friday feast: hawai’i’s pidgin guerrilla

photo of Lee Tonouchi via John Alexander Hook III

Since we’re all about Hawai’i this week, thought I’d share one of the semi-autobiographical poems from Lee Tonouchi’s first poetry collection, Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son: One Hawai’i Okinawan Journal (Bess Press, 2011).

A staunch advocate of Pidgin (Hawai’i Creole English), Lee has been tireless in his efforts to change the negative misconceptions of it being a defective, bastardized form of English primarily used by ignorant or lazy speakers.

HCE is, in fact, a truly endemic language that originated in the late 19th century plantation culture. It facilitated communication between English-speaking residents and various non-English speaking immigrants who arrived in the Islands as contract laborers.

The existing pidgin Hawaiian spoken on the plantations eventually evolved into the lingua franca adopted by all local residents as words, inflections and idioms borrowed from Hawaiian, Cantonese, Japanese, Okinawan, Korean, Portuguese, Filipino,  Spanish, and modern slang were thrown into the mix. Truly a tie that binds, Pidgin is a colorful, dynamic force in local Hawaiian culture; it levels the playing field among speakers of all ages, ethnicities, socio-economic and academic backgrounds.

I love the authentic, pitch-perfect local Pidgin voice in Lee’s poem, the way he uses elements of humor to broach more serious subjects, and how poignantly he conveys feelings of humiliation and marginalization.

Why I Hate Teachers Who Nevah Seen Star Wars
by Lee A. Tonouchi

I wear long pants,
long sleeve shirt,
but too late
everybody in school
already seen da shame
I trying for hide.

Aftah Star Wars comes out
all da kids start calling me
CHEWBACCA,
cuz I full Okinawan,
so outta everybody
in da school
I get da hairiest arms,
da hairiest legs,
and da hairiest head.
And even though I no mo’ hair
on my face
I guess to dem das
close enough related
dat apparently I can pass
for being
one WOOKIE.

Bad enough da teacher,
her, she no even notice
all da red dots on my arms,
da puka patches of skin
on top my limbs
for wea all my fur
used to be.

Da worstest is when
da teacher helps dem,
by supplying ’em
wit da invisible weapon
dey need
for turn me
into one human ripper wallet.

“Mrs. Oshio, you get Scotch tape?”
dey ask.
And she GEEVS ’em.
And not jus one piece.
Da WHOLE ROLL.

And when she ask wot da tape for,
dey say we just playing Star Wars.
She no catch on
when dey tell
I playing da role of Chewbacca
and I going be
their prisoner.

~ from Oriental Faddah and Son, Copyright © 2011 Bess Press.

The ending of this poem made me think of Lord of the Flies and the ongoing problem of bullying in today’s schools. I’ve read many poems where Pidgin is used for comedic effect, but Lee is especially adept at maximizing its potential to explore powerful themes beneath the guise of simple, unassuming narratives.

Oriental Faddah and Son just received a Ka Palapala Po’okela Honorable Mention for Excellence in Literature (the Hawai’i Book Publisher’s Association recognizes the best in locally published books every year). It contains 51 poems tracing the author’s life from childhood through adulthood. His search for personal identity reveals the multiple layers of marginalization* he has experienced as a fourth generation Okinawan American:

  • As a Pidgin speaker in a place where English is the dominant language spoken by those with political, social and economic power
  • As a local Asian in Hawai’i (“Oriental”) vs. an Asian American living in the continental United States
  • As an Asian growing up in a place where “mainstream portrayals of adolescents are white continental Americans”
  • As a local Okinawan in a place dominated by local Japanese, where discriminatory attitudes held by Japan Nationals (‘Okinawans are second-class citizens’) continue to be replicated in Hawai’i
  • As an Okinawan American vs. Okinawans of the motherland who did not emigrate to Hawai’i
  • As an Okinawan American haunted by his parents’ and grandparents’ ethnic history and identity

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Lee’s poems and learning a little more about Okinawan culture, portrayals of which have been largely overshadowed by the collective focus on WWII Japan and the internment. The examination of interpersonal relationships and imbalances of power — sometimes amusing, sometimes disturbing or sad — are ultimately moving and have universal resonance. The poems offer uncommon insight into this under-represented segment of Hawai’i’s ethnically diverse population and merit mindful reading.

