Hawaiian Pidgin: A Childhood Language Lost
by Cathy Reed
Being born a mix of both Hawaiian and Caucasian ancestry—and living on the island of Oahu—I spent my younger years speaking Hawaiian Pidgin. So when I decided to write about the Hawaiian Pidgin language, it seemed like a natural fit and I figured it would be easy. Though many years had passed since I spoke it with any real fluency, I forged ahead with my idea. However, after I spent hours staring at a blank screen, I began to feel like an imposter.
I tend to intellectualize when feelings are uncomfortable, so I decided to start with some good old facts and data.
Hawaiian Pidgin: Discovering My Native Language
For those unfamiliar with the Hawaiian Islands and its culture, Hawaiin Pidgin (or Hawaiian Creole English) is an English-based Creole language spoken in Hawaii. To my surprise, the Hawaiian Pidgin I spoke as a young girl was now an actual language listed by the US census.
Still uncomfortable mining my own memories, I continued on with my research. According to Kent Sakoda, a lecturer in second languages at UH, “Pidgin became the primary language of many of those who grew up in Hawaii, and children began to acquire it as their first language.”
Strangely, I found myself reading this last line several times. I could feel this information subtly shifting and reworking something inside me. It was gently reminding me of something I had long forgotten.
With a strange curiosity, like a dog sniffing the wind, I kept reading and moving closer, circling the words to re-read the phrase, “…and acquired by children as their first native language.” That’s when it hit me; I never knew I had a native language.
I’d been taught that Hawaiian Pidgin, the peculiar speech I had as a child, was just bad manners and nothing more than strange island slang, even though I could not make my most basic need to use the restroom understood to my teacher when I told her, “I needed to make shishi”. Over time, my childhood tongue was slowly stripped away. It was part of a slow peeling of all that was deemed unnecessary and unfit for my new experience as a minority in a white world.
By the time I was in high school, though I no longer spoke Hawaiian Pidgin. I would often find myself standing on the fence between cultures — not fully apart of one or the other— or denying one to embrace the other. Like the time my girlfriends vehemently defended me against someone who asked if I was Oriental. Upset and insulted they screamed, “She’s White! No, She’s Hawaiian!”
Somehow this experience would only compound the confusion I felt around my own identity. And not being able to process the myriad of conflicting feelings, I shoved it down and buried it beneath my awareness for later excavation.
I was adopted into a white family shortly after I was born. We stayed in Hawaii for a few years, enabling me to spend my early childhood still a part of my island culture. But Hawaii was not my parent’s home, and eventually, my family moved to a small town in Washington State where I was raised.
When we left my island home for the last time, I wore slippers and my only pair of long pants on the plane. As we touched down, I saw snow for the first time. I remember being mesmerized by its the wet mutable texture and then warming my fingers in my mouth after they got stiff and red from making snowballs to throw at my brother.
Soon after my initial introduction to this new land that had four seasons, we settled into our new life and I got ready for my first day of school. Arriving in my classroom, I sat alone at a desk. As the other students shuffled in, the first thing I noticed was no one looked like me, and no one spoke like me. And when I asked another child at recess if they knew how to play jan ken po, (rock, paper, scissors) I was met with blank stares. Confused I wandered off to find my older brother on the other side of the playground, but he was already getting in a fight to prove his worth to the boys who would dare make fun of his strange accent and foreign words.
As I kept digging through the dusty old drawers of my childhood memories I began to remember how the sing-song tones felt on my tongue when I taunted my brother saying, “hana oko lele!” (meaning, “you are really going to get in trouble now!”) But over time, my tone became flat and more monotone, and the expressive punctuation of my sentences with phrases like, “Yeah? Or Shoots brah!” would slowly but surely fade away.
Being the unusual looking and sounding kid in the room, I was never quite sure where I fit in or belonged. I just wanted to be the same as everyone else. Even though it was unspoken, I think somehow my adopted mother understood I was being repatriated into a new culture. She tried to push me into friendships with the only other Hawaiian family in town. But I was angry and sullen and refused.
When she encouraged me to dance hula, I asked for gymnastics instead. It would be years before I would understand my mother was trying to save something important for me. Looking back, I can see how I began the long process of forgetting my Hawaiian ancestry.
Pidgin: Bridging Language & Time
Again uncomfortable with my rising feelings I returned to my research. But instead of focusing on the latest linguistics study, somewhere inside of me memories seemed to get shuffled and jogged. I remembered learning in my school in Hawaii, that Hawaiian Pidgin was the bridge that formed between Pacific and Asian communities attempting to find a way to communicate across the sugar cane fields. I remember being in the school auditorium and instead of watching a play about George Washington, we watched plays about the history of Hawaii. Curiously, the knowledge I thought research would provide was already within me. I just had to claim it.
With a catch in my throat, this knowing sunk down into the recesses of my heart, and I began to integrate my own unique experiences. I realized I was not one race or the other. My very existence, like so many others like me, encapsulates them all. So instead of wondering which race or culture I belonged to, I began my slow return to an understanding that was far deeper than belonging to any one culture. Regardless of which language I speak, or with which accent it is spoken with, I now know I still embody the spirit of my native tongue and all of its mixed cultural hybridism.
As this knowledge coursed through my body and seeped like cooling lava back down into the earth, I finally understood. I belong to the human race. This is me. There are no differences.
A New Age
I am the mixing and melding of both spiritual and religious—of local and haole. And most importantly I find myself finally embracing my new emerging reality of being a modern woman with an indigenous heart.
As I enter this new age of self-acceptance and understanding, I realize I can live in both worlds if I choose. However, I’ve decided I like it better in the place between both, where truth cannot be defined by the little boxes you check on legal forms.
So yes, I spoke Hawaiian Pidgin as a child and now I no longer do. But instead of staying stuck on the strangeness of this seemingly obscure personal fact, I’m finally allowing it to answer the long-held questions we all have as human beings and give a greater context and meaning to my own understanding of myself and the world around me.
Hawaiian Pidgin Terms
Ho’oponopono: A practice of spiritual alignment. Forgiveness. To make right or to heal.
Hana Okolele: Oh, you busted now. I’m telling mom!
Haole: White or Caucasian.
Hapa Haole: Half white and Hawaiian, or other ethnic mix.
Pau: Done or finished.
Hanai: To adopt.