With my blonde hair and fair skin, my clients who are new to Hawaii are often surprised to learn that I grew up on the Big Island. My parents moved here from Puerto Rico when I was three after my father accepted a job at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Having grown up in the melting pot that is Hawaii, and the Big Island in particular, there are a lot of cultural practices that are second nature to me.
Since I’m frequently asked by my clients and fellow real estate agents about island etiquette and local customs, I thought I’d share some of my insights, what I call “How Fo’ Ack on Da Big Island.” (How to Act on Hawaii Island.) This is the first in a series of blog posts I’ll write about how fo’ ack.
Kaunaʻoa Bay at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
It’s All About Relationships!
More so than just about anywhere else on the U.S. mainland, business and personal connections in Hawaii are all about relationships. It is truly a relationship culture.
Sometimes newcomers to the Big Island are taken aback by the amount of questions they receive when first meeting people in Hawaii. Upon meeting someone for the first time, you might be peppered with questions about where you are from, your family, your job, your kids (and grandkids), and a whole lot more. If you grew up here, one of the first questions will often be, “Where did you go to high school?” Local people aren’t being nosey, they genuinely want to get to know you.
“Shaka” – Hapuna Beach State Park
Bear in mind that native Hawaiians lived across these islands in relative isolation for more than 1,000 years before the arrival of Western ships in the 1700’s (this is generally referred to as “pre-contact” Hawaii). When Hawaiians met each other they recited their family genealogy, called moʻokūʻauhau, going back generations. Where you were from and who your family members were was believed to say a great deal about you – both in physical characteristics as well as your abilities and Mana (strength or spiritual power).
In pre-contact Hawaii, your moʻokūʻauhau defined your place in Hawaiian society. When the first Western explorers arrived in Hawaii, Hawaiians greeted them by reciting their moʻokūʻauhau and were surprised when the visitors, such as England’s Captain Cook, could not do the same in return. Some believe this led to the creation of the word “haole,” meaning without breath, because the first white visitors couldn’t recite their genealogies.
These chants also often included descriptions of the natural beauty or elements found in the district from which a person came. Hawaiians felt that the geographical area you lived impacted your character. (For instance, people in drought-prone areas might have a reputation for resourcefulness because an arid environment did not provide a lot of resources.)
A variation of this still continues today in local business settings. Renee Hill, Broker in Charge of the Hawaii Life Hilo office, is a good example. Born and raised in Hilo, Renee has never come to a meeting at our west Hawaii offices without bringing something locally made from Hilo. (It might be chocolate-dipped shortbread from Big Island Candies or mochi from Two Ladies Kitchen.) It’s not something that she or anyone else has to do; it’s just the culture. She acknowledges all of us in some way with the place she is from (and we love the delicious treats she brings!)
So the next time you are greeted with a lot of questions upon meeting someone for the first time here in Hawaii, relax and know that they are trying to get to know you and seek connections just as Hawaiians did for hundreds of years. Who knows, you might wind up having more in common than you think. Hawaii is a small community, and to be mindful and respectful of the culture and the people is essential if you have plans to call Hawaii your home. If you take the time to learn how fo’ ack and understand why, you will be embraced.
Julie Keller, RB