For over three decades, the soundtrack of my travel home to Honolulu that began as soon as the airplane landed on the coral reef runway and taxied toward the gate was the Beamers’ song, “Honolulu City Lights.”
The song is a wistful goodbye to the islands that would keep humming in the background, then ring in my ears upon boarding the plane back to the mainland after a few weeks at home: “Looking out upon the city lights and the stars above the ocean, got my ticket for the midnight plane and it’s not easy to leave again.”
While most of the people on the plane were returning from the vacation of their dreams, I would always feel overcome by sadness as the island lights faded in the distance and the lyrics of the song would echo: “Each time Honolulu city lights stir up memories in me, each night Honolulu city lights bring me back again.”
In the same way you are formed by your own unique cultural and racial background, I am formed by mine. So this time, a few weeks ago, as the plane landed in Honolulu and I knew I’d have at least an entire year in the islands, I noticed that Keola Beamer’s lyrics aren’t chasing me.
I landed, instead, wondering whether you can ever really return home again after having left for so long.
Like many colonized countries, islands and cultures, the Hawaiian islands were decimated by the arrival of explorers and missionaries who brought western culture and ideas along with disease and the illegal and unjust grabbing of land from its native peoples. Hawaiians were taught to wear more clothes, learn to speak English, and go to church. It’s the common litany of colonized societies.
These injustices have played out in our island culture in ways that echo the experiences of many other indigenous cultures around the world. The rich and beautiful land of the Hawaiian islands was appropriated by non-native governments and cultures, and the propagation of sugarcane and pineapple brought an influx of immigrants from countries and cultures across the Pacific and throughout Asia.
What resulted is what some call (with more or less appreciation, depending on the person), a melting pot of cultures experienced now in Hawaii by delicious food, diverse cultural customs, and a pidgin English anyone who grew up local can understand and speak instinctively.
With that colonial influence underscoring my own childhood in the islands, I learned that success meant leaving: education on the mainland, a professional degree and reputation that had substance beyond the confines of our islands, an ability to seem white and to be white enough to garner respect and accomplishment even though I really am an Asian/Pacific Islander.
That narrative of success has shifted a bit by now, ensuring the language and culture of Hawaii continue in the education of Hawaii’s children, but for me and those of my generation that was not the case. What resulted for me, then, is a dissonance that permeates every part of my living, a discomfort that feels like I don’t really belong anywhere.
I experienced this very strongly when I served as pastor of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. The church was then largely African American in membership and despite my own declaration of who I am and where I come from, I could never escape the perception that I was a white woman.
One of the most meaningful experiences I had at Riverside was toward the end of my tenure when a congregant, out of the blue, apologized to me for never making space for my actual identity: “We never saw you for who you really are. I am very sorry.” Those words meant more than he could ever know and they propel me as I continue to ask:
But who am I? And can you ever go home again?
Someone like me returns to the islands having done everything they taught us to do so we could be successful, but now I don’t know the language as well as I should. I can’t follow cultural cues as seamlessly as I could have had I lived these past three decades on the islands. I can’t escape the perception that I am a white woman now, even in my own Asian/Pacific Islander culture.
I don’t yet know the answers to the questions floating around in my brain. But I do know I am now (literally) swimming around in waters that feel as familiar to me as the back of my hand. I can eat the food that calls to mind my Chinese and Hawaiian heritage. I lapse into easy conversation in pidgin without hesitation. I’m slowly beginning to revisit with ease the mannerisms and traditions that feel like I’m finally being me. I can rest knowing that I belong.
And that comes, not from revisiting a past that formed me, but instead claiming my identity—and yours—based on who I believe all of us fundamentally are: beloved children of God.
Beginning with that identity as my true home, I can now hum along with the Beamers as I rediscover my islands and my roots, and am seen for who I really am: “Each time Honolulu city lights stir up memories in me, each night Honolulu city lights, bring me back again.”
Founder of Invested Faith, she previously served as pastor of several churches, including as the seventh senior minister and first woman at the helm of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Butler holds degrees from Baylor University, the International Baptist Theological Seminary and Wesley Theological Seminary. She is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.