Thursday, March 25, 1999


islanders build

Ironically, all the support
and contacts make it easier to
leave Hawaii and stay away

By Lavonne Leong
Special to the Star-Bulletin


You can take local people out of Hawaii, but you can't take Hawaii out of local people.

The thousands who have left to pursue education and greener economic pastures have founded scores of Hawaii clubs across America and beyond.

"Hawaii people like to be with other Hawaii people," said Dr. Eleanor Len, Director of UH Manoa's Career Services.

Many large communities and most major universities have a Hawaii Club. Asia is sprinkled with them, and London's Hawaii Club is forming. In addition, high schools often have extensive alumni networks. Kamehameha Schools has several divisions on the mainland.

Brain Drain


Are you from Hawaii, but living somewhere else? Email us at to tell us your views on why you moved away, what might lead you to return and what Hawaii can do to retain its 'best and brightest.'
We'll present a digest of your responses in a later edition.

Brain Drain Archive

These Hawaii networks let ex-islanders put away the snowblower for an evening and eat lau lau, play Hawaiian music, hold lei-making workshops and keep the culture of Hawaii close.

The international Hawaiian community supports publications, shops and other businesses. At least one magazine -- Ohana -- focuses exclusively on the growing Las Vegas Hawaiian community.

Hawaii products are also finding a devoted following on the mainland. Las Vegas now has a Longs Drugs. "I can get almost anything I need there -- poi, sweet bread, lau lau," said Duke Mossman, 35.

"Los Angeles has a strong Hawaiian community," says Andrea Thomas, 27. "I have attended two hoolaulea festivals, and several supermarkets carry local food products."

Helping homesick people

The availability of Hawaii products and Hawaiian ohana is no longer confined to places with as heavy a concentration of homesick islanders as California and Nevada. Several businesses on the Internet cater to "homesick Hawaiians," selling crack seed and other hard-to-get delicacies. A search for "homesick Hawaii" on the Internet turns up dozens of sites for and about ex-islanders, from the commercial to the personal.

David Cheong's Web page is dedicated to homesick islanders. It contains links to other Hawaii-related Web sites. Cheong wrote that when he went away to college at Georgia Tech, he found "relief from the brutal homesickness (on) the Internet. As cheesy as it may sound, just seeing some pictures or reading things related to Hawaii made my life a little bit brighter."

"What they are mainly about is
how to get back (to Hawaii)."

Melissa Kanemasu
East Coast Hawaii Symposium attendee

Cheong returned home, but leaves his Web page up for people who are still "out there."

There is a flip side to the growing mainland ohana. The easier it is to get crack seed and talk story in Las Vegas or London, the easier it becomes to leave Hawaii and stay away. The current exodus may be partly attributable to mainland networks started decades ago.

Len said she thinks it's easier for recent UH graduates to move to the mainland because of its existing Hawaii communities.

"People before them have gone," Len said. "They've settled, their roots are there now, and it's not so much a strange country anymore."

Can't afford to move back

After college, students often "take a few years" to break into the job market before returning to Hawaii. A few years, postponed often enough, can easily stretch into a lifetime.

"I figured I would live in Hawaii until I retired or died," lamented Andrea Thomas. Although she graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Hawaii and tried to stay in Hawaii after graduation, she ended up moving to the mainland.

"At my salary level (in Hawaii), I was unable to move out of my parents' home," said Thomas. "I couldn't afford much. I moved in January of 1997 and immediately had a job offer." Now she has several projects under her belt and is working on a $10 million housing complex.

"In order for me to move back I would need to be able to support myself financially and be constantly challenged with new and exciting projects," said the California resident.

That is a familiar refrain among young ex-islanders. But Thomas also added, "I miss home, the feeling of security, familiarity. Home is where your heart is and for me, my heart is and will always be in Hawaii."

This deep ambivalence characterizes the attitude of many longtime ex-islanders who thought they were leaving for a little while -- just for college, or just for a few years.

"At my salary level (in Hawaii), I was
unable to move out of my parents' home. I couldn't
afford much. I moved in January of 1997 and
immediately had a job offer."

Andrea Thomas
former Hawaii resident

Duke Mossman's story is similar. "I thought I would never leave Hawaii. Even when I went to Utah State, it was to get a degree, then to go back home."

The Kamehameha Schools graduate experienced a long and frustrating job search in Hawaii before turning his attention to the mainland; he is now a public-school teacher in Utah.

