Unfamiliar fishes, p.1

Unfamiliar Fishes, page 1


Unfamiliar Fishes

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Unfamiliar Fishes

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page







  The Wordy Shipmates

  Assassination Vacation

  The Partly Cloudy Patriot

  Take the Cannoli

  Radio On


  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA • Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R oRL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R oRL, England

  Copyright © 2011 by Sarah Vowell

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

  Published simultaneously in Canada

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Vowell, Sarah, date.

  Unfamiliar fishes / Sarah Vowell.

  p. cm.

  Includes bibliographical references.

  eISBN : 978-1-101-48645-0

  1. Hawaii—History. 2. Hawaii—Annexation to the United States. 3. Hawaii—

  Colonization. 4. Americanization—History. 5. Imperialism—History. 6. United States—

  Territorial expansion. 7. United States—Foreign relations—1897-1901. I. Title.




  While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.




  While I have retained some Hawaiian diacritical marks I believe English readers will find helpful in navigating oceans of vowels, in “Nahi‘ena‘ena” for instance, I have dispensed with them in other words common in English usage or Hawaiian history, referring to the state that is the book’s subject as “Hawaii” rather than “Hawai‘i,” or the residence of the Kalakaua dynasty as “Iolani” Palace rather than “ ‘Iolani,” or the last Hawaiian queen as “Liliuokalani” rather than “Lili‘uokalani,” etc.

  The land we live in seems to be strong and active. But how fares the land that lives in us?

  —GROVER CLEVELAND, “Patriotism and Holiday Observance”

  In the morning there was a big wind blowing and the waves were running high up on the beach and he was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken.

  —ERNEST HEMINGWAY, “Ten Indians”


  Why is there a glop of macaroni salad next to the Japanese chicken in my plate lunch? Because the ship Thaddeus left Boston Harbor with the first boatload of New England missionaries bound for Hawaii in 1819. That and it’s Saturday. Rainbow Drive-In only serves shoyu chicken four days a week.

  A banyan tree in Waikiki is a fine spot for a sunburned tourist from New York City to sit beneath and ponder the historical implications of a lukewarm box of takeout. Because none of us belong here—not me, not the macaroni, not the chicken soaked in soy sauce, not even the tree.

  Like a lot of people and things in these islands, banyans are imports from somewhere else. In this case, India. The banyan’s gray branches shoot off slim sprouts that drip down and bore slowly into the ground and take root, bulging into new, connected trunks so as to support more and more tendrils, leading to more and more trunks, until each tree becomes its own spooky little forest.

  There is a banyan shading Courthouse Square in the town of Lahaina, on Maui, that was planted in 1873 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of New England missionaries on that island. It was eight feet tall when a missionary descendant planted it, and now it stands over sixty feet high, with twelve trunks spanning more than two hundred square feet.

  One time I was in the Lahaina courthouse chatting with a woman who worked there about the banyan. She told me that the town gardeners put a lot of effort into confining that tree within the square because otherwise it would keep on growing until its roots and branches cracked the foundations and punctured the walls of all the nearby buildings, finally toppling everything in its path. In fact, the banyan’s tendency to crowd out and destroy its neighbors has earned it the pet name “strangler fig.”

  Here in Waikiki, the U.S. Army Museum is hunkered down in the midst of all the concrete high-rise hotels and condominiums built in the post-1959 statehood architectural style I like to think of as A Very Brady Brutalism. The park where my plate lunch and I are sitting appears in an old black-and-white photograph on display there. The picture was taken in the summer of 1898, a few days after the sons of missionaries who had dethroned the Hawaiian queen handed over Hawaii to the United States. The park is pitched with the tents of the First New York Voluntary Infantry. The Spanish-American War had the soldiers stopping off in this suddenly American city en route to the Philippines to persuade the Filipino people at gunpoint that self-government really isn’t for everyone. They named their encampment after the president who dispatched them here: Camp McKinley.

  The United States declared war on Spain in April of 1898. By August, the McKinley administration had invaded the Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam and annexed Hawaii. In this four-month orgy of imperialism, the United States became a world power for the first time—became what it is now.

  “Hurrah for Hawaii!” Theodore Roosevelt wrote from Cuba when he heard the news that the U.S. annexed the islands. He was in the Caribbean with the Rough Riders, licking the Spanish at Santiago de Cuba. One of the end results of that conquest was American control of Guantánamo Bay. To Roosevelt and his likeminded cronies in the government and military, the most important objective of all the 1898 maneuvers was possession of far-flung islands for naval bases at strategic ports like Guantanámo and Honolulu’s Pearl Harbor. He and his friends had pined for these bases for years the way a normal man envisions his dream house. All they ever wanted was a cozy little global empire with a few islands here and there to park a fleet of battleships.

