My husband and I were always proud to have an ‘international marriage,’ as it was called in Japan. I was an American expat living in Tokyo and my husband was Japanese. Our marriage spanned two nations and two cultures and for us, it seemed ideal. Not long after we were married, we saw a TV documentary in which mixed-race children around the globe were interviewed about their experiences. In each case, the children complained bitterly about the lack of a single identity, about not knowing where they belonged, and about the racism they experienced from the races of both parents. There was only one exception, the young man who lived in Hawaii. Being from two cultures and two races was for him, the best thing in the world. He talked happily of having the best of both cultures, of speaking two languages, of celebrating all the festivals, of having the most fun and best of all, of eating a variety of delicious food. I turned to my husband and said, “If we have children, we’re moving to Hawaii.” He agreed.
When my daughter was born, we talked of moving often but it didn’t happen until we began the search for an elementary school. We spoke with many parents and children and while most were content with schools in Japan, there were several students who experienced serious bullying because of their mixed race heritage. Some were taken out of school to be home-schooled. Some were put into expensive, private international schools but the emotional scaring remained.
A few months later we moved to Maui. We told my daughter how lucky she was to have two cultures and two passports and how wonderful it was to be able to live on Maui and visit Japan. She embraced it all and like most of her new friends, she was proud to be Hapa, the Hawaiian word for half. As a family, we appreciated that all children in Hawaii are cherished and being Hapa was the most normal thing of all.
Most people think of Maui as a paradise because of its beautiful beaches and terrific weather. But for us, Maui was an island of wonderfully kind people living in a paradise of zero racism. Once we settled in, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Not only was our diverse family accepted, we blended right in with everyone else.
Soon my daughter was inviting her new friends over to play in our condo pool. Her friends were from every possible combination of different backgrounds: Asian, Caucasian, Hawaiian, Tongan, African-American and Hispanic. Once in awhile my African-American neighbor would stop by and watch them play. “Your daughter and her friends are Martin Luther King’s dream come to life,” she once told me. And it was a beautiful sight to see, not just because of the children’s diversity, but because they had no idea that race mattered to anyone. They didn’t know what racism was, and didn’t learn about it until they were much older and studied it in school. Even then, it was a distant, historical subject, an oddity that happened only on the mainland. In short, they just couldn’t believe that people acted that way toward each other. Their worst fears were that something like that might happen to one of their friends, if they visited the mainland.
Unfortunately life in the islands has not always been a paradise of tolerance. In 1893, after years of turmoil instigated by small groups of mostly American businessmen, missionaries and sugar plantation owners, Hawaii’s monarch, Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown. This coup took place with the help of the U. S. military. The reason they gave was that it was necessary to protect American interests and the American citizens who lived in Hawaii. An act of aggression on this scale would cause an international outcry today, but in 1893 it went unchecked. The problems for Hawaii didn’t end there. There was racism on the part of the white overseers and bit by bit, the Hawaiians lost their ancestral lands.
A local man once told me that his family originally owned several miles of beach front property. But their land was taken away until they only owned enough land for one house and they struggled to pay their property tax. “This land was ours for hundreds of years before the US government took over. Why do we have to pay property taxes now? I’ll pay income tax, sales tax, any kind of tax they want, but I don’t think Hawaiians should pay property tax.” In a culture where the aina, the land is everything, he spoke without any anger or racism but only from a place of deep sadness.
When Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1898, Princess Kaiulani, the heir to the Hawaiian throne, said that when she saw the Hawaiian flag being taken down, “it was bitterer than death.” Hawaii finally became a state in 1959 but culturally, it is and will always be its own proud Hawaii.
In light of their history, why then is Hawaii this present-day oasis of racial equality? I give credit to the Hawaiian people who believe in ‘doing what is Pono’, which translates to ‘doing what is right’. In short, they chose the higher road and I have the greatest respect for the people of Hawaii. If Maui is a paradise, it is first and foremost because of its people and I will always be eternally grateful for what Maui gave to my daughter, a much cherished childhood of racial acceptance, a childhood in paradise.
My friend Carlos grew up in Mexico City but now he lives on Maui. He works as a window washer. I see him at some of my jobs, brandishing his squeegee and an assortment of multicolored rags. We’re always glad to see each other as it gives us a chance to speak in Spanish which really means that we get to tell funny stories and jokes that just don’t sound the same in English.
But this time Carlos was more serious. “Why do you do this hard work all day long? You could teach Spanish. You learned Spanish in Vera Cruz where people tell risqué jokes and colorful stories all day long. You could teach Spanish a la Veracruzana. And if you teach all the bad words, you must charge much more money.”
I had to agree. “I used to teach school but I can make more money taking care of houses for people. That way I can keep my daughter in school.”
“Then you are an angel.”
“Either an angel or an idiot, I’m not sure which one,” I said.
Carlos shook his head. He was much too polite to use the word idiot, even in English.
“I’ve written four novels, too,” I said. “But none of them are published yet.”
Carlos continued washing the windows. “So how do you become successful? How do you become as famous as the writers we see in the bookstores?
I shrugged. “Some of those writers had to write five books before they got the first one published.”
“That’s it!” Carlos was polishing the window with a linen rag and he pointed the rag towards me as if he was going to polish me too. “You write the fifth book. You must go home and do it today!”
“I’m working on the fifth book.”
Carlos shook his head. “You must work harder. Go home and finish the fifth book. I feel certain that this is the answer.”
He stepped back to admire his windows which I had to admit shone like diamonds and then he turned to me, obviously pleased that he had managed to mend my shattered life as part of his days work.