Many Len has advised have also built lives on the mainland. "They've bought homes. They're raising their kids. I don't think they thought that they would go there and buy a house -- but they have."

Hawaii clubs help

Roann Sakai, 36, a marketing communications manager in Silicon Valley, also found herself caught up in the mainland lifestyle. "I thought I might live on the mainland for a couple of years. My first plan was to work on the mainland and gain experience, then find a higher-paying job in Hawaii. Once my career started going I realized I could never find something comparable in Hawaii."

"Home" can remain spiritually in Hawaii, but life often lies overseas, said Sakai: "For many of us living on the mainland, we still have family in Hawaii, so we still have the opportunity to visit home while maintaining careers elsewhere."

The loss to Hawaii is evident. "My whole purpose for being a teacher was to share what I had learned with Hawaiian kids," sighed Mossman, now a much-awarded teacher. "I'm sad that I have not been able to do that."

Hawaii clubs and Hawaii product commerce are only the public side of a larger, self-perpetuating phenomenon. The presence of friends and relatives on the mainland makes moving there much easier. In short, the more Hawaii people leave, the more Hawaii people leave.

Expatriates draw others away

In high school, it can be the "mainland cousins" that draw students toward more prestigious schools. Marion McLeod wears a Stanford sweatshirt, and would like to go there or to the East Coast for college. "Most of my cousins live on the mainland," said the Punahou junior. "And the two that (grew up in Hawaii) went to Williams and Wellesley. It's kind of like a requirement to go away."

Lillian Yonamine's mainland-bound students often return to give college talks to the younger generation. "They have to hear it from the others," said the guidance counselor at Waipahu High. "They have to see it's 'fo'real.' "

Older siblings can encourage younger ones to move. Bi Vong is a senior at Roosevelt, but is already thinking about Hawaii's economy because her older brother talks about it. "He's going to go off and he's probably not going to return," she said. "Hawaii's not big enough for him to expand, and he probably won't get rich here. The economy's not good enough for him."

Vong plans to go to the mainland for college. Will she return? "It really depends if there's anything left for me here," she said.

Parents follow their kids

Hawaii often remains the gravitational family center for ex-islanders, but when an entire generation moves away, family dynamics can change.

"I know of quite a few families where all of the children are on the mainland, and they've set roots there," said Len, "The parents go there to visit, and pretty much visit all their kids and then come home."

The next logical step is one that many retired parents are taking --to move to the mainland themselves.

Hawaii networks are not all about where to find the best pipikaula. Perhaps in response to a growing feeling of responsibility toward a homeland in trouble, the past few years have seen the beginnings of a new development: the use of Hawaii networks across the mainland to address the knotty issues that are so easy to forget if you live 5,000 miles from the problem.

In 1995, Yale University's Hawaii Club hosted a weekend symposium on sovereignty for native Hawaiians to bring islanders on the East Coast up to date on the issue. Hundreds attended. The next year, Princeton followed suit with a symposium on the brain drain.

Prestigious universities across the East Coast passed the responsibility from hand to hand, and it has become a yearly event. This year, the East Coast Hawaii Symposium, entitled He Wahi ma Keia Ao: Creating a Global Niche, will be hosted by MIT.

Its press release stated that the symposium is intended to "provide an open forum for students to synthesize solutions for how we can make our own place in the global economy while holding on to what is important: Hawaii's natural environment and local heritage."

Rosie Alegado, the symposium's organizer, agreed that this is no lighthearted get-together. "These are issues that probably wouldn't be addressed in individual Hawaii clubs," said Alegado. "They are issues that are of concern to students, but they might not have an avenue to discuss them or learn more about them. The symposia are so that people can become more aware."

"A way to come back"

Melissa Kanemasu, who has been to several of the symposia, finds a thread of unity among all of them. "What they are mainly about is how to get back," said the MIT senior. "(The Princeton symposium) was a way for the students to take action -- a way to enable them to come back to Hawaii and live."

Kanemasu estimated that between 300 and 400 people attended.

"The conferences made me think about things I hadn't thought of in the past, different opportunities that would be (in Hawaii) for me that I hadn't realized," said Kanemasu, adding that the conferences fill a need with Hawaii students to feel more connected not just to Hawaii's heritage, but to Hawaii's life.

"I think a lot of people ended up enjoying the conferences. It really gave them something to think about."

Bullet Tomorrow: Some of Hawaii's best
and brightest are prepared to pay the paradise tax.

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