"Foreign," like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder

A whole bunch of people are unhappy with a certain network journalist, who whined on Sunday that Barack Obama is vacationing in Hawai`i, acknowledging:

“And I know Hawai’i is a state. But it has the look of him going off to some sort of foreign, exotic place. He should be in Myrtle Beach if he’s going to take a vacation at this time.”

That was too much for our junior senator, Dan Akaka, who blasted back:

“Saying our 50th state is somehow ‘foreign,’ does a great disservice to the hardworking, patriotic Americans who call Hawai’i home … Hawai’i is a great U.S. destination; just ask the 5.5 million Americans who visited last year for business and pleasure.”

Other local folks backed him up, wanting to set Cokie Roberts straight while letting her – and presumably other Americans as well – know that her comments and the attitude underlying them are offensive to the people of Hawai`i.

To be honest, as someone whose hometown (and alma mater) is the same as Obama’s, being offended was not my first response. I thought it was kind of funny, actually. We’ve heard it so many times that I think a lot of us here in the islands are pretty thick-skinned about the whole Hawai`i-is-a-foreign-and-exotic-place meme, and not only do we not take much offense anymore (I mean, look, next year we’ll commemorate the 50th anniversary of our admission to the Union, for crying out loud, and we still have to put up with Mainland yahoos who can’t remember Hawai`i is a state), but I think a lot of us really kind of revel in it. Our foreignness and exoticism, that is. We like being different; we have no desire to be exactly like all our fellow citizens over there in North America. We’re not geographically connected to the other 49 states, and there are a whole lot of other ways we’re disconnected from them as well. And our little secret is: we like it that way.

And the flip side of the whole foreign-and-exotic issue is this: there are a lot of ways the Mainland U.S. and all its denizens seem pretty foreign and exotic to us. The food they eat, their way of life, how they conduct themselves at work and play – all can be ever-so-slightly different from the norms here in our Island culture. When we travel to the Mainland for vacation or to attend college or whatever, often it requires a real adjustment to our mindset, because life there feels so, well, foreign. We speak the same language, of course, but their English is ever so slightly different from ours, so we adjust our speech patterns a little bit so as to be understood and fit in. And we get used to eating their kind of food, even though it’s not really what we like best (their idea of rice? Please. Just … no, thanks), and we live in air conditioning instead of with the windows open, and keep our shoes on in the house – and we manage just fine. Happily, even. But I’m sure Mainlanders never know how weird it all seems to us, that inside we’re thinking, “all this stuff is just so foreign.”

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