I have known Hawaii to be home since birth. It is the “Aloha State”, a land enchanted, fixated with hula hips, keeping time solely with the swaying of palm trees, moving no faster. Don’t you dare honk your horn. We have rainbows on our license plates and were wearing flowers in our hair long before the days of Coachella. Here it is summer all year round. The seasons don’t change with the people and the sea becomes a mirror for the sky even whilst peering through rippling tides towards the ocean floor. It is deceivingly gratifying.
I went to study journalism in New York with a background in Gossip Girl, a passion for the written word, soccer scarred elbows and knees and a windy soul that had already transferred schools three times prior at the base of the Rocky Mountains as I searched for myself in the wrong places. It was not until I arrived in Manhattan under the guise of sky-scraped skies, a sea of taxis instead of salt water and bright, undying lights that I realized wow, no one knows who the fuck I am. I bought a succulent on my first day alone in the city after my aunt left to fly home, from a little shop on Lafayette Street whose name now escapes me. It was a muggy September day and I named her Lilian, she was my first friend. In New York, I experienced an entirely new sense of freedom that was synonymous with independence. At first I clung onto my identity as a “Hawaii Girl” tightly, plastering posters of surfers onto the walls of my dorm room even though I was a novice wave-rider at best. I artistically hung my $200 bikini sets on my wall and carried my NYU folders in a bird of paradise flower tote bag. I made sure to post photos from home on Instagram amidst scenes from New York to remind myself and others of where I come from. I talked about home a lot, the beaches, the “perfect” weather, the sunshine. It was what I knew. Falling in love with New York scared me because it would challenge everything that I thought I knew about myself, about being a “Hawaii girl”. But in between turning pages at the McNally Jackson bookstore on Prince Street in Manhattan and singing along to “Motorcycle Drive By” by Third Eye Blind (Lyrics: “I’ve never been so alone.. and I’ve, never been so alive”) with a camera slung around my neck, walking home on the Brooklyn Bridge, I found myself.
Some will experience what I did in New York, but many won't. Phenomenons like Instagram create stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be an individual here, a “Hawaii Girl”. Hawaii is not just a place, it is a culture, one that is rooted in community, in perpetuation rather than radical progression, it is a safe place. We have this hashtag, #luckywelivehi, and indeed we are #blessed to live in such a beautiful place but at the same time we are not exposed to many of the issues that the rest of our nation and the world faces, like winter and racism, to name a tiny two. We become disconnected at best. For girls here in particular, we’re not the “Asian friend” (almost everyone is racially mixed here, "hapa" in Hawaiian), here we don’t categorize by race (unless you’re white, you’re a “haole”, translating from Hawaiian to mean one “without breath”). Instead, on social media we often set ourselves apart by showcasing who can do “Hawaii” best, we're encouraged to be this “island girl” as it is seemingly innate with growing up in paradise, we wear it on our sleeves, dutifully. Here 12-year old girls are wearing $200 thong bikinis and posting ass photos on Instagram and the culture of “hikes for likes” and “suns out, buns out” is rampant. Because this place is so small, to stand out, to be not “with it”, is to be “weird” and to feel alone, there isn’t much room to discover one’s individuality. It is especially easy for girls to fall into a mold of false aloha, until they are able to get out (some don’t) and experience a bigger world with more cultural druthers to explore and engage with.
This is not just my story, this is the story of growing up creative in a society with a rich culture without enough avenues for its expression or a willingness to wander too far from the rest of the sun-kissed posse. What follows is the story of those who have wandered, who have traveled to different shores, tasted different cultures and have in turn, gained new perspectives on themselves and the place that we all come from. This is a commentary on fitting the mold and daring to break it. The girls whose voices you will hear from (there are four) are those ranging in ages, 20 to 28. While they are each individuals with different interests, backgrounds and dreams, collectively their voices come together beautifully to represent a universal story about finding and losing oneself in the mix. These are their stories, told in their voices. (All of these interviews were conducted separately at different times but put into conversation to form a cohesive story from multiple perspectives and experiences)
Introductions/Growing up on island:
Antoinette Rodrigues, 20 grew up on a ranch on the Big Island of Hawaii in a small, poky town called Hilo. She is Chinese, Indonesian, Dutch, Irish, Hawaiian, Portuguese and “something else” by descent. Antoinette is currently a senior in college finishing up her degree in Fashion (with a capital “F”) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Having grown up in the modeling industry she spends her free time working as an agent for Larson Talent, online shopping, working at Mori Hawaii as a blogger and wearing whatever the fuck she wants wherever the fuck she goes. She plans on moving to Tokyo in the spring of 2017 with her boyfriend, an aspiring rapper.
