno why, but when I write in Pidgin it seems like I'm more honest to the story. I feel a greater responsibility to "get it right" vs my academic writing which, although important to me, it seems to be more about backing up what I say with someone else's work. In fiction, you da only backup…and in Pidgin fiction, gotta read on the page PLUS gotta sound right when you read um.

    From the academic side, I think someone once said that Pidgin (and most creoles) might be as close as we can get to a human natural language, i.e., a language that would have naturally developed. Regardless, of the linguistics, I do believe that it's effective use touches something that makes us all human.

  5. BetweenWatersUnseen says:

    I think that’s what I enjoy about Pidgin, the emotion just rings true in the words. And you definitely have to read it out loud, because you can always tell. I remember writing and rewriting the dialogue, sounding it out with all kinds of people, y’know? You get some folks who wanna say it’s not like that, and others who get all kinds of funny ways fo spell em. I think that’s one of the big differences and difficulties, Pidgin is something that exists in the people rather than the page, that’s where it’s born. I think you kinda have to find your own way fo write em, your own voice in that respect, cause everyone’s going to have their own opinion. Not to mention Kauai Pidgin, Maui Pidgin, etc.

  6. Misty says:

    I really enjoyed this essay and following the dialogue between you and Darrell. :)It's a very interesting discussion you've both got going on here regarding writing Pidgin and "growing up local". I wouldn't say I "grew up local" because I'm a military brat (and a native Hawaiian–talk about straddling a gap). Maybe it was just a way for him to keep a piece of home with him but my dad always encouraged Pidgin in the house (he is a very passionate Pidgin speaker). So when we finally moved back, I was as comfortable with speaking Pidgin as if I had never left.

    I also have my own pet peeves about the way Pidgin is treated in literature. With HBB I've read many books by non-local authors whose stories take place in Hawaii. Their treatment of Pidgin varies from including it and horrendously destroying it, to ignoring it entirely and writing the dialogue in standard english but *describing* it as an accent of Hawaiian creole, or "abbreviated speech" was one of my favorites. 😛 And the characters who speak Pidgin in these books are always a certain type.

    But even if they do include Pidgin to make their characters more authentic, as non Pidgin speakers, the writing still seems hollow. It lacks the cadence that comes across when a Pidgin speaker writes Pidgin. I can usually tell the difference when someone who knows and uses Pidgin is writing it, from when someone who is trying to mimc it is writing it. Then I feel bad for thinking that this difference matters.

    I could go on about the way Pidgin is perceived in academia as well…could talk about turning Pidgin off and on, how Pidgin bonds people together, how joyful it is. Maybe later tho.

    Thanks for sharing this, Don.

  7. BetweenWatersUnseen says:

    Aloha Misty,

    You must’ve had an interesting childhood, a lot of stories I imagine. I think it’s wonderful your father encouraged Pidgin, and think more families should, but I think we all find that part of us at some point. It sounds like Pidgin helped you to negotiate your local identity and I think this is the case with a lot of folks.

    I agree with your pet peeves as well, and I think as Darrell was saying, it’s important for Pidgin to be read aloud while writing it because the life of the language is in how it’s spoken. I don’t watch Hawaii 5-0, but I remember hearing they were going to include Pidgin and I just shook my head.

    I’ve gotten some comments about the more “academic” section of this piece not really working and I think I may add in a section written in just Pidgin, or perhaps weave in more personal narrative. It does feel a little unbalanced at this point, but I don’t know. A work in progress, I guess, though I have no idea what to do with it.

    Thank you both so much for your comments and input.

Leave one comment for Stubborn Waters, or On Growing Up Local

This website uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to its use of cookies.