Thursday, April 15, 1999

Hawaii's Brain Drain

The Star-Bulletin's March 24-26
Brain Drain series elicited hundreds of responses
from all over the world. Comments from
Hawaii expatriates seemed divided into
two camps -- one wistfully remembers life
in Hawaii and vows, one day, to return;
the other has said "aloha oe" for good.


I want to come home!

Torn between his family on mainland, hers in Hawaii

I miss Hawaii terribly. I miss my family, lifestyle, food, music, value system and the aloha spirit. It makes me so sad that I am raising my two children so far away from home. Being native Hawaiian, I should be teaching them more about their roots. Hawaiian clubs and alumni associations help a little, but it's not the same.

Many times I think about moving back home but there are so many drawbacks, finances being only one of them.

My husband is not from Hawaii and it would be a hardship for him to leave everything. My children's other grandparents live here and would see much less of them if we moved.

I have lived in Tacoma for most of my adult life, but when people ask me where I'm from, I say Hawaii without thinking. Yet it makes me sad to feel more and more like a tourist when I go home.

Kathleen Piilani Schwartze

Childhood fantasy world evolves into harsh reality

Hawaii is such a special place. The problem is it's the ideal home of childhood, but as soon as you grow up, you are forced to realize how hard it is to live there. Everything costs so much, you are overqualified for the few jobs there are and you are often underpaid, too.

Still, Hawaii holds my childhood and my heart. It's absurd the things you find yourself missing -- L&L Drive-Inn, the green flash of the sunset, shave ice.

But most of all, people's smiles and eyes. I miss looking into eyes like mine just because we are crossing each other on the sidewalk. I miss the shakas when changing lanes. I miss the eloquent eyebrows of local bruddahs passing each other on the street.

My love for Hawaii does not diminish in New York; it crescendos. As soon as I got up here, I started dancing hula at many events. I began the first-ever Hawaii Club at Sarah Lawrence. We will be having a mini luau and will also participate in Barnard College's luau.

Mahina Yahiro is the president of Barnard's Hawaii Club, called the Ohana Club, and she is producing a huge luau this year, flying in food and entertainers. She is also drawing from the huge community of Hawaii kids on the East Coast.

I want to be here at Sarah Lawrence getting the best possible education, but I want to end up in Hawaii.

I don't know how soon that will be, but it is inevitable.

There is always that desire for any local Dorothy to tap together her rubbah slippahs and say, "Lucky we live Hawaii. There's no place like home."

Mayumi Shimose

Corinne Leilani Domingo says, "young people need to see more
examples of locals coming back and building successful careers."

Hawaii full of possibilities for those who meet challenge

I am a mainlander moving in the opposite direction of many of Hawaii's "best and brightest." In your state I only see immense and challenging possibility in my fields of endeavor: science, technology and entrepreneurship. I am ready to meet the challenges posed by the unique pros and cons of the Hawaiian economy, and am willing to make some initial sacrifices of luxuries just to live in your state.

In this information-based world that is dawning, Hawaii residents have an advantage: the economic as well as environmental need to become an information technology center. Already, Hawaii has some of the best scientific natural resources, but the human resources must be attracted as well.

I am determined to make Hawaii the new home base of my computer and multimedia businesses, and to open new frontiers in your job market in the process. I may sound overly optimistic, but I am loud-mouthed and risk-oriented enough to get the job done. So are many other young men and women.

Chris Leishman

Web-based businesses give Hawaii a chance to shine

The perception that Hawaii is behind the times is true. But that will soon change, thanks to the information revolution occurring throughout the world. My generation will soon be able to move back because of Web-based businesses. If local government can get its act together and attract new businesses through the use of incentives, like other states do, Hawaii will once again have a chance to shine.

Also, more people like Rep. Brian Schatz must move home and get active in local government, so Hawaii can return to its glory days. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge in the people who have family roots in the islands but who never returned after schooling. They all want to come back someday and live like their parents did.

