Ko Olina Beach (author's photograph)
Could Donald Trump and the Obama "birther" conspiracists be right? Some claim that President Obama is not an American because he was born outside of the U.S. Some begrudgingly acknowledge that he was born in Hawaii less than two years after it became our 50th state, but still characterize the president as somehow distinct from "real" Americans. Having just returned from my first visit to the president's jewel of a birthplace (or is it?), I see how the state of Hawaii -- putting aside Kenya -- could be viewed by some Americans as foreign for a host of reasons. Hawaii is more than 2,500 miles from the mainland, has two official languages -- Hawaiian and English -- mandated by their constitution, multiracial families are common and voters are trusted by their precinct officials. If you have no identification, their officials only ask you to recite date of birth and address.
Hawaiian culture is deeply rooted in nature, and rightly so. Stunning rainforests and bamboo forests are but a short drive from Punahou School where President Obama studied as a young man, remembered by locals unremarkably as Barry, a "grandma's boy"; he lived nearby in an apartment with his grandmother. Standing amongst the vast bamboo forest nearby, you feel like an ant crawling along grass in a well groomed lawn. So Hawaiians seem to have a different perspective and attitude compared to Americans on the mainland. Each and every local I met was helpful, welcoming, tolerant of a transplanted New Jerseyan such as me; nary one was impatient, rude or pushy. Yes, tourism is their primary economic driver, so this obvious tourist could be misconstruing Hawaiian realities outside of the resorts, as locals face traffic, falling housing prices and foreclosures. Stress management here is easily accessible, though, with soaring volcanoes and the siren call of calm bays and Pacific waves.
Nevertheless, life on isolated islands imbued with majestic natural beauty and bounty is bound to affect one's perspective towards your community, the planet. You can accomplish much in a "New York minute," but locals here follow "Hawaiian time" -- self-mockingly referring to their aversion to rushing of any kind. Imagine a taxi driver stuck in downtown Waikiki traffic, trundling along chatting with his passengers about where you can get the best tacos and local produce, seemingly not a care in the world (while I checked my watch). Taking the driver's advice, we tasted ripe mangoes that evoked sensual pleasures bordering on the illegal.
Obama "birther" conspiracists portray the President as the "other," a foreigner, someone who cannot understand "real" Americans, out of meanness, political strategy or stupidity. Are not the "birthers" missing a fundamental truth that what defines Americans is not what some believe is "real" American (whatever that means) but our diversity, rallied around freedom? They could be right about Hawaiians, including President Obama, as foreigners in the sense I've described, but only for these very wrong reasons.