“Go home and write,” he said.
“I guess it’s either that or teach dirty jokes in Spanish,” I said.
My gentle friend laughed as he packed up his rags to leave. “Some angel!” he joked.
As I watched him leave, I smiled for the first time all day. And just as he suggested, I went home to write the fifth book.
I can’t help noticing the incredible potential that children have. When I talk with my daughter and her friends, I find no limits to what they can achieve. Among them are talented actors, dancers and artists. They are compassionate, intelligent girls and they amaze me. Seeing potential in the young is not such an unusual experience but a strange thing happened the other day. I began to see potential for greatness in everyone. I’m not just talking about potential for financial success. I’m talking about the potential to inspire others, the potential to rise above difficulties in a miraculous way and to be the hero of our own life story.
The first person I saw this in was a homeless man living on the beach. His intelligence was still intact despite years of drug use and he spoke to me about his experiences and how he wanted to write a book. “Not many people can write about what I’ve seen,” he said soberly. I agreed and offered him all the encouragement I could.
The next person I met was an elderly woman in the grocery store who leaned on her shopping cart for support and smiled up at me from her permanently stooped posture. She seemed surprised at my offer for help, and laughingly explained, “I’m nearly ninety but I can still do everything myself.” Her enthusiasm for accomplishing small tasks had me smiling all day.
Last was the happy child from a neighborhood welfare family who wandered through my front door without knocking to ask for rice crackers. (She does this all the time and is always smiling despite her bad teeth.) She stayed to eat her crackers and talk to me about school before skipping off to find a friend to play with. As far as she is concerned, she has as much potential as anyone and I think she is right.
Seeing such potential in everyone I meet is like finding an unlimited treasure trove. And not only this, the potential seems close to the surface, unstoppable. We all have the potential to be great in our own way, to become the fully realized heroes of our own lives. Find your greatness. Embrace it. Your greatness is closer to the surface than you think.
My ancestors hail from eight different countries and three separate continents, yet my Irish ties have always held a special fascination. Maybe it’s because my Irish relatives are so colorful and they tell such good stories. Whatever the reason, I’d always imagined that my Irish ancestors were somehow bigger than life. On my first trip to Ireland, I’m hoping to find out if this is true.
Upon arriving in Dublin, the first thing I am aware of is that I am the foreigner here and I’m not comfortable with that. I wanted to feel at home, to be welcomed by the somehow familiar faces of ghosts. Instead, I see retired Americans fulfilling a life-long dream and young parents proudly herding their red-headed offspring through museums and castles. I’m surprised to discover that they have come for much the same reason I have. They are all a little sheepish and apologetic about it. They have no explanation for the strong pull that Ireland has always had on them. Seems my journey is not so unusual after all.
I drive across Ireland alone, something which is viewed as not only strange here, but downright shocking. In the countryside, the dominant colors are the emerald green of the rolling hills and the comforting blue of the Irish sky. My eyes ache from straining to catch sight of every thatch-covered cottage and meandering stone wall. I pass ring forts and round towers, monasteries and castles.
Contrary to all predictions, it does not rain. The whole country has a clean, smoky smell from the peat fires. It reminds me of my Irish grandmother’s house. Am I making this trip for her, I wonder.
I stop to visit the crumbling stone walls of a “famine village.” A man in a tweed coat and cap explains to me that everyone in this village perished during the great famine. Even though the potato famine occurred more than 150 years ago, he makes it sound like a current event.
“Many also died on the coffin ships trying to cross the seas,” he recalls. He pauses, then adds, “We keep their blackened cooking pots, out of respect for those who died.”
I thank him for the information and travel on to the next hotel. The woman behind the desk seems more curious than most. She asks me the usual questions: “Why are you in Ireland…and why are you alone?”
She immediately begins talking about the living relatives I must have somewhere in Ireland. I had not been thinking about the possibility of relatives in the present; all this time, I had only been searching for my past. She asks question after question but I have few answers.
“Don’t you have any old letters? Don’t you know what county your family came from?”
“No,” I admit, mumbling something about some letters that may exist with some distant relatives back east. How can I explain to her that we were the transient ones who moved west and then west again and again, each time leaving behind little trace of ourselves?
“You must find out,” she says. Finally, she pauses and then continues, “I didn’t want to say anything at first, but you are the spitting image of my great-great aunt. You even have the same name. It’s even spelled the same way. And she had three brothers who emigrated to America. We may be cousins!”
We exchange addresses and she promises to send me a photograph of my twin who she claims even had similar interests, mannerisms and gestures. “Your voice sounds just like hers and you even walk the same way,” she says. I have to wonder, Is this the ghost I’ve been looking for: a mirror image of myself?
With my trip nearing its end, I reach the Cliffs of Moher. I stand on the precipice and stare out across the Atlantic. I think of my ancestors leaving the land they loved, saying goodbye to families they would never see again. I think of their dreams and their promises to return one day. In that instant, the reason for my trip becomes clear to me. Along with my Irish hair and Irish eyes, I have also inherited my ancestors’ unfulfilled promises. This is a journey I have made for them.
I return to Dublin and spend one final night. Then on my final taxi ride to the airport, the driver asks me about my trip. I tell him that I drove around Ireland by myself.
“You must be mad! A woman shouldn’t drive around Ireland by herself” He ignores the whizzing lanes of traffic in front of him to turn around and look at me. “You must be mad,” he says again.
When he’s recovered from the shock, he tells me about all the places I missed, places that do not seem to be in any guidebook.
“You’ll just have to come back,” he says and he doesn’t let the matter rest until I have promised to return.