Antoinette: “Growing up on the ranch was frickin’ awesome. Well growing up we were pretty poor… well were pretty well off at one point and then my dad lost his job and then the recession hit right after that so we were super screwed. Me and my sister shared a little futon from Walmart because we didn’t have money for furniture. I’ve seen a cow give birth as I’m eating breakfast, it’s amazing that I turned our the way I did and I’m not a little farm girl in Hilo.”
Caitlin Baba, 23 graduated from the University of San Francisco in California where she studied marketing and became a foodie. She is 25% Chinese and 75% Japanese. She’s been a friend of mine since high school so we grew up with a mutual understandings of each other and our varying interests. She recently moved home, resigning from her position at a marketing firm in Portland, Oregon to help to take care of her mother (and best friend) who fell ill some time ago. Her Snapchat stories are always filled with the pair of them doing rehab exercises to Usher’s “Yeah”. During her time here she is managing the website for a locally owned boutique called Miki Nola. In the future she hopes to work in the field of marketing again but she doesn’t necessarily have any specifics in mind. When asked how she would explain growing up in Hawaii she had this to say:
Caitlin: “Here the beaches are super nice and the food is really, really, really good. When I was in California, I would always talk shit about the rice there especially at our cafeteria. There’s more of an Asian culture in Hawaii, like taking off your slippers when you go into the house and showering before bed, I have issues with that. I guess I would talk about the weather? Like everybody is like ‘oh my god, it’s so nice there, why did you leave?’ I would tell people, 'I left because there’s not much to do there and it’s an island and everybody knows everybody and you get sick of everybody. There’s a lot more to see and learn.' Being here, to be cool or feel cute you wear certain things and there are definitely certain trends that go on here, like One Teaspoon (an Australian denim company that sells its shorts for $100) and even how plants are super “in” right now.”
Tokina Yamamoto, 28, grew up having many cultural roots but is full Japanese. From a posh but snobby suburb in New York, her family moved to Hawaii when she was 14 years old. She would go on to taste 24-carat independence in Tokyo during her college years. Since then she’s moved home to be with her family who she is tightly tied to. She works two jobs in Honolulu’s downtown district, one at a restaurant/bar called JJ Dolan’s and the other at a boutique called Fighting Eel where she is an assistant manager. She wants to own her own bagel shop in Honolulu one day but in the mean time plans on moving to Milan to pursue career interests in styling, fashion and design and from there, the rest is history.
Tokina: “Coming here [Hawaii] and not being around a lot of white people was weird. It wasn’t until I moved here — actually it wasn’t until I moved to Tokyo that I was like, holy shit, like culturally my identity is in an awkward place. I grew up in New York, had a root there. Came here, and all my friends here have been born and raised here so they have a culture but for me, as much as I do feel like I belong here, I know not completely, I don’t have a similar root. It blew my mind because culturally I was like I don’t know where I fit in. In Tokyo, I realized I don’t know the language, I have this horrible, American accent when I speak it, I look somewhat japanese but style wise, I knew people were looking at me all the time because I’m darker and I look different. I don’t fit in in Tokyo, I don’t necessarily completely fit in here [Hawaii] and I didn’t fit in in New York. The only person who could relate to me was my brother and so i mean i did this entire thesis on it and i kind of realized that in the end, it’s the differences that are gonna help me through life but at that time I was so like who am I?! What the fuck?!”
