10 Best Ways to Fit in with Locals when Visiting Hawaii

Being a mainlander, it took me a little while to figure out how to fit in with the culture of Hawai’i when I first moved here in 1999.  In the beginning, I had a “feeling of newness” that was discernable to most local people and at times I felt uncomfortable about my obvious differences from the people who were born and raised here. After many years of observing visitors and new-comers attempting to fit in; I came up with this list which I hope will be helpful to anyone planning a Hawaii vacation, or intending to live on the islands.

1. RELAX!  Really… relax, you are on vacation!  Isn’t relaxation what you came to Hawaii to experience?  Forget about trying to see everything in one trip; it is impossible, so slow down.  It helps if you plan an itinerary that allows you plenty of spaciousness to be spontaneous and “be in the flow”, which is local lingo for 'relax'.   Many visitors try to fit in so many activities that they are constantly rushing from place to place on their vacation and they miss their precious opportunity to slow down and be present with the place and the people who live here.

2. TREAT PEOPLE WELL – ESPECIALLY THOSE WORKING JOBS YOU WOULD NOT WANT TO BE WORKING YOURSELF:   This should go without saying about treating people well, but it is easy to get frustrated if you have expectations based on mainland values.  The pace of life is different in Hawaii (especially on the outer islands) and you will be constantly disappointed (even in fancy restaurants) if you expect service equivalent to what a similar establishment on the mainland would require of its employees.  People are more laid back here and although they have jobs that do not require a lot of education; they are an integral part of the community so please treat them as such.

3. UNDERSTAND THAT EVERYONE IS INTERCONNECTED: We call it ‘ohana which means extended family.  Except in Honolulu (which is still surprisingly communal given its size), there is usually no more than 1 degree of separation between any 2 given local people; so there is a familiarity about life in Hawaii that leads to a mutual respect amongst strangers.   In Hawaii, families are large and extended; and it would not be uncommon for a member of the county council to have brothers or sisters working serving visitors in a hotel.  As a local resident, you never know if the person you are speaking with is the distant cousin of your boss so it is best practice to assume that he or she is. 

4. BE EXTREMELY POLITE WHEN ASKING FOR DIRECTIONS:  On the smaller islands, visitors can comprise up to 20% of the population on any given day. Because of limited signage many visitors have trouble finding the places they are looking for and want help with directions.  It is rather distressing, as a local person, to be walking down the street and to experience someone beep their horn, roll down their window and ask curtly “how do I get to the Kilauea Lighthouse?!”  Most local people are happy to help out and will go out our way to make sure that you find what you are looking for… but most people really appreciates being asked politely.

5. BE RESPECTFUL: Despite the often slow restaurant service and laid back lifestyle, many people work extremely hard in Hawaii, often doing strenuous manual labor.  Be aware that economic conditions are challenging for many local people.  Most people would much rather be relaxing on the beach than at their jobs and it can be challenging for a person in the midst of a strenuous work day to witness visitors who are out having a great time being completely unaware of the condition of their fellow human beings who are working full time in paradise in order to survive.  The tensions and resentments are real but they are not personal to you; try to maintain empathy for the living and working conditions of the local population.  Many of them trace their direct family lineages to plantation workers who were brought over as indentured servants and worked in poor conditions for little pay where there was a significant inequality.   Others can trace proud lineages back dozens of generations to pre-contact Hawaii and now live in very modest economic conditions.  Hawaii is not like the rest of America; the generational beliefs which were created in the slave like conditions of the plantation days still create certain prejudices within the population towards outsiders as does the deep sadness of a culture which has lost most of its land and authority to self-govern.  The positive side of this dynamic is that many people are willing to openly share their cultural history with you in a friendly and informative way so you may be fortunate to learn some very interesting historical facts that are not widely known.

6. TIP WELL: This rule, like many others, should apply everywhere; but it is especially true in Hawaii where most jobs are near minimum wage and people rely on tips to survive.  It is especially important for people who are visiting Hawaii from parts of the world where tipping is not generally practiced to understand that tips are expected in Hawaii (and in America in general).  Despite what the name implies, it is not a bonus.  Of course if you are dis-satisfied, do not feel obligated; but if everything was to your liking, please consider tipping in accordance with the local custom of 20% for meals, activities and massages in Hawaii.

7. LISTEN ATTENTIVELY WHEN SOMEONE IS SHARING THEIR CULTURAL HERITAGE WITH YOU:  Hawaii has a unique mix of cultures and when people share their history with you, they are offering you a window into living history.  Things are done differently in Hawaii, when you ask questions, please be open minded to receiving an answer which is different from the one you expected.  Hawaii is also a melting pot of different cultures and perspectives; so expect answers to cultural questions to be different amongst the various groups.

8. RESPECT KAPU:  Kapu (or taboo) means off limits.  These places are off limits for a reason.  It may look like a place you want to explore, but there is a good reason which you may not be aware of for the place or activity to be Kapu. 

9. REMEMBER, HAWAII IS NOT AMERICA:  Yes, politically, Hawaii is part of the United States and is subject to her laws; but culturally and in the hearts of many Hawaiians, Hawaii is a sovereign nation that has been conquered by and is still occupied by an outside power.  There is a reason that a song was written with the lyrics “Keep Hawaiian lands in Hawaiian hands”.  These feelings are strong and widely prevalent even if people are not speaking about it.  Being sensitive and aware that any ethnic Hawaiian (and many non-ethnic Hawaiians) you are interacting with probably has strong beliefs about this subject can open you up to learning a lot of history you may not have previously been aware of.

10. APPRECIATE THE BEAUTY AROUND YOU:  The state motto of Hawaii is “Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘aina i kapono”.   Although there are multiple translations of the meaning of this phrase, I was taught that it means “The spiritual life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”.  There are some mind blowing places in Hawaii; appreciate the beauty around you and do what you can to preserve it for future generations.

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