Is study abroad in Hawaii really study abroad?

October 4, 2009 at 1:28 am Leave a comment

Recently, at a study abroad fair I was attending to promote my  course, “Hawaii: Island Paradise Where East and West Meet,” I was told by the director of study abroad at the host college that students at his institution would not be given permission to register for study abroad in Hawaii. “It’s not abroad,” was the reason he gave. “It’s part of this country.”

He’s right technically, of course. Hawaii is politically a part of the United States.

But culturally? historically? geographically?

“Well, it’s a part of the United States,” I replied. “But it is not part of America.”  (He looked a bit unsettled by this  response, as well he should. I think Americans should be a bit unsettled by such a statement.)

How did Hawaii, an independent nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 2400 miles from the California coast, come to be part of the United States?

It’s a long and complicated story, and a troubling one. And it’s a story not enough Americans know.

I think they should.

The short version of the story is this: in 1893, when America was at the peak of its expansionist fever, the Kingdom of Hawai’i, which was a constitutional monarchy ruled by the Kalakaua dynasty, was overthrown by a group of  local businessmen of American and European ancestry, backed by the power of the U.S. Marines. The Queen, Lili’uokalani, was forced from her throne.

Lili’uokalani could have fought to keep the throne. Her people loved her and were fiercely loyal to her.  But, wishing to avoid bloodshed and not quite believing that Hawaii’s American friends would countenance such a raw and clearly illegal seizure of power, she chose instead to trust that their better instincts, and their democratic principles, would prevail. She appealed to the President and the Congress, and she wrote directly to the people. “Oh, honest Americans, as Christians hear me for my downtrodden people! Their form of government is as dear to them as yours is precious to you. ..They…are crying aloud to [God] in their time of trouble, and He will keep his promise, and will listen to the voices of his Hawaiian children, lamenting for their homes.”

Her pleas, as well as the pleas of her niece and heir to the throne, the Princess Ka’iulani, an eloquent and brave 17-year-old girl who crossed the ocean to take the case of her people directly to the American people and to the leaders of their government, did not fall on deaf ears. President Cleveland sent a representative to Hawaii to investigate the situation. Based on his report, the President declared the overthrow of the Kingdom both unlawful and immoral, and ordered that the throne be returned to Hawaii’s rightful rulers. But the usurpers of power refused to step down; and they were too far away for the President to do much about it without creating more of a domestic crisis than he was willing to create. By 1898, President McKinley, an annexationist, was in power and the tide had turned. Hawaii was annexed to the United States and became a U.S. territory. Grover Cleveland later wrote about this episode in history, “I am ashamed of the whole affair.”

Why does any of this matter now, today?

Well, I think it matters a lot. So do a lot of other people, and not just Hawaiians.

For example, in 1993 the Congress of the United States issued an official apology to the Hawaiian people, signed by President Bill Clinton.  The practical effects of this act of legislation will be determined in court decisions for many years to come. (There are many places to get background information on all of this: an article in Spirit of Aloha magazine  tells the story of the overthrow; a special issue of The Nation published in 2008  brings the story almost up to date.  And the Akaka Bill, now before the Senate, is an important piece of Hawaiian history continuing to unfold.)

But what does any of this have to do with study abroad?

Well, consider this. A few years ago one of my students was a Czech national living in the United States. She had wished to study in Vietnam, but was unable to get permission to travel there because of her visa status. She came to my course reluctantly, but turned out to be one of my best students. “I was disappointed that I couldn’t go to Vietnam because I wanted to learn about American imperialism,” she told me after the course was over. “Little did I know that I could learn all about that in Hawaii.”

I know that to begin to address the very controversial question of what should be done to make amends for wrongs done to Hawaii in the past is to open a very dangerous can of worms.  After all, could not reparations awarded to Native Hawaiians have serious  implications on the American continent as well? And where might that end? (Imagine countries around the world having to take back refugees, the descendants of the poor emigrants who left their shores by the millions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and went to America in search of a better life. What if we had to give back the land that our ancestors took from the Native Americans, to their descendants? Where would we all go? Who would take us in?)

Fortunately, nobody’s proposing to turn back the hand of time, nor demanding that all of the stolen land be returned.

Of course it would be quite impossible to return the lands that were taken from the Hawaiians for many reasons, not the least of which is that those lands have been changed (some would say ruined) irrevocably.

But I think it’s too simplistic, and too easy, to just say, “Well that was the past, and the past is over.”  The past is over, but the present and the future remain. And past wrongs should be righted, whenever and wherever possible. Shouldn’t they?

So what do we do about it, then? Now, today?

Today Hawaii is a wonderful part of,  if not the Americas, the United States of America.

Today we are fortunate to have a President of the United States who is as proud of his Hawaiian birth and upbringing as he is of his American citizenship and his multicultural heritage.

Today much of Hawaii, once an unspoiled tropical  paradise, is a heavily populated, very commercialized tourist destination, a state whose people depend heavily on tourism for their livelihood. The current economic crisis has struck Hawaii hard.  (All of us who can afford to should be planning trips to Hawaii: that is one very simple way we could help make amends for past wrongs. And we would have a great time doing it!)

Today, while most Hawaiians accept the fact of statehood and would not want to change it, most of them would also like the full story of their history to be at the very least heard, and acknowledged. And to have some of the issues of compensation for past wrongs dealt with honestly, fairly, and fully.

How exactly to go about this is a matter of passionate and very splintered debate. It is going to be a very complicated and difficult matter to settle, and it will take a long time to do it.  A variety of complex questions will be thrashed out in heated debates among families, friends and neighbors, and in the court of public opinion, as well as in the courts of the state of Hawaii and the nation probably for not just years, but generations, to come.

For my part, I just think that no one should be able to say categorically, without giving the matter very careful and thoughtful consideration, that studying in Hawaii is not studying abroad. (Allowing for the fact that it is halfway around the world from America; that a little more than 100 years ago it was a separate nation; and that it is entirely possible, though perhaps not very likely, that it could one day again be a separate nation.)

I also think that any nation that cannot face the full and true story of its past and how it came to be, is a nation in moral peril.

Americans have a lot to be proud of. But we have a lot to be ashamed of also, and pretending that we don’t, or refusing to learn about the ugly side of our history along with the good, is not going to help matters.

Hawaii is a very good place to do some good, hard thinking about all of this, in a geographic, ethnic, and ecological environment that is quite foreign to American students.  It’s a good place for them to learn about an important period in American history, and to gain perspective on our nation and especially on its place in the world community, that I believe can’t be gotten in quite such an interesting way anywhere else in the world

And isn’t that an important part of what study abroad is supposed to be all about?

Copyright © by Janet Hulstrand 2009.  All rights reserved.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland.  She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France.

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Entry filed under: About Hawaii, About Study Abroad. Tags: , , , , , , .

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