Article Image
Lilly Kwon / Staff Illustrator

Author Image

Last semester, I wrote about my experience growing up in Hawaiʻi, where I was deeply in love with—but always on the periphery of—its culture, and the difficulty of having to represent Hawaiʻi to my “outside world” while feeling, as a white person, fundamentally unqualified to do so.

This negotiation has not gotten simpler, but it has gotten less difficult: time and physical distance from home, developing a better sense of who I might be, and learning which parts of my life growing up I do or do not want to leave behind have eased the strain on the “second culture” complex that troubles non-Hawaiian Hawaiʻi kids, especially those who end up living on the United States mainland, from childhood. As I struggled with this complex in college, I have found peace and guidance in an unexpected place: research.

In class, when an opportunity for a research project arose—the P3 essay of University Writing, any number of final papers, and now a senior thesis in linguistics—I found myself gravitating, perhaps expectedly, toward Hawaiʻi as a topic. To professors and peers, it always seems an interesting, if not a bit exotic, focus, and the familiar subject area felt good to have by my side as I trekked into the highly unfamiliar territory of academic writing. I might not have known how to make a works cited with MLA formatting by heart, but I did know enough about the Hawaiian language to double-check that authors’ names were voweled correctly in that works cited (a small justice; it was the least I could do).

As the years passed, over and over, no matter how tempting the rest of the world seemed, my mind kept wandering back to Hawaiʻi. And maybe I was just homesick, trying to hear Hawaiʻi’s melodic Creole English in my earbuds walking to class, desperate to see a brilliant sorbet sunset in the margins of a blank Word document. Whatever it was, I never had any new ideas.

It was a blessing in the end.

Developing this funny research relationship to home, where I began engaging Hawaiʻi not with my heart or spirit but with my mind, helped ease me into a different kind of proximity to my experience there. Rather than contending with my feelings or perception of life growing up, I synthesized the information, the “facts” of Hawaiian history and culture, from an argument-based position. It zoomed all of the islands way in together and slid them under a microscope, at once so close up and so far.

I wanted to do the best job possible, to bring Hawaiʻi to the table responsibly and justly. But I also had to develop the researcher’s disconnect, the assimilation of names and places and stories and events into data and analysis and literature, for the sake of objectivity, of reliability. I thought doing so would make me feel disconnected and aloof; rather, the distance—a just appropriate amount—has carved a perfect niche for me, someone could never figure out a place for herself until now.

Fellow friends from Hawaiʻi and I discuss how excited we are that we get to, through research in college, “give back” to a place that gave us so much (but which we struggled to express appreciation for). We can use local-born knowledge of history, language, culture, geography, and tradition, which all serve to raise the emotional stakes of the project in our eyes, to supplement the sparse academic literature on Hawaiʻi. It feels like the perfect symbiosis, a long-sought answer to the impossible age-old question: Where is our place, and how do we fit into it?

The benefit is also moral. I live at the Venn diagram intersection between a deep love for a place, the home where my heart is, and recognizing my position in the world as a person with “high society” access, granted to me by Columbia and its resources. Doing (and eventually publishing) research on Hawaiʻi—sharing with the world its magic and richness, and helping grow Hawaiʻi’s place in literature—feels like a concertedly good thing I can do right now for something I care about. I don’t have to wait to have a law degree, or a net worth, or permission to feel “local enough,” to be invested in the first place.

Columbia already gives me an extraordinary deal of resources: life-changing financial aid, grants for summer internships, and assistance with health insurance. The entire list is a long one. And yet, it has managed to grant me another gift—the chance to, through research, come home again.

Harmony is a Columbia College senior with a lot of frequent flyer miles. She still uses Purdue OWL as a reference for citation standards and recommends everyone do the same; it’s a fantastic resource. Down to talk story? Email her at The Bitching Hour runs alternate Wednesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact

Hometowns Research Hawaii
Related Stories