If they are given an incentive, they will return. I would. There is no doubt I miss home. There is no doubt we all miss home.

Ryan Gilbert

David Sumikawa of Honolulu accepts "that things
are tough here. We deal with it."

Use experience gained elsewhere to succeed here

I was born and raised on Maui, and moved to New York City to attend college in 1993. I came out here to pursue a career in magazine journalism, but didn't realize that choosing such a job meant staying in New York for a good chunk of my life. I would love to use my skills to give back to Hawaii somehow, maybe even launching my own magazine for locals by locals. I hope to get as much experience as I can in New York over the next few years before returning to the island and pursuing that dream. Of course, my biggest fear is getting so comfortable that I won't leave.

For Hawaii to retain its "best and brightest," young people need to see more examples of locals coming back and building successful careers there. They also need more venues to use their skills. When I was growing up, the lure of the mainland was so great that there didn't seem to be any other options for me, especially in writing and the arts.

But since I've left, there has been a cultural renaissance -- local authors gaining national recognition, and more interest in Hawaiian music and dance. In the seven years that I've been away, Maui opened a cultural and arts center and began a successful writer's conference. These have made it more appealing for me to return.

Working in journalism made me realize one thing: Seeing your culture represented in print, on stage, in film, etc. makes you feel alive and validated. We need to show the young people of Hawaii more of these positive examples.

Corinne Leilani Domingo

A heart full of aloha can ease a bad economy

With all the opportunity that is up here, home is still where the heart is. And that home is Hawaii. No matter how many times I watch the surfing movie "North Shore," indulge myself in a dose of the "Rap's Hawaii" video or receive a care package filled with kaki mochi, li-hing mui candy and macadamia nuts, nothing can replace actually being in Hawaii.

In a few years, I know that Hawaii's economy will improve and many transplants will have experienced their fair share of the mainland. They'll want to return home, too.

If anything, parents should be encouraged to send their kids to the mainland. Let them experience what the mainland has to offer. Let them earn their degrees at Stanford, Harvard, UCLA and then use their degrees to find a way to improve Hawaii's economy. If their hearts are filled with aloha, they will see past the bad economy.

Jonathan Jay Revestir

Professionals manage here as best they can

I take exception to the assertion that those of us who go to the mainland for schooling and return to Hawaii to live are unambitious, have jobs that lack prestige, or come back for the "safety" of the islands. My friends and I are here because this is the city where we chose to live after experiencing other places.

Most of my colleagues are professionals in health, business and law. Instead of lamenting about the money we could be making or the prestigious lives we could have on the mainland, we accept that things are tough here. We deal with it and don't complain.

While we wish those on the mainland all the best, we will do what we can to manage in this "uncultured, unsophisticated, unambitious" place called home.

David Sumikawa


I'll never come back!

Hawaii's terrible schools drive families away

When people hear that I left Hawaii for the mainland, they look at me funny and ask why. Part of the reason is that the public and private schools are very good here, while the schools in Hawaii are some of the worst in the nation. This is very disappointing. I would have hoped that they would have improved some, because I would like to come back and raise my children there.

I have returned to the islands on three different occasions but was disappointed to see Hawaii is trying to look like the mainland. I understand that Hawaii has to cater to tourists, but somewhere along the line, it lost its uniqueness. It has forgotten that when people come to visit, they don't want to travel to a place that looks like home. Hawaii has so much to offer culturally, but not educationally or economically.

Yes, I have made it on the mainland. I wish that I had made it in Hawaii.

Kathy Takaaze

Struggling to work harder for less money isn't worth it

I read your online edition every day because Hawaii is always in my mind and heart. I went through an aggressive job hunt in the state in 1997, because I was determined to make it there. I interviewed with some employers who seemed interested in me.

However, while waiting for their answers, I asked myself, "Is it right to beg for a job that you're overqualified for?" and "Is struggling in Hawaii worth it?"

I realized that these jobs wouldn't pay me enough to move out of my auntie's place and to live comfortably on my own.

