When Paradise Is Home

by Kimberly Lew

My dad moved our family from Hawaii to Georgia when I was 11. It wasn’t really a decision I supported. I had just graduated elementary school with lots of friends. My grandparents held weekly dinners where I was surrounded by my dad’s side of the family on a regular basis. I loved the food and the weather and our house on the hill.

But for my dad, Hawaii was a small town. He wanted us to see the rest of the country. He wanted to be able to get in the car and drive for miles and miles and not circle the entire island in a matter of hours. It was a decision that I resented for years, but once I started doing some traveling on my own after high school, I’ve come to appreciate what the move gave us.

For years after we moved from Hawaii, we would go back for three months on summer break. My grandparents still owned my childhood home, so we were privileged to have a place to stay that could accommodate a family of five. The first day back was usually spent cleaning the place: wiping down dust-caked surfaces and sweeping out dead bugs that had gathered in the corners of the house. There were only two rooms for the five of us and one bathroom, which often spurred foot races when we returned from long days out. We slept on mattresses on the floor and had a rickety old couch that was barely glued together by the time we sold the house for good.

The house was bare bones, but we never needed a lot there. We hung out at the beach, napping in the sun and then running into the water for a dip, alternating between the two. Afterwards, with wet hair and towels around our waists, we went to grab shave ice with mochi and condensed milk on top. $10 got us a plate lunch with meat, mac salad, and rice — everything we needed to keep us going. At night, my friends and I walked up and down Waikiki strip, pretending to be tourists and laughing as we were catcalled roaming the shopping malls. The people were warm and familiar: from the grocery store clerk my grandma had me give mangoes in return for taking back the slippers we bought over a year ago, to the new people my friends would introduce me to who would take us around in their cars, windows rolled and basses blaring all over Kaimuki.

Living in Georgia, I would look forward to my summers back in Hawaii. It always felt like coming home, as though my time in Georgia was just a series of extended trips away. This became harder to maintain, however, as time went on. Soon, my sisters started to want to spend their summers in Georgia with their friends, and it was becoming increasingly expensive to keep my childhood house vacant. The summer before my freshman year of college was our last summer spent in Hawaii.

Now, living in New York and working two jobs, I always feel the temptation to run away to Hawaii. I am lucky because it is so easy — all I have to do is buy a plane ticket, and I can arrive there with a place to stay with friends or family, no problem. I am happy to spend time just running errands with my grandparents or seeing a movie with friends, mundane tasks all made better by coconut trees and easy going trade winds. Especially considering the hustle and bustle of my New York life, Hawaii is always a getaway, a vacation, a place where I can slow down and put my mind at ease.

But a problem I have come up against in the last few years is realizing the opportunity cost of going back home. Hawaii is a long plane ride from New York, meaning at minimum I need to spend half my vacation days on a trip to make it worth the long flight. Also, while I don’t have to pay for room and board, tickets to Hawaii can be expensive, and that money could easily be spent towards something else.

Most of all, I find that while it is comforting to be surrounded by the familiar, by continually going back home, I am missing out on exploring new places. Hawaii is beautiful, but it can also be limiting. While I understand the desire to create Cameron Crowe-esque love letters to the islands, its community is a lot more nuanced than his new film Aloha would suggest. When I returned to Hawaii a couple of years ago and was asked to give a talk to a public senior high school honors class about what it’s like to be a playwright, the teacher asked the class how many students planned to attend college. Only a few raised their hands. When asked if anyone had applied to a college outside the islands, no one raised their hand. Playing tourist and being able to admire Hawaii from an outsider’s perspective is not a privilege everyone can afford.

When I lived on Oahu, I never really thought about leaving the island to live somewhere else, and since moving, I have lived all over the country. I also thought I would never leave the country, but my unexpected journey to move to New York took me to London and a few other European countries as well. Hawaii has defined every bit of who I am — but every time I go back, I make a choice. And while it is a wonderful thing to get back in touch with my roots, it is also a missed opportunity to go on a new adventure that might influence the person I am going to be.

When people find out I was born in Hawaii, they often ask why I would ever leave paradise to live on the mainland. I used to tell them that I didn’t know. But over the years, I’ve come to have many reasons. Reasons that mean a lot to me. Reasons that define who I am and where I want to go. And none of these reasons mean I love my hometown oasis any less.

This story is part of our Travel Month series.

Kimberly Lew is the proud writer of plays, blogs, and the monthly check when the rent is due. Check her out at www.kimberlylew.com.

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