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*quote and paraphrases from Associate Professor Micheline M. Soong’s introductory essay, “So What’s It About?: A Boy and His Life of Multiple Marginalizations.”

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The always warm and lovely Linda Baie is hosting today’s Roundup at TeacherDance. Enjoy all the fabulous poems being shared around the blogosphere this week and enjoy your Memorial Day weekend. Summer’s here!

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Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


33 thoughts on “friday feast: hawai’i’s pidgin guerrilla

  1. As always, the true treat of indulging in the poetry exchange of Poetry Fridays is finding poets and speakers to the Great Conversation which I would have otherwise never known about. Thank you for this.

    The whole idea of pidgin English or BAE or non-standard uses of the language is a thorny, divisive one, and there’s a lot of stigma attached. This poet is a brave man to take it on, and it’s giving me food for thought.

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    1. Divisive indeed and controversial. I grew up “bilingual” with standard English taught in school, and Pidgin used for everyday conversation, and most of us naturally switched back and forth as necessary.

      But a couple of generations down the road (yes, I’m ancient), and Pidgin seems to be a first language for some, and I can see why there’s a lot of concern — for children who can’t speak proper standard English, and when teachers speak Pidgin in the classroom.

      Still, I find HCE a fascinating facet of Hawaiian culture — a living, growing language that keeps evolving according to need and circumstances. That it arose out of necessity — people needing to find a way to communicate with each other — earns my respect. Also that it’s unique to Hawai’i and representative of numerous cultures — pretty awesome.

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  2. Thank you, Jama, for this introduction to the poet and to this unbeknownst-to-me part of Hawaiian culture. I was tooling along enjoying this voice and then, at the end, jolted – like that tape must have jolted the narrator. Very powerful, with the sting lingering. Award-worthy work for sure.

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    1. “sting lingering” — yes, exactly!

      Anyone who’s ever been victimized or made an object of ridicule will internalize this pain and be forever scarred. A seemingly innocent children’s game — I can imagine them laughing and teasing, maybe not even with any cruel intent. This becomes irrelevant for the person being picked on. The damage has been done.

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  3. You have the most educational blog EVER, Jama! I always learn so much and meet people that probably never would have crossed my path, so thank you! What a strong voice in this poem…

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  4. I have a long while ago been given an Hawaiian Mother Goose brought to me from a friend who traveled to the islands, and I have wondered if it was a good thing, or if it was not. I like hearing about the background of Pidgin English, that it is an amalgam & an important part of some Hawaiian history. It doesn’t make it right, yet I’m not surprised at the issues of someone who is Okinawan American, so in the minority. What touches me is “Da worstest is when
    da teacher helps dem.” I think there is no excuse for ignorance among anyone, but especially teachers. Thank you for this, Jama, & for the beautiful poem from Lee.

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    1. Yes, I feel the same way about that line. The teacher helping the other kids is the greatest hurt of all. Talk about feeling powerless!

      Your pidgin Mother Goose, when presented in the proper context, can be a very good thing. A great addition to a regional study, just as it would be fun to learn a bit of Cajun when studying the state of Louisiana.

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  5. Jama, Thanks for a great post. I ALWAYS learn so much from you.
    Didn’t Rene recently have a link to translate into Pirate? I’m wondering if there is an equivalent one for Pidgin. It would be fun to see if we could translate our poems.
    This is an excellent and moving poem. A great one to discuss with kids.
    Thank you for the information. What is your favorite island?

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    1. Hi Joy!

      Glad you liked the poem. Lee’s published a Pidgin Dictionary in addition to plays and short stories. He even wrote his Master’s thesis in Pidgin! There is also a Pidgin version of the Bible.