Holly Fuchigami, 20 left her heart in New York. She is also full Japanese. Holly graduated from high school in Honolulu and shortly after, found herself at Parson’s for her first year of college wearing Versace on the streets of 5th Ave., majoring in Fashion Design. While it was an amazing experience, the price tag on her education was daunting and she was forced to come home to work and save up before she started her second year there. While she remains enrolled at Parson’s, Holly works at a boutique called Miki Nola. She ideally wants to have her own label one day but is struggling between being told to stay here and pursue her career, or to go back to New York to do so. She’s in limbo but her eye for the refined keeps her head tilted in the right direction. Up.
Holly: “People in Hawaii like to stay in their comfort zone. In high school, I felt like everyone was the same, dressed the same, I mean it’s like that other places but I feel like you can see it so much in Hawaii. People are afraid to dress up in certain ways because it’s out of everyone else’s comfort zone. Growing up I was super into New York fashion, Paris fashion and here everyone’s dressed in shorts and t-shirts. Because of the weather, more people should be able to experiment but no one does, so you’re stuck in a box. When I first started applying to colleges, they [my parents] were like, ‘we’re only paying for your UH application and everything else you have to pay for yourself; your whole portfolio, we’re not gonna do it at all.’ They thought it was a way for me to be like, ‘oh that’s too much work, I’m just gonna go to UH.’ But, I did it and I did it all by myself and after that, they saw me get into Parson’s and all the hard work I put in. It was different than any other school, I know people have to buy supplies like books and stuff but at Parson’s, the amount I had to pay extra besides tuition was just unbelievable.”
Holly: “My first week (at Parson’s), you probably got this too in New York, but everyone would come up to me and be like ‘oh what’s Hawaii like?’ and blah blah blah. It’s so weird because everyone thinks it’s this faraway land and no one has any idea.”
Antoinette: “Growing up on the Big Island, especially Hilo, there’s no fashion whatsoever. Everyone wears Metal Mulisha and Dakine and if you don’t wear that, then you’re weird. Hunting is the lifestyle there. I would online shop so I would go to school in heels and these crazy outfits and people would be like, ‘who the fuck do you think you are?’ I would get bullied because for wearing make up and for putting pig-tails in my hair. I’d go to school with a full face of make-up because I was like my mom’s little doll. People would be like, ‘what you think you’re special?’ I never had a big group of friends because there was barely anyone who I could relate to.”
Tokina: “I grew up in Rye, it’s a super small suburb, super Italian, Irish, we were one of the only Asian families that lived there so it was kind of weird but that’s how I grew up so I thought it was normal. My mom and dad are both artists. My dad had these beautiful giant nudes up in the house and you’re not going to find any of that shit on any one else’s wall in Rye. My friends would be like, ‘oh that’s so weird, why do you have a naked lady on your wall?!’ And since I was a little girl, I was like, ‘no, my dad said this was art! This is cool you guys, this is beautiful!’ From a young age, I was exposed to a lot. My brother and I didn’t grow up in that 9-5, you go to work Monday through Friday menatlity, we don’t have any of that in us, we’ve never been around it. We moved here (Honolulu) kind of out of the blue, I hated it at first, I just wanted to be back on the East coast. Culture wise it’s totally different. I was really cemented in New York and I think at the age of 14, your friends are your life and coming here was like starting over right before you go to high school, so that was super hard.”
Caitlin: “Here it’s such a small island and everybody knows everybody and you’re not cool if you’re not with everybody. It’s not like that everywhere else. It’s kind of like our island is like a high-school cafeteria.”
Holly: “I didn’t realize coming back home, people care about the issues going on in the mainland [Continental America] but it’s like they’ll be like ‘aww that sucks’ but no one’s actually giving a shit. When I was in New York, that’s when the first Black Lives Matter thing happened and there were riots, I got stuck in one and didn’t realize how New York kind of all got together for it. I came home in the middle of that because that was right when I left for winter break and at home, no one was talking about it.”
