My older sister thinks it’s a shame I didn’t give my children Hawaiian middle names. Her granddaughters, who are about the same age as my kids, have long middle names full of accents and vowels that sound like a song when spoken. I could not, after so many years on the mainland, say these names on my first try. It would take my tongue some practice to make those shapes again. I have a Hawaiian middle name that is not as long and musical, but it has as many vowels as consonants. It translates into English as “the gift.”
When my kids were born, it didn’t occur to me to give them Hawaiian names. That’s how far removed I felt from Hawaiian culture by the time I was in my thirties. But in truth, for my whole childhood, Hawaiian culture had been eclipsed in nearly every tangible way by American culture. This was by design, put into motion with the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, annexation in 1898, and statehood in 1959. In the wake of this history, my father enlisted as a US Marine, then became a police officer. He drove a Cutlass Supreme, my mom drove an AMC Hornet. We watched every Olympics, our eyes tearing up when the American flag rose high above others in victory. I had a Dorothy Hamill haircut.
Yes, there was kalua pig and lomi salmon. But there was also oyako donburi and Portuguese sausage and manapua. There was Spam and Tang. There was Bisquick. There was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. In many ways, this was a classic mid-twentieth century childhood of boxed and canned food typical during a time of American automation and convenience. But there was also in Hawaii the formidable presence of American military on our small islands and the burgeoning weight and power of tourism. Also of substantial weight and power: the bequeathed narrative of conquest and decline, of polytheistic heathens in need of salvation.
I was one of the children who grew up in that post-colonial welter unbuffered by our Anglo / Asian / Polynesian names, despite our parents’ best intentions, guided to adulthood by foods and words and holidays that spanned many cultures. No single one seemed to belong to me. While my sisters and cousins chose to go to Kamehameha Schools, which was founded in 1887 by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop to support future generations of Hawaiian students, I went to public school, choosing to take my chances in the welter that I knew versus the one that I didn’t. It’s there that my sisters fully claimed their Hawaiian identities. For me, that came much later.
I’ve recently come to think of my middle name as a kind of patriotic concession my parents made to the new motherland: “Take this mixed-race child,” it seems to say, “as a gift to the country.” And I turned out to be an excellent colonial subject who mastered English (enough to have the job I have today) and assimilated into American culture.
It’s not easy for me to admit here on the page that I accepted the colonial identity that was given to me. Even when others who have gone through similar upbringings remind me that young identities so often take the shape carved out by the circumstances they are born into, that resistance and agency come later, I’m still suspicious of my complicity and doubt my integrity.
That my children have Anglo names but brown skin, and noses and eyes shaped like their Polynesian and Asian ancestors—perhaps this is my struggle showing up on their bodies, which, I hope, will not become their struggle. A friend recently asked, “What are you doing to make sure your kids don’t grow up as good colonial subjects?” They are their own people, of course, but for a while longer, I think of them also as mine.
I know I’ll spend the rest of my life in this careful dance of trying to bring close the complex culture of my childhood without carelessly extracting and pillaging from it. I know I will always question what is mine, if anything is at all.
1 comments have been posted.
Kathleen, thank you for sharing this personal struggle related to identity, heritage, traditions, and culture. Your story of cultural duality resonated with me in thinking about my own claims to identity. My folks divorced when I was a baby, so I grew up with limited exposure to Latino culture, with me mostly living, and learning, vicariously through the stories my mom told of going to Mexico, living with my father's family in Guanajuato, and traveling to Mexico City - largely before I was ever born. Later, when serving in the Army, many of my close friends were Latinos, and I suffered a fair bit of playful ribbing for not being able to speak Spanish fluently. Despite studying Spanish for three years in high school (I took Spanish as part of my pursuit of my lost culture; when your name is Valdez Bravo, people expect you to speak Spanish), l spoke Spanish like a non-Latino, and having not grown up with the holidays and traditions, they felt alien to me. My eyes, like yours, well up when I hear the national anthem during moments of national pride, and I consider myself an American above and beyond all else. I am proud of my Native American heritage, and know my family's French Canadian, German, and English roots. But I am also conscious of the disconnect between the culture of my father's side, my Latino heritage. Although I didn't grow up with the culture of my Mexican family in my life as a child, I feel like I now have an opportunity to explore it and reconnect with it - and them. Reconnecting with my father and half-brother have been a start, but there is always more to learn and experience. I'll likely spend the rest of my days always consciously trying to close the divide - and taking my daughter, who is one quarter Latina, along with me for the ride.
Valdez Bravo | August 2017 | Portland, Oregon