09/17/2013 05:33 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

A Little Thing

It's an expected follow-up question, a question that would normally bedevil any traveler: I just learned to say "thank you," but how do I say "you're welcome"? Honestly, I was embarrassed that after my first "mahalo," I did not think to ask how to say "you're welcome" in Hawaiian until a dear friend quizzed me during a recent phone call.

I had made huge strides to become part of the Oahu community by working here, joining a church, and volunteering with local organizations, but I was not putting enough effort into learning basic Hawaiian phrases. My family is South American so I feel inclined to master Spanish; I lived in Italy so I studied Italian everyday; but in Hawaii, I wasn't dedicating myself to learning one of the official state languages. Why?

I thought of cogent arguments for my defense -- I'm new here; I haven't been in a situation where anyone would need to thank me; no one speaks Hawaiian anymore; and the like. But, truthfully, I felt disrespectful to Hawaii and its denizens. Not knowing Hawaiian won't earn you the opprobrium of the locals, but it's sad to know that over 40% of the world's approximate 7,000 languages are at risk of disappearing and more than 100 of the world's 420 independent language families are already extinct.

I did what most people do in this predicament -- I consulted the interweb. The online responses were simple: No one cares. You just say "You're welcome." I asked bus drivers and store clerks, only to receive the same jejune response: It's just, "You're welcome."

Confounded by my lack of success, I decided to treat myself to shaved ice from Uncle Clay's in Aina Haina, which is owned by an avuncular elderly man named Clay and his dashing nephew Bronson. As Bronson served me my lilikoi shaved iced with mochi, Uncle Clay said to me "Welcome to our ohana. You have good mana." (Ohana means family and mana means life energy.) I decided to give it one last attempt and asked this older gentleman how I should respond to "Mahalo."

He mea iki.

"It means 'a little thing.'"

The next day, a new friend at church, Lori, told me stories of her great-great-grandmother who was forced to wear signs that read "Don't speak Hawaiian to me" when the missionaries arrived on the island. She says it's different now and Hawaiian is taught in some schools, but I'm still surprised at how few people speak it in public. Other members of the church -- Kimo, CoCo, Bob, and Jill -- gathered to offer pronunciation lessons at my request. As I left church, I made a resolution to start calling Lori by her birth name, "Mahinalani," which in Hawaiian means moon and sky.