Tokina: “I mean Kyle [her boyfriend] always says he can tell that I’m from New York. I think differently, especially when you’re young you soak up so much that you’re not even conscious of. As grateful as I am for living here and for knowing this culture, I feel like my mindset is pretty different, I get frustrated with being here or it’s easy for me to feel stagnant here.”
Antoinette: “It’s very limiting here. We don’t have that many great shops, thank god we have Zara and Barrio now, that thrift store in Chinatown, that helps. It’s good I grew up in Hilo and toughed it [the bullying] out because I probably wouldn’t be as fearless to pursue a career in fashion now.”
Antoinette: “I was so excited when I first came to Oahu because the only experience I had here was very glamorous with my grandmother. It was my grandmother who really got me into fashion, she lived here on Oahu and when I would come to visit her, she would tell me, “big kids like to go shopping, not to Chuck-E-Cheese’s so she would take me shopping with her and I just fell in love with it. When I came here, I was like I’m gonna wear heels, do my hair all nice everyday and then I realized it’s not too different than Hilo except you switch out Acacia (a super trendy & expensive swimwear and clothing brand) for Metal Mulisha.”
Holly: “In high-school, out of my whole friend group, I was the only one interested in designers and brands. A lot of people keep it to themselves because no one else is really interested in it. Like whenever I would talk about fashion week or whatever with my friends, no one really cared and it was something that upset me because I wanted people to be more interested in it. But it kind of made it special to me because this is what I want to do and I’m putting the effort into it.”
Tokina: “For me, fashion has always been just the thing that can set you apart. I grew up in a town where everyone looked the same, everyone was wearing the same stupid Abercrombie and Fitch polos and those horrible pants they made. Even just looking at my parents, they were always wearing these super cool, black outfits when everyone else’s dad was wearing a suit and tie on the train commute to work. I could see the difference from when I was little and realized that what you wear is such an amazing way to express.”
Antoinette: “So you know those types of slippers [In Hawaii we call “sandals”, “slippers] that it’s like a really high slipper? Like platform slippers? That’s the only kind of slipper people in Hilo wear and if it’s not that, it’s Locals, the Longs Drugs brand [local name for CVS] slippers. So I would wear heels, I went through a phase of Jeffrey Campbell’s or Jessica Simpson’s and stuff like that. When I would wear that to school, the number one thing people would come up to me and be like, ‘what you think you’re better than me?’ Because one, they couldn’t afford it but I would get it on sale at Macy’s with coupons but they thought I was some rich girl buying these nice clothes and trying to stick out. Girls would pass out my number saying that I would have sex for money because they would call me a hoe because I wore heels. For a while, I started wearing boys clothes because I was like maybe they’ll stop teasing me and they still were calling me names like ‘dyke’ and stuff so you can never win. Eventually I did my own thing, I was like screw it and put my bitch face on.”
Holly: “I feel like a lot of people here are open to the idea of all this fashion but no one’s bold enough to take the next step. Because it’s such a laid back lifestyle, no one’s trying. I think people are scared. Everyone here is about going out and drinking or going to the beach and that’s pretty much it. That’s my friend group and that’s all we talk about and do.”
Tokina: “Because like what are we really pushing? In terms of like style and in terms of fashion I feel like, not to knock on anyone, but what are we really pushing? We’re all playing it safe. I feel like this place could teach so much to the world if people expanded out and weren’t so stuck on being here. I feel like creatively, there’s so much ego here and it’s all bullshit because once you leave this place, you’re nothing. Here, it’s like who you know is so much of it and it can be a blessing but sometimes I want to be like fuck all of you, I don’t care who you know that doesn’t make you anyone.”
Antoinette: “Being in the fashion program, everyone always talks about staying in Hawaii and trying to make the fashion scene more avant-garde and there’s all these movements to do that but I feel like it won’t happen. It’s not New York and people really like staying in their ways in Hawaii. It’s a good place for resort-wear but that’s not where my go-to is.”