  That Japanese dive-bombers sank four of those battleships in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is how I ended up getting interested in Hawaii in the first place a few years back. The purpose of my initial visit was a quick jaunt to see the USS Arizona Memorial, the monument in the harbor perched above the oily, watery grave of the 1,177 sailors who died on the ship that day. Unlike the flip-flop wearers on my flight to Honolulu, I didn’t come here for direct sunlight or “fun.” I came to Hawaii because it had been attacked.

  After I checked the Arizona off my to-do list, I
still had some time to kill. So I swung by the Iolani Palace downtown, curious to take a look at the Victorian building my guidebook billed as the “only palace in the United States.”

  A guide led my tour group into the room where the white businessmen and sugar planters who had staged a coup d’état against Queen Liliuokalani in 1893 locked her up for treason after her royalist supporters botched a counterrevolution.

  Liliuokalani whiled away her imprisonment in a room on the second floor of the palace, renamed the “Executive Building,” sewing a colorful quilt that is on display there. Perhaps out of melancholy—or spite—little flags of the Kingdom of Hawaii stand guard around the quilt’s center square. In one corner she embroidered a scene of a cartoonish man struggling with an umbrella, losing his hat in the wind. The guide chuckled over this quaint bit of slapstick, but I wondered if it was the sly lament of a woman whose crown has blown away and it isn’t coming back.

  I should mention that I was there in December of 2003. The week before I arrived in Honolulu, American soldiers captured Saddam Hussein, who was hiding in his grungy spider hole outside of Tikrit. So when I was standing in the Victorian-era cell of a Polynesian queen deposed by the sons of churchy New Englanders, at that exact moment the Iraqi dictator was behind bars in a U.S. military compound being guarded by Pennsylvanians. Not that the queen, a constitutional monarch and accomplished musician famous for writing the love song “Aloha ‘Oe,” and Saddam, a mass murderer famous for gassing five thousand Kurds, had much in common. Still, there’s an identifiable link between the two overthrows, an American tendency to indulge in what trendy government lingo at the time was calling “regime change.”

  When the Iolani Palace tour guide mentioned the day the Hawaiian flag on the palace grounds was lowered and the American flag went up, she looked like she was going to cry. I couldn’t help but picture that scene from the TV news earlier in the year when a U.S. soldier celebrated the invasion of Baghdad by climbing up a statue of Saddam and covering his bronze mustachioed face with the Stars and Stripes, a gesture that was both unfortunate as PR and improper flag etiquette.

  It was telling to spend the morning at a historic site like Pearl Harbor—one tattooed on the American memory—and the afternoon at another historic site we have forgotten entirely. In light of the then-current events, I wasn’t sure whether to be comforted or dismayed. The groundswell of outrage over the invasion of Iraq often cited the preemptive war as a betrayal of American ideals. The subtext of the dissent was: This is not who we are. But not if you were standing where I was. It was hard to see the look in that palace tour guide’s eyes when she talked about the American flag flying over the palace and not realize that ever since 1898, from time to time, this is exactly who we are. And what’s more, Hawaii is, just as Theodore Roosevelt’s circle predicted, crucial to the American empire’s military presence in the Pacific. Pearl Harbor is still the headquarters of U.S. Pacific Command, just as it was for all three of America’s twentieth-century wars in the Pacific with Japan, North Korea, and North Vietnam.

  So I started looking into Hawaii’s bit part in the epic of American global domination. I came across a political cartoon on the cover of Harper’s Weekly from August 27, 1898. Above the caption “Uncle Sam’s New Class in the Art of Self-Government,” Uncle Sam poses as a schoolmaster in a classroom festooned with a world map in which little American flags are planted on the barely visible island dots of Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines. A barefoot, frowning boy wearing a dunce cap labeled “Aguinaldo” represents the Filipino revolutionary who began the Spanish-American War as an American ally against Spain; but after Spain surrendered and handed over the Philippines to the United States, Aguinaldo led the guerilla war against his new American colonizers. Uncle Sam is trying to break up a fight between two other barefoot boys, one wearing a satchel marked “Cuban Ex-Patriot” and the other a belt marked “Guerilla” meant to symbolize the unruly discontentment of Cuban freedom fighters also dismayed that their American allies in the fight against Spain for Cuba libre had just become their new colonial overlord. Meanwhile, off to the side, two good little girls, their headdresses identifying them as “Hawaii” and “Porto Rico,” have their noses in the books they are quietly reading. Presumably because well-behaved Hawaii and Puerto Rico have politely and graciously accepted the blessings of annexation without any back talk.

  This book tells the story of how that perception came to be, how Americans and their children spent the seventy-eight years between the arrival of Protestant missionaries in 1820 and the American annexation in 1898 Americanizing Hawaii, importing our favorite religion, capitalism, and our second-favorite religion, Christianity. It is also the story of how Hawaiians withstood these changes, and how the Hawaiian ruling class willingly participated in the process.

