Expat

How Hawaii prepared me for Thailand

I was blessed to have been born and raised in Hawaii. I didn’t realize this until I left to go to college in Durango Colorado where, after answering, “Where are you from?” I was greeted with, “Hawaii! What the hell are you doing here?” or “Wow!” or “OMG. Pack me in your suitcase!” or my favorite, “What brought you to the States?”

Hawaii inevitably shaped and influenced me and when I thought about it, Hawaii prepared me for Thailand too. Here’s my list:

Chinatown: I remember when I was dating my high school boyfriend (he was in high school, I wasn’t) he told me he didn’t like Chinatown.

Why? I asked.

Because it’s dirty.

Dude, my family shops there.

Oh.

Ye-ah. What a ham sandwich, eh? My family and I regularly went to eat, look around, pick up fresh noodles and produce. Yes, it smelled. And yes, we saw pig heads and other delightful animal parts that looked like they should be on ice, like their fishy friends but I was a kid and this is where we went.

This was where my mom would inevitably run into other Thais and friends she mysteriously knew, giving us commentary about how she knew them and the latest gossip, after they had parted. During these encounters, my brother Larry and I would stand there or go wander off but not before we were admired for being tall or handsome or pretty. Or my favorite, mature, because we didn’t run around screaming like kids were supposed to do.

Weird food: As Lonely Planet put it, Hawaii is “Asia lite”and considering every Asian culture is living and breathing on the islands, I’d say that’s good way to put it. The Japanese have a long history there since they worked on sugar cane and pineapple plantations, as did the Filipinos, and the Chinese first arrived on Capt Cook’s voyage.

So I grew up with a lot of different kinds of food. This, of course, is including my mom’s Thai food which was at times, fascinating and terrible smelling and horrible looking. Now I can look back in wonder at the many things she made from scratch, from curry pastes with mortar and pestle, to papaya salad with that frightening machete, to watching her scrape out coconuts with the rabbit shaped wooden bench with teeth.

Hawaii’s a cultural mishmash and it has made coming to Thailand a childhood homecoming of sorts, reminding me of my mom and the wondrous variety of foods that SE Asia has to offer.

Pidgin: Because there are so many different islanders who have immigrated from Asia, “broken English” is spoken. Hawaiian pidgin is just that, a blend of Hawaiian words and English. It can sound like a foreign language to the unaccustomed ear.

Listening to pidgin, never speaking it because my mom forbade it, since to her it sounded like “low-so” English, helped my ears tune in to English being spoken like a foreign language. Combined with interacting with Hawaii’s immigrant communities, I became pretty good at picking up what someone was trying to say. As you can imagine, this has helped me a lot in Thailand.

Very often I can fish out the different ways Thais pronounce English words. When I’m with friends or in the classroom, I can grab these seemingly unrecognizable vocabulary and finish the transaction or help my students along. My students usually laugh after they hear me say the word correctly and so do I. It’s a relief to finally – get it. I feel lucky that I can do this especially since communication with Thais can be frustrating with limited language on both sides.

My mom’s English is not very good, that is to say, my friends have a hard time understanding her. (She said, “How are you!!!”) Or when we are out and about, sometimes I have to act as translator. Maybe this helps me be a better English teacher too. And maybe this has made learning Thai challenging as well since I grew up watching my mom hobble along. I’m not sure what that does, watching your parent try to speak another language.

But in any case, that’s my working list of how Hawaii has prepared me for Thailand.

hawaii-from-above
O’ahu from above in a little Cessna (yes, I got sick)

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4 thoughts on “How Hawaii prepared me for Thailand

  1. I love this post. I lived in Hawaii most of my life too and I've often thought about how it made it much easier for me to adapt to Thailand and Asia than my friends and family on the mainland. Little things like the concepts of eating a dish ON rice instead of a giant slab of meat with every meal, or the family style of eating. Having a moped no doubt prepared me for riding Honda Dreams too.I think the first time I ever had Thai food was at Mekong II on King Street. I remember it being so good, but when I went back and visited after a few years of living in Chiang Mai I was disappointed. It seemed so bland. 😦

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  2. Thanks Liam!Hawaii really is its own island 😉 and I think many immigrants would feel welcomed there because there is such a mix plate. I was just amazed to discover ANOTHER reason why growing up in Hawaii was so special…

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