Holly: “A reason I got into fashion was because in high school, I mean I’m still pretty shy and kind of under the radar and stuff but fashion really helped me to discover who I am and the voice that I have. I feel like girls who just fall into this Brandy [Melville] style, there’s nothing wrong with looking up to people but it’s just like wanting to be them… and the obsession of: I’m going to buy this because she has this — not because you genuinely like it but because someone else has it, that just kind of makes me be like, what are you doing? You should be able to go out and figure out what YOU like.”
Instagram: We started using Instagram in what grade?
Caitlin: “Senior year, maybe the summer of senior year? I don’t think I even had it when we were in high school which I think would've totally changed things. Everything was Facebook.”
Holly: “I think I was in 8th grade? Or I think I started using it going into my 8th grade year when no one used it. At first, I used social media as a way to document my outfits. I’ve noticed though lately that my Instagram has just been about my life, which is not a bad thing but I got into that routine, posting to show other people what I’m doing and I don’t necessarily like it.”
Antoinette: “I started my Instagram when I was a freshman in high school in 2009 but was’t too into it then. Freshmen year I was a big stoner and didn’t care about all that stuff and then sophomore year, I started modeling and I started using Instagram for inspiration.”
Tokina: “I didn’t get involved in Myspace and it was totally fine and not like everyone had it you know. When I went to college, Facebook was just starting and it was this up and coming thing. When I graduated college, Instagram was starting up and I wasn’t on Instagram for year because I was like I don’t really get it and I’m not a tech-y person. I feel like it’s pretty shitty to grow up with it and get through high school with it, I would’ve died.”
Holly: “It’s really funny because all my friends — I have this one friend who’s sister is Asian and you know how like the most followed people here are the white girls that post their bikini on the beach photos? My friend was telling me how her sister was begging her mom to buy her an Acacia because she wanted to be like that and it’s kind of like why? For people who are just figuring out who they are, this mold is bad because everyone wants to be like other people and there’s no room for people in Hawaii to figure out who they are.”
Tokina: “Even now, I’m 28 and sometimes I just need to fucking get off Instagram, I don’t go on Instagram for days because you can make yourself feel really shitty, it’s so easy to do and it’s all like a program, like mind warfare, especially for girls. There’s all these beautiful people with beautiful bodies and they’re fucking perfect and they’re naked and it’s like holy shit, I don’t look like that. It’s so hard to be confident now because you’re always exposed to this bullshit.”
Caitlin: “I feel like it kind of started when Acacia got really big because people would wear their Acacia bathing suits and they’re at Lanikai Beach and they’re dragging a palm tree, they have long hair that’s maybe highlighted and they butt cheeks are hanging out. Your typical Hawaii girl Instagram would have to include: acai bowls, poke bowls, your butt, palm trees, a hike, for sure a hike, sunset pics, sunrise, maybe champagne, a waterfall for sure, yeah I think that’s it.”
Antoinette: “I hate how girls think they’re these huge models because they have a million followers on Instagram. They post photos of themselves so seductively and I’m like no, you’re selling yourself short. I’m all about being sexy but when you’re 16 and you don’t know anything about your body, that’s not the time to be super sexy, boobs out, having a moaning photo on your Instagram and that’s what the modeling industry in Hawaii has become. It promotes this mentality of grow up faster, which is sad.”
Tokina: “Fuck I feel bad, I wish they didn’t have to grow up that way because I feel like it really fucks with your mind, it fucks with your value.”
Caitlin: “Yeah I feel really bad for them. I feel bad for all people who get that crazy into their Instagram profile and what people think about them because it seems like it takes over their whole life.”
Antoinette: “It makes these girls feel like that’s who and how they should be. You shouldn’t care about who many followers you have it doesn’t make you any better. I’ve known girls who are considered “Instafamous” and their whole life is dedicated to their Instagram. It’s like a ball and chain.”
Holly: “Girls, especially in Hawaii, want to show off a new bikini or whatever and there’s nothing wrong with it, people should be proud of what they buy because it’s something meaningful to them, but I don’t think it should be where you have to buy stuff for social media.”