I flew to Maryland disappointed, but I knew that I had given Hawaii as much as I could. Within a week, I got a good entry-level job as a contracts administrator.

Last August, I moved to Washington, D.C., where I now work as a technical writer for a growing IT firm. I dance hula with a halau in Virginia and attend local gatherings on the Hawaiian culture. I miss Hawaii, but things are a lot better for me now.

Hawaii cannot successfully exist as a capitalist American state. Because of its location, it cannot compete and will always be undersold. Plus, there aren't enough jobs.

Hawaii is trying to be something that it's not -- an economic power. If residents went back to the "old ways" of fishing, hunting and agriculture, Hawaii would have more of a chance than it does now.

That is why sovereignty is so important. What happens to the land and how it's governed will determine whether Hawaii and its people will continue to struggle.

Wyatt Kilinahe Waro

Kathy Takaaze says, "Hawaii has so much to offer culturally,
but not educationally or economically."

Listen to Hawaiian CDs, make a living, and dream of home

I left Hawaii in 1994 to accept a position in the Bahamas. I am paid three times what I made in Hawaii and, instead of living hand to mouth, I put money in the bank every month. My kids are in the top private school, my wife doesn't need to work and we even have a maid.

I consider myself blessed as I still get to surf, fish and go to the beach where it is warm. But it's still very tough to have your kids say, late at night, "Daddy, we miss Hawaii." While we do miss our friends, family, food, music and Hawaiiana, it helps to order Hawaiian CDs, crack seed and food over the Internet. We read your newspaper every day on the Web.

Yes, we transplants all dream of going home. But the question is -- to what? Those running things in Hawaii could be using their position to entice people to move and open businesses there. Instead, they use it to pay people less. I will always feel that I am making a sacrifice if I return home, even if I save enough bucks to come back. You could say that all of us living abroad are in a form of reverse indentured servitude.

Steve Kaiser

Older residents head out to enjoy retirement years

The young are not the only ones participating in the Hawaii exodus. People like my husband and I left Hawaii upon retirement for a variety of reasons, many economic. While working, we had two good salaries. Pensions are less. We could have retired in Hawaii but would not have been able to travel as much as we want to in this stage of our lives.

We had a goal to rediscover our country, seeing the 50 states in five years. We bought a recreational vehicle, stayed in Washington state for six months to recuperate from health challenges and to visit with our homesick island kids and grandkids (from Molokai and Oahu), who are trying to make their economic way in the Northwest.

For six months, we traveled the country. We met lots of Hawaii people. Our "Live Aloha" and other Hawaii stickers and aloha shirts and rubbah slippahs attracted Hawaii people everywhere. I even got off a bus once to talk to a lady, wearing Hawaiian bracelets, sitting on a curb.

After six months, I needed a "home base." We settled in Arizona, with blue skies and warm weather like Hawaii's. I made my husband, Akema, promise me an "ocean fix" every year, and rivers and lakes don't count.

Gael P. Mustapha

Stu Henderson says Hawaii's "relatively poor quality of education,
the overall cost of living, limited opportunity for my teen-age children
...and limited opportunities for me as well" will keep him
and his family away.

It's not just money -- mainland offers fulfilling work

I am a 1966 graduate of Kamehameha Schools, who left for college in Colorado. I have not returned to live in Hawaii since 1969, although I visit as often as possible.

The initial reason for my departure was to pursue a technical career in software engineering, since Hawaii was and still is devoid of any companies that could use my training.

On the other hand, there is no lack of challenging, high-paying work for me on the mainland. I am engaged in cutting-edge technology, building computer models related to global climate and meteorology. Thus, my career has not just been about making money but finding fulfillment in science specifically and society as a whole.

I am nearing a point, within the next year or two, when I will be able to telecommute to "my job" from anywhere in the world with proper Internet connections. I mulled moving back to Hawaii but have decided against it. The reasons are the relatively poor quality of education, the overall cost of living, limited opportunity for my teen-age children and, should something happen to my current employment, limited opportunities for me as well.

