Arts and Culture

Emily in Paris; You and Me in Hawaiʻi

As we approach the final days of 2020 with all of our holiday traditions upended, I find myself thinking about how binge-watching streamed TV shows replaced actual travel in my life. Maybe you watched the “Hawaii Life” reruns on HGTV, or some of my earlier blog post suggestions if you have not made your trek to Hawaii this year. And while some of us have not traveled at all in 2020, it was a record year in real estate, as scores of people moved to Hawaiʻi, committed to moving here soon, or are spending more time at a home they own in Hawaiʻi.

The “great migration” of 2020 brought relocating professionals and families to previously quiet or “vacation home” Mainland communities around Lake Tahoe, in Aspen and Vail, and even Austin, Texas. While there may be some modest culture shock relocating from Silicon Valley to Austin…I have been reflecting that moving from Silicon Valley to Mānoa Valley is more like…well, Emily moving from Chicago to Paris in the Netflix series “Emily in Paris.”

Honolulu seen from Waikiki

Cityscape: Honolulu seen from Waikiki side looking across the Ala Wai Harbor at night.

Emily in Paris: Stereotypes and the Germ of Truth

Paris cityscape at night

The Netflix series “Emily in Paris” is lightweight but appealed to me for the same reason I watch shows that take place in Manhattan or other places I have lived and worked: it brings back memories of time spent in those places. The French critics panned the show for the unfair/outdated stereotypes of Parisians and their lifestyle, and yet exactly what makes the show fun is that its presentation of the hapless American who arrives with zero command of the language and expects everything to work just as it does in Chicago is equally a parody.

Relocating is always a challenge. I remember my shock when I arrived in NYC and did not understand simple things, like the protocol for ordering coffee. The harried deli worker asked “regular?” and I thought “as opposed to decaf?” not realizing that I was about to get a coffee with milk and sugar. Poor Emily expecting to get a cappuccino in the afternoon!

Despite Emilyʻs initial rocky start, she finds a handful of allies who like her are not originally from Paris and who are willing to help her learn the customs and perspective of her new home. Eventually she wins over her work colleagues as clients begin to appreciate what her skills and fresh perspective bring.

Many of us real estate brokers working with a relocating family or individual try to play that “ally” role. We might invite our client to an annual community event (Lionʻs Club Luau in Hawi!) or non-profit fundraiser (Habitat for Humanity Gala in Kona!) to begin meeting neighbors and getting a sense of their new community. We stay in touch to answer questions about what to bring to a first birthday celebration, or the protocol for giving a lei to a graduate.

Habitat For Humanity Hawaiʻi Island Gala 2018

Hawaii Life agents having fun at the photo booth with singer Paula Fuga at the 2018 Habitat for Humanity Hawaii Island Gala. In 2020 Fuga bravely confronted insensitive radio DJʻs on air at a Foodbank fundraiser after sharing her own story of homelessness and food insecurity, bringing renewed attention to these persistent issues.

How to be a Dignified “Malihini” or Newcomer to Hawaiʻi

But hereʻs the rub: how do you integrate into your new life in Hawaiʻi when events are canceled, gatherings are limited, and, to be honest, newcomers are being viewed with a certain suspicion (Did they just get off the plane? Did they come from a high-infection place?) and even hostility. Look at it from the local perspective: the stateʻs unemployment rate is at 15%; many small businesses have permanently closed, hitting our rural communities especially hard; and yet real estate is booming. Like Emily, you want to contribute, but you donʻt know what you donʻt know and you donʻt know how to start to bridge the culture gap.

As a visitor, you have been embraced with hoʻokipa, the spirit of hospitality and aloha, treated as an honored guest. But as the ʻōlelo noʻeau (proverb) says: Hoʻokahi nō lā a ka malihini.  You are only a visitor, a newcomer, for a day. Once you make the leap to live here, you canʻt just stay on the receiving end of aloha; it is time to jump up and wash the dishes without being asked, to be a part of the ʻohana, to contribute to the community and care for its needs.

Years ago I learned the term “dignified beginner”…we all have to start somewhere, right? No shame in being a newcomer. A few years ago my colleague Julie Keller wrote a series of blog posts on “how fo ack” — not a bad place to start on the basics from how to introduce yourself, to the customs around bringing food to a gathering (please never show up at someoneʻs home empty-handed!). Thatʻs the simple level of respect for local customs.

Kohala Center Work Day Volunteer with Mask

Staff member from the Kohala Center leads volunteers (2020 style) in clearing invasive weeds and planting māmane in the Koaiʻa Tree Sanctuary

There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer. Many organizations continue weekly food assistance programs — go pack boxes or help with deliveries to kupuna (seniors) and meet some neighbors. Join a volunteer work day caring for the ʻāina (land) in the area where you now reside.

Where you go after the baby steps…depends on you. The pandemic has turned long-term planning goals into near term priorities, and there is a good chance that either through your business skill set or your philanthropy and volunteer efforts, you can make a real contribution to your new home, to Hawaiʻiʻs future. A good rule of thumb is to listen first, then offer to help. Maybe what worked elsewhere will work here, but please strive to understand “here” first.

If you start with good intentions, a willingness to be humble and learn from your inevitable mistakes, and an open mind and heart to embracing the differences that make Hawaiʻi special, like Emily you will quickly find your allies and place.

Wishing my readers a very happy New Year – Hauʻoli Makahiki Hou!

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December 30, 2020

Great advice on immersion.
If you’re going to move somewhere then be there.
Plus the author is really cute.

Beth Thoma Robinson, R(B)

December 31, 2020

> Thanks Steve – for the sake of clarification for my client-readers…heʻs referring to the high school version of me. Nothing like old friends!

Cherie Tsukamoto

December 30, 2020

Great blog, Beth! I can totally relate to the “be humble” part as I remember being the new haole kid at Kapaa High School back in the 70’s. A willingness to be humble, to learn, and to embrace the differences made all the difference in my experience! Great advice!

Beth Thoma Robinson, R(B)

December 31, 2020

> Cherie, you are such a great role model and I am sure your clients benefit from your experience.


January 16, 2021

I loved your article. Great advice to the Malihini. I lived in Hawaii 40 yrs and now on the mainland. My one son and his family live on Oahu and the other in Austin. My dearest friends live on Oahu and I travel there at least once a year. Of course this year has been a little harder. I should get there this summer. That being said, I spoke to someone recently about their upcoming visit to Oahu, and I thought she was given some very bad advice that made her fearful about the “locals”. I’m so glad I could set her straight on how to “be” if you want your trip to be enjoyable. She was grateful for the heads up. Again thanks for the fair and balanced article about my beautiful Hawaii Nei.

Beth Robinson

January 16, 2021

> Thanks, Kathleen, for your kind feedback and sharing your experience.

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