Caitlin: “Yeah I feel like a lot of those people post those pictures not for their friends but for other people, not for their true friends but for their followers who they might not know, or just to get cool points.”
Tokina: “It’s part of living here. If you recognize the mold and you don’t want to be a part of it and you choose not to be a part of it, that’s pretty bad ass to me.”
Caitlin: “Bloggers inspire other girls, like Samudra, that became so big because it was on Instagram and cool people were wearing it. These things that people buy that are part of being a Hawaii girl, it’s expensive, it’s not cheap. It’s at least $100 for each item that you buy, so to be a Hawaii girl is really expensive but I guess that's what makes it cool, it’s exclusive I guess. It’s designer. Like I wouldn’t buy things that are cool here when I’m in Portland. I think I fall into it here, maybe I do feel pressure actually. Everyone else has it I guess or I go around and am like oh that’s cute— or maybe it’s the exposure of it. I go shopping and I’m exposed to it here whereas if I’m in Portland, I don’t see it around me.”
Holly: “Because we are so community based everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing and how they can be like someone else. What I noticed at Miki Nola is like -- For Love & Lemons, just like how everyone wanted to buy it and stuff, same thing with Acacia, it’s wanting to buy it because everyone else has it. Dara, the owner of Miki Nola, is pretty aware of fashion going on in the mainland and she tries to bring that in but sometimes we get stuck with it because no one really wants to go that far. Hawaii can’t keep up with the trends because we’re so disconnected.”
Caitlin: “Like the other day, I wanted this Indah bathing suit but then I didn’t buy it because, this is exactly what I said when I was thinking about buying it, ‘I’m not a model, why would I spend $200 on this bathing suit, it doesn’t even matter.’ So that was me, rejecting the peer pressure of being a Hawaii girl.”
Antoinette: “When I started modeling [at age 16], that was when that whole “fit-spo” thing came out too where being really skinny was super in. I was following all these accounts and it’d be my background on my phone and all that. I lived off of lettuce and fish and worked out twice a day for two hours each session and I got really sick and was out of school for a month. It had a lot to do with Instagram because it made me become so obsessed because that’s all you see. You start to follow one and then two and all of a sudden your whole feed is all these Instagram models and you’re like, ‘oh I want to look like her, I want that thigh gap, I want that line down my stomach.' At that age, you’re super influences by media especially, so what and who you follow will influence what you do with your diet, make up, photos; and you try to live how they live which is sad but I guess that’s a normal thing now — which is more so why Hawaii has such a set mold for what the profiles [Instagram profiles] are like.”
Holly: “I feel like in New York I would post whatever I wanted to post, I would post a lot about my art and stuff but now I only post what I think other people want to see and no one really cares about my art.”
Tokina: “It’s all a formula. You know if you post a selfie, you know you’re naked, you know you’re at the beach wearing Acacia, you’re gonna get the likes. I feel like for someone that’s create, it’s part of your job to push it, to say fuck it, that’s not me, that’s not what I’m into. I think if you use it to share the shit you love, do and create and you don’t give a fuck about it then that’s so awesome. You don’t have to stick to this place. I follow the coolest chick in Australia, I think she’s so awesome style wise, she wear alien shit and we don’t get that exposure here so that’s the kind of sharing via Instagram that is really inspiring and motivating. It’s become such a bougie thing.”
Caitlin: “I don’t know I feel like a big part of the reason that so many people do all those things on Instagram sis ebacuse they have friends who aren’t really their friends that they want to impress. Because if you have true friends, you know who they are, you don’t have to impress anybody, you don’t have to post all these things, they know who you are, they know what you look like, they know what you wear, it doesn’t matter.”
Tokina: “Everything is a choice. What you surround yourself with is a choice, who you surround yourself with is a choice and I think for me, only now do I really understand that. I think it’s hard when you’e creative and sometimes it makes it hard to connect with people who aren’t doing the same shit as you but that’s better. You’re going to surround yourself with people that push you and people that motivate you and inspire you. That’s the same thing for social media too, you choose, it’s your choice.”