      It would be fun to try to translate a poem into Pidgin. Here’s a link to an online Pidgin dictionary:

      http://www.e-hawaii.com/pidgin

      My favorite island? Good question. Each has something special to offer. I would have to say Oahu, since I grew up there and my family still lives there. It’s way too crowded and congested, though.

      BTW, your name in Hawaiian is “Ioi.”🙂

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  6. Very moving poem, Jama. Sometimes just trying to find kindness feels like moving a mountain. But then, there was something that happened this week that I’m still trying to wrap my brain around because it was a large-scale moment of grace, brought about by teenagers. You just never know, do you?

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    1. Heartening to hear about what you experienced this week, Tabatha. Sometimes we are too quick to misjudge or underestimate teens.

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  7. Thank you for introducing us to this poet. I lived in Hawaii for a little bit and I have Okinawan friends in Hawaii and others who speak the Hawaiian pidgin…One friend of mine from Kauai reads “Da Jesus Book” a Hawaiian pidgin translation of the Bible..So many tourists and visitors to Hawaii don’t know much of the local culture and it’s good to get word out of local authors and poets…thanks!🙂

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    1. Hi Jackie,

      Thanks for your nice comment. I’d like to take a closer look at the Pidgin Bible sometime.🙂

      Yes, there’s “tourist Hawai’i” and “real Hawai’i.” It does take a little time to get into the local culture, which the average visitor doesn’t have. Having not lived in Hawai’i myself for a long time, there are many local authors I don’t know. I’m happy to share the work of those I “discover” who move me.

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  8. Such a fascinating post, Jama. I learned so much…and the poem was such a jolt of perspective. I especially enjoyed your own analysis of the effects of imbalances in power.

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    1. Glad the poem resonated with you, Tara. “Jolt” is a good word for how it affected me, too. Kids experience so many of these injustices unbeknownst to their elders.

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    1. Part of what gives the poem its impact is the plaintive innocence in the voice of the narrator. You can’t help but feel for him.

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  9. Thanks from me, too, Jama, for introducing me to this poet. The whole poem is difficult but the ending, oh, it made me wince with the pain, emotional and otherwise. Your posts are always so rich in every way, Jama. Thanks.

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    1. Hi Karen!

      Thanks for stopping in to read. Lee’s entire book is a treasure. Even though I’m not Okinawan, I could relate to a lot of the issues of marginalization he writes about.

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  10. This was really fascinating. Thanks for sharing it. I live in Haiti, where the Kreyol language is often marginalized by French speakers, and I had a fascinating conversation once with a person who was studying in Hawaii. We found much in common in the linguistic situation of the two places. The poem makes me wonder how often I don’t notice bullying situations right under my nose.

    Ruth, from thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

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    1. Interesting, Ruth! I hadn’t heard of the Kreyol language before. It does sound like a similar situation. I’d like to learn more about Haiti.

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  11. What a powerful voice for a powerless situation. Thanks for all the background on pidgin. We were in Hawaii for the first time last fall, on Oahu. Such a beautiful place.

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    1. Poetry is the perfect medium for giving voice to the powerless. Distilling the essence of emotion — nothing could be purer or more powerful.

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  12. What a powerful poem — and so sad too. Thanks for drawing our attention to this little known (to me at least) segment of the population. It makes me want to open my eyes and see what other pockets of discrimination and bullying I’m missing.

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  13. Oh Jama, this is a powerful poem. Your discussion of Pidgin (Hawai’i Creole English), I believe, would appeal to my linguist friend who also happens to be my travel buddy. We’d be seeing each other in Boston in two weeks’ time and we shall revisit this post so that I could get him to read the poem as well.

    You’re right, bullying is a problem. While the poem starts out in an innocuous tone, you get a sense that it’s not going to end well.😦 As you know we’re doing an Immigrant theme as well, and I’m slowly being introduced to books that are, for lack of a better word, heartbreaking. This poem, I think, belongs in that category.

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    1. You’re right — there are many heartbreaking stories, but also so many amazing and inspirational stories of resilience and courage. Would love to hear what your linguist friend thinks of the poem. Thanks in advance for sharing it.

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