  Before the white revolutionaries overthrew the queen with the help of U.S. Marines in 1893, the preceding decades provide a de facto case study in what the political scientist Steven Lukes called soft power, the process by which one people gets another group of people “to want what you want.” In this case, American missionaries, as well as their frequent foes and fellow Americans, the commercial sailors, inspired the Hawaiians to want money, education, constitutional government, Christian salvation, and Western material goods. After the United States Minister to Hawaii conspired with the missionary boys in the overthrow of the queen, he reported to Washington, “The Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe, and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it.”

  In certain ways, the Americanization of Hawaii in the nineteenth century parallels the Americanization of America. Just as their Puritan forebears had set off on their errand into the wilderness of New England, the New England missionaries set sail for the Sandwich Islands, a place they thought of as a spiritual wilderness. Just as perhaps nine out of ten natives of the Americas were wiped out by contact with European diseases, so was the native Hawaiian population ravaged by smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and venereal disease. Just as the Industrial Revolution and the building of the railroads brought in the huddled masses of immigrants to the United States, the sugar plantations founded by the sons of the missionaries required massive imports of labor, primarily from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, and the Philippines, transforming Hawaii into what it has become, a multiethnic miscellany in which every race is a minority.

  Hence the plate lunch. Two scoops of Japanese-style rice and one scoop of macaroni salad seemingly airlifted from some church potluck in Anywhere, U.S.A., are served alongside a Polynesian or Asian protein such as kalua pig, chicken adobo, teriyaki beef, or Loco Moco (a hamburger patty topped with gravy and a fried egg, a dish presumably invented to remedy what has always been the hamburger’s most obvious defect—not enough egg).

  Sugar plantation workers used to share food at lunchtime, swapping tofu and Chinese noodles for Korean spareribs and Portuguese bread. That habit of hodgepodge got passed down, evolving into the plate lunch now served at diners, drive-ins, and lunch trucks throughout the Hawaiian archipelago.

  In 1961, the late Seiju Ifuku established the Rainbow Drive-In, the joint on the edge of Waikiki where I bought my plate lunch. Ifuku had been an army cook with the One Hundredth Infantry Battalion. The mostly Hawaii-born Japanese-American volunteer soldiers in the One Hundredth and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team served as segregated troops in Europe and North Africa during World War II, becoming the most decorated unit in U.S. military history and earning the nickname the “Purple Heart Battalion.” Their motto was “Remember Pearl Harbor.” Their argument was that they were Americans, not, as the U.S. government classified them and their families, “enemy aliens.”

  Rainbow Drive-In’s menu, offering teriyaki, hot dogs, mahimahi, and Portuguese sausage, reads like a list of what America is supposed to be like—a neighborly mishmash. Barack Obama, the Honolulu-born president of the United States, mentioned once on a trip home his craving for plate lunch, listing Rainbow Drive-In as a pos
sible stop. Makes sense, considering that his Kansan mother met his Kenyan father at the University of Hawaii and his mother’s remarriage blessed him with a half-Indonesian sister. He’s our first plate-lunch president.

  I suppose the double-sided way I see the history of Hawaii—as a painful tale of native loss combined with an idealistic multiethnic saga symbolized by mixed plates in which soy sauce and mayonnaise peacefully coexist and congeal—tracks with how I see the history of the United States in general. I am the descendant of Cherokees who were marched at gunpoint by the U.S. Army to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. (Incidentally, the Cherokees were Christianized and educated by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the very same New England organization that Christianized and educated the Hawaiians.) Yet I am also, and mostly, the descendant of European immigrants, notably Swedish peasants who left for Kansas for the same reasons Asian and Portuguese plantation workers sailed to Hawaii.

  Whenever I eat plate lunch, I always think back to the lore of my Swedish great-grandfather’s voyage across the Atlantic. Supposedly, the only food he brought with him on the ship was a big hunk of cheese. Then he befriended a German in steerage whose only food was a big hunk of sausage. The Swede shared his cheese with the German and the German shared his sausage with the Swede.

  Growing up, I came to know America as two places—a rapacious country built on the destruction of its original inhabitants, and a welcoming land of opportunity and generosity built by people who shared their sausage and their cheese.

  In 1899, the British poet Rudyard Kipling published his famous poem “The White Man’s Burden,” about the new American empire of island colonies of “new-caught, sullen peoples.” Four years earlier, when Kipling visited Washington, D.C., for the first time, he met Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt dragged Kipling to the Smithsonian to show off glass cases full of American Indian artifacts. Kipling later wrote, “I never got over the wonder of a people who, having extirpated the aboriginals of their continent more completely than any modern race had ever done, honestly believed that they were a godly little New England community, setting examples to brutal mankind.”

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