Hawaii's cost of living is an area where substantial progress must be made before droves return. For example, suing the gas refineries for overcharging consumers sends a very positive signal that the state is doing something to remedy the problem. The size and cost of government must also be reduced, as must the stranglehold that the unions have on the state.

Stu Henderson

Movers and shakers spread island culture

Southern California is full of Hawaii residents -- bright, young, talented people who are helping California's economy immensely with their brains and spirit. Plus, they also bring Hawaiian icons: restaurants, clothing, surfing, jewelry, dance and music. This culture enriches the lifestyle of us all in this part of the mainland.

Although housing in San Diego is just as high as in Honolulu, there are jobs. California doesn't punish the entrepreneurial drive of young people. The state has a dynamic two-party political system. Things get done. There's a definite pro-business environment here.

Hawaii, on the other hand, is a one-party dictatorship that still thinks it's in the throes of the plantation days. Its political system refuses to act on anything that won't fly with the unions. An anti-business Legislature is a definite turnoff to any industry looking for new markets. Companies can move anywhere they want. It's brutally obvious they're not moving to Hawaii.

Vince Shahayda

Calling Hawaii expatriates

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.

Bullet Brain Drain Archive

Other voices

Bullet K. Whittington, Los Angeles: There is little urgency or incentive by the people of Hawaii to develop viable private industries when the government employs such a large percentage of the population.I personally know many people who work for some form of government in Hawaii. One of my friends works at the welfare office on Maui. When I visited her for lunch, I couldn't believe the amount of staff they had to help so few.

Bullet Tom Hutton and Marlyn Duldulao Hutton, Alexandria, Va.: Sons and daughters returning to Hawaii would do well to consider how their experiences can be adapted to strengthen and improve, rather than dilute, Hawaii's uniqueness.But neither can those who have stayed in the islands dismiss comparisons and constructive criticism as the arrogance of people who have "forgotten where they come from." It's all about listening and learning from one another.

Bullet Natalie Burgess, Milpitas, Calif.: Traffic is a big deterrent in Hawaii. In order to afford a place of our own, we would have had to live in Ewa, and the traffic into town is ridiculous. I have friends who live in Kapolei who must leave their homes at 5:30 a.m. to make it into town. That's not my idea of quality of life.

Bullet Daniel K. Kamanao, Redmond, Wash.: I cannot believe that the people of Hawaii complain about the economy and yet are willing to remain with the old-boy network. How can things get better if you don't vote for change?When we saw the results of your last election, those of us in Washington state (there are thousands of us, many in the high-tech field) said to ourselves, "Lucky we left Hawaii." Hawaii is losing this economic war and I think many of us feel like refugees. We hope that we can go home when the war is over.

Bullet Cory-Ann Chang, Beaverton, Ore.: I often discuss with friends, who are also from Hawaii, what it would take for us to return. Mostly, it's a matter of the types of jobs available and how much we could earn given the high cost of living there.We also discuss the somber "stuck-in-a-rut" mood of people we know in the islands and the grim outlook of the economy. We wonder what if any turnaround in the near future would lure us back, before even more of a rift develops.

Bullet Kalani Mondoy, Glendale, Calif.: Reading and hearing about Hawaii's economy declining is really depressing. I am from Molokai and know how hard it can be. Even today, I still don't understand how people can afford to live in a place where the cost of living is so high and the income is so low.It is also sad to know that, while there's a huge flow of people out of Hawaii, these people are being replaced by outsiders. I will have to write things down to pass on to my children, who will only get to read or hear the stories of where my family and I grew up. Hawaii was my home, but not anymore.

Bullet Henry H. Yamamoto, Issaquah, Wash.: Hawaii could retain its best and brightest by doing the following: 1) Bring in the feds and convict corrupted officials in government, including those from past administrations. The Bishop Estate was a good start. 2) Give businesses, especially small ones, tax incentives. Think long-term benefits. Lure companies to start up or relocate. 3) Offer huge incentives for first-time home buyers. 4) Forget tourism. Use it to keep things going but put all new investment elsewhere. Everyone's going to Cabo or Costa Rica anyway. Tourism is never coming back the way it used to be.

