Honeymoon in Hawaii, Colonialism and “Authenticity”
Sorry for the limited blogging. I just got back from my honeymoon in Kauai, Hawaii’s beautiful “Garden Island.” The main attraction on the island is its natural beauty.
Of course, as a historian, I’m often more interested in “unnatural” beauty, or that which is in some ways, artificial, human-made, that is to say, culture. And my wife and I got to take in some of that too. For example, we attended a “traditional” Hawaiian luau at our hotel. We ate ahi, and poke, and kalua pork and all the rest. And we watched hula dancers dance to Hawaiian music.
I am not even remotely an expert on Hawaiian history or culture, but reading a little book on the Hawaiian love affair with Elvis provided some background. While the native Hawaiian people of Polynesian descent possessed a rich religious heritage, their music was mostly mono-tonal until the arrival of Western instruments in the 1800s. As for the hula, the dance we saw appeared to be a hodgepodge of ancient and modern styles blended together.
Having been exposed to (if not infected by) your typical grad student pomo bullshit, I couldn’t help but think about colonialism. I worried about my Western Gaze staring at the native Hawaiians, how mostly white Euopean and Americans have appropriated and bastardized Hawaii’s cultural heritage, now exploiting their people for our own entertainment in a display not too far off from minstrelsy. Oy vey.
But then I realized how superficial and simplistic an analysis this would be. Indeed, as my advisor frequently warns me, “authenticity” is a terrible word for scholars because it usually has no meaning. Nothing we see today is “authentic” in the sense that it is virtually unchanged from the past and unaltered by foreign influence. And that’s a good thing.
At my very own wedding, which just preceded said honeymoon, I took pleasure in the fact that our ketubah, or wedding contract, contained the millenia old Aramaic text. But it also contains a modern Hebrew and English text, which reflect our progressive and egalitarian Jewish values that developed as the Jewish religion evolved over centuries. And the hora we danced, as Jewish a tradition as any I can think of, has its origins among gentiles in the Balkans.
When I go to ethnic restaurants, I often ask for the most “traditional” dish (occasionally I use the word authentic, I admit it). Because I like to experience the food that is most associated with a given group or culture. But language can be a barrier, rendering the quest for authenticity fraught with difficulty.
On the flight home, the plane showed an episode of Anthony Bourdain‘s No Reservations where he explored various iconic restaurants and shops in Manhattan. Along with stops at Katz’s and Russ and Daughters, Bourdain also popped in to Hop Kee, the restaurant in Chinatown his parents took him to as a kid. Yet as Bourdain discovered, the “traditional” wonton soup, egg roll, BBQ spare ribs, pork fried rice, sweet and pungent pork and fortune cookies, that he ordered as a kid were not “authentic” to the Cantonese regulars who frequented the place. They didn’t order from the menu, but instead asked for traditional dishes in their native tongue: crab Cantonese style, black bean snails, and pan fried flounder. Noting the vast difference, Bourdain joked that his “whole childhood was a hollow sham.” But of course, it wasn’t. It felt authentic to them, and more important, it tasted good and brought fond memories flooding back to him.
And so, we enjoyed the Luau. Especially the fire dancers.
I had no idea how authentic it was, but then again, I have no idea what that really means. Furthermore, any comparison to minstrelsy seems off base. I have no idea how well paid the performers in the luau are, whether they enjoy their work, to what extent they embrace their heritage and the changes that have happened to it and a million other details. So better not to judge and simply enjoy than to judge incorrectly.
And so overall, it was a great honeymoon. And no, this blog entry was not just an excuse to post pictures. Well, not entirely.