I spent the third week of July in Waikiki, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. It is one of the most beautiful and interesting places I have ever visited in my life; I experienced a lot of firsts: my first plane ride, my first time outside of the Eastern United States, my first time snorkeling, my first luau and my first time experiencing so many new foods I can't even name them all. I learned a lot about Hawaii, some of which matched what I had seen in movies (the beaches are littered with surfers, for example) and some of which was completely unexpected (like the fantastic ABC stores on literally every city block).
1. Hawaii has a even richer culture and history than you may expect.
It is commonly known that the Hawaiian people come from an ancient and storied culture which is portrayed often in many aspects of pop culture and media, to varying degrees of accuracy. Traditional Polynesian cultures has no shortage of expressive art forms, including dance, jewelry making and music. If you get the chance to attend a luau, you should absolutely take it, because it was possibly the coolest thing that I have ever experienced in my life. If you are on a tour bus or shuttle with a native driver, ask them questions about the names of local places, plants and animals. Many stories have ancient roots, such as the legend of the naupaka flower, and some are more recent, like the hurricane in the 1980s that is the source of Oahu's enormous wild chicken population. You will definitely come home with plenty of fascinating stories.
2. No one is fully "Hawaiian."
Because the native Hawaiian population is relatively small, practically no one is a "full-blooded Hawaiian." Many are ethnically mixed with Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Chinese or other cultures. Although Hawaiians have jokes about each of the ethnic groups that they are commonly mixed with, racism didn't seem to be as much of an issue here because of everyone's diverse backgrounds. It is not surprising, then, that our first African-American president (who is also racially mixed), hails from Honolulu. Although there is as much of a variation of political opinions in Hawaii as there is anywhere else, they are certainly proud to be the home of our president. You can find Obama-themed merchandise in just about any gift shop.
3. Forget about your diet.
Polynesians have a lot of jokes about being "fat" because of their portion sizes. Because of the high cost of living on the islands (a gallon of milk costs around $12!), Hawaiian cuisine features a lot of inexpensive foods such as spam, white rice and mayonnaise. Although you may think that you can't eat that entire plate lunch, whether it is loco moco, kalua pig, sweet potato, mahimahi or shaved ice, the food is all so delicious that you can't help but to eat it all and still want more.
4. You will experience some awkwardness with the unusual language barrier.
Even if you have visited places where you don't speak the language before, the situation here is slightly different because just about everyone who lives in Hawaii speaks English. It is in America, after all. However, many of the locals whom you will encounter (such as retail workers, servers in restaurants or hotel staff) will often use commonly recognized Hawaiian phrases, such as "Aloha" and "Mahalo." It can be uncomfortable for tourists when deciding to use these in return because we often feel unsure about whether we sound appreciative of the language, or if we come off as tourists playing dress-up with another's culture. However, the people I spoke to all said that they appreciated our attempts at using the phrases that we knew and helped us with the correct inflection and pronunciation of Hawaiian words. By the time you come home, you may accidentally tell your cashier at the grocery store "mahalo!"
5. Too much sunscreen is never enough.
As an especially pale, fair-skinned girl, I have had more than my fair share of sunburns. So I thought that I knew better when it came to sunscreen. I packed 50 SPF and reapplied, but I was not diligent enough and came home with second-degree burns and blisters on my skin. I am still peeling and look kind of like something out of a horror movie at the moment. Please, save yourself from the pain and risk of skin cancer and put more sunscreen than you think you need, especially if you are dark-skinned or already tanned and do not think you need it. You do.
6. What it feels like to be a racial minority.
Continuing on a similar thread, as a white person who has lived in Nashville for the past decade and never leaves the South, I have no memories of ever having been an ethnic or racial minority. Although I was in a tourist area where few Hawaiians live, I was surprised to learn that most of the visitors came from Japan. Although we were still in America, I was surrounded by people with different backgrounds, customs, and looks than me, and it was very eye-opening to experience that.
7. Pearl Harbor is an inexplicable experience.
Somehow, my education had failed me. I have a decent knowledge of the events of December 7, 1941, but I somehow had no knowledge of what the memorial at Pearl Harbor looked like or what condition the site was in. Even if you have been to national war memorials before, this one feels different. Of course, there is a wall of names and plaques detailing the events of that day. You can look down into the water and see remains of the USS Arizona, where many who survived that day have chosen to be laid to rest with their crew-mates. All of this evokes a very somber feeling, of course, but the strangest part is when you look over the side of the memorial and see that there is oil still leaking out from the boat. This place is alive, and it makes it feel so much more real.
8. You'll never be able to eat pineapple at home again. Also, Dole whip is a gift to humanity.
Interesting fact: pineapples are actually clusters of berries. Another interesting fact: they are way better in Hawaii than on the mainland. If you somehow don't manage to eat pineapple at every meal, at least enjoy some at your hotel breakfast each morning. I'm not sure if it is the soil, or the climate, or the proximity to the Dole Plantation (which is definitely worth a visit), but it is sweet, juicy and all-around delicious. You can even take one home if you really want to! But while you're still in the islands, you need to try the miraculous gift to humanity that is Dole whip. Dole whip is what I imagine ambrosia (the food of the gods, not the disappointing Southern dessert) to taste like. It's incredible.
9. Many Hawaiian people do not have much wealth, but they are some of the kindest, most generous and friendliest people whom I have ever met.
Coming from Nashville where manners are expected and hospitality is the norm, we expected the people in Hawaii to be like most people outside of the South – usually nice, but not overly friendly. However, we were wrong. The locals are just as talkative and friendly as they are back home, if not even more so. They were happy to answer any and all questions that we had, and it is very clear that they take pride in their home. Even Hawaii's homeless do not use the term "homeless," trading it for "houseless," because they consider the island to be their home. Most people we spoke to wanted to assure that we were enjoying our stay. Staying on Oahu and meeting its residents was an incredibly insightful and encouraging experience, because it reminded us that we don't need money and material objects to have a completely happy existence.
The island of Oahu and its people absolutely exceeded all of my expectations. I learned so much and I am so grateful to have had this experience. Now all I can think about is when I will be able to come back visit the other islands. I encourage everyone to try to go at least once in their life if they have the opportunity, but be warned: you won't want to come home.