Bullet Tony Dela Cruz, Chicago: You said people don't like the phrase, "Brain drain." Well, how about this one: "Plantation mentality"? I don't think Hawaii ever lost it. Whenever people ask me why I moved, I say, "How much are you willing to pay for a gallon of milk? How about $5 or more?" Everything at retail price is so costly in Hawaii, you start to think there's a quality-of-life tax on everything.

Bullet Denise Wong Haughian, Chippewa Falls, Wis.: Many white males move or come to Hawaii and marry local women because they perceive them to be exotic, and vice versa. Because of the fact that men are still paid more than women, many of these interracial families move out of Hawaii, because they follow the husbands' jobs. Isn't there some way for Hawaii to make the state more attractive to women professionals?

Bullet Michael Lindo, Vacaville, Calif.: I ended up leaving Hawaii because I could not see myself ever being able to own my own home and give my children a good start in life. I would love to move back but I would not be able to make what I do in California. From my visits to the islands, I have seen people who are happy, maybe, with their lives, but with no expectations other than to be able to live day to day. They just wait for their next batch of food stamps.

Bullet Baryn Futa, Denver: I work in the field of law and technology. I have run into and worked with so many people worldwide with connections to the islands, but who aren't living there. It is staggering how much talent is created in Hawaii but how little can be nurtured there. I find the ultimate irrelevancy of Hawaii to be very sad. It makes me cringe inside.

Bullet Erin Brainard, Fort Campbell, Ky.: When we moved from Hawaii to Kentucky, I could not believe the difference in prices. Milk here is so cheap - it's $1.25 during the summer and $2 in the winter. Gas is only 75 cents a gallon. I do miss Hawaii, but I don't miss the prices. When people getting stationed in Hawaii ask me what it is like over there, and what the cost of living is like, I am ashamed to tell them how expensive it is. But I have to admit, if someone offered me a plane ticket home tomorrow, I would take it.

Bullet Patrick Lum, New York: To stop the brain drain, Hawaii must find ways to attract businesses that will offer competitive wages with the mainland and which utilize our skills. You'd be surprised at how many people would sacrifice something to go back to Hawaii, if the opportunities existed. If the state doesn't make the effort to stop the outflow of talent, do they expect that talent to return for nothing? It's supposed to be a give-and-take relationship, except Hawaii seems willing only to take.

Bullet Derek Hong, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: As a Hawaii expatriate who is about as removed geographically as one could possibly be from the situation, I offer the following: The business community in Hawaii should knock heads with the politicians and bureaucrats and get on the stick. Take the initiative and have the courage to try different ideas, like a tax-free trade zone. Finally, please tackle the awful red tape and tough business environment that entrepreneurs have complained about for years.

Bullet Kyle Okimoto, New York: People in Hawaii, like other predominantly Asian communities, value their children becoming professionals: doctors, dentists, attorneys, engineers, accountants. But not everyone can or wants to be in these professions. Hawaii's parents and educators need to recognize that there are other pursuits which are just as worthy. In many cases, true entrepreneurs come from outside the traditional professional tracks. Hawaii needs a generation of these true entrepreneurs to create the tangible value that the state's economy needs.

Bullet Kevin Au, San Antonio: I have been reading your online edition and am quite fed up by what's happening in Hawaii: the sovereignty groups that cannot get together and work something out; the infighting within the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, not to mention the state Legislature and City Council; the unemployment and number of jobs being lost; the University of Hawaii and its problems; the Bishop Estate trustees; the need to charge fees to those who go to Hanauma Bay or want to hike Diamond Head; and finally, the price of gas and the ensuing state lawsuit. Why would anyone in his or her right mind want to go back to that?

Calling Hawaii expatriates

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.

Bullet Brain Drain Archive

E-mail to City Desk

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