What the Tour Guide Didn’t Tell Me

By Wayne Au

“Sex, hula, and naked ladies!”

I had just asked a class of 11th grade U.S. literature and history students in Portland, OR, what images come to mind when I say the word “Hawai’i.” I received a volley of fairly stereotypical responses: blue water, beaches, coconuts, sun, surf, luau, hotels, paradise, pineapple, palm trees, vacation, Waikiki, volcanoes, and of course, “sex, hula, and naked ladies.”

This particular answer, given by an enthusiastic young man, was different than most because of its honesty about the sexual overtones the mystique of Hawai’i holds in the “American” mind. To me, what was the most significant about his remark was not just its honesty, but that it shows the need for a more critical examination of the history, politics, and culture of Hawai’i in our classrooms.

The Hawai’i most of my students know is the “paradise” construct of tourist Hawai’i, a conception that hinges on the marketing of a hyper-sexualized version of the islands and the indigenous Hawaiian culture. As Native Hawaiian sovereignty activists Haunani-Kay Trask and Mililani Trask put it: “It is our culture tourists come to see. It is our land the tourists come to pollute.”

Many advocates of tourism say Native Hawaiian culture “naturally” lends itself to the tourist industry, touting that “aloha spirit” — based on sharing and love — has welcomed tourists with open arms. Indeed, tourism has nothing to do with the Native Hawaiian concept of aloha, and what must be made clear is that tourism is not a natural outcome of Native Hawaiian culture.


The year 1998 marks an important centennial for Hawai’i. (I use “Hawai’i” instead of “Hawaii” because it reflects a more culturally and linguistically correct spelling and acknowledges the guttural stop common used in the Hawaiian language.) In 1898, the United States formally annexed the islands (see article page 15.) The centennial provides a window of opportunity for teachers to explode the idealized notions of Hawai’i and its beaches, sun, and hula.

When I teach about Hawai’i, I use these fantastic images of the islands as an entry point into studying the politics and history of Hawai’i in general. Historically, tourism has never based its marketing on reality, mainly because it seeks to commodify real, living people, complex cultures, and environments into “sellable” products. I ask the students to analyze tourist brochures. They make an ideal text because they represent the epitome of advertising – shallow, glossy, and chock full of stereotypes. Because tourist propaganda is so holistic in its depiction of Hawai’i, its total impact culminates in the creation of a “paradise” that obscures the reality of Hawai’i.

I usually ask the students to write creative descriptions of a place called “Tourist Hawai’i,” based solely on the images and information in the brochures. The key question for the students is, “What kind of Hawai’i has the tourist brochure defined for you?” I encourage them to include aspects like climate, geography, culture, food, architecture, people, and attitude of the Hawai’i found in the brochures.

Students pick up on a number of visible trends in the brochures — for instance that all the people are fit and trim and all the women are hourglass shaped. The students also see a “land filled with hotels,” where it is “sunny and warm 24 hours a day” and “you never have to sleep.” The most telling comment was from one group of students who noticed how the Native Hawaiians are depicted: “always smiling and friendly,” and obviously there for the pleasure, entertainment, and excitement of the tourists.

After they’ve looked at what the tourist industry has to say, I ask the students to read excerpts from Haunani-Kay Trask’s book, From A Native Daughter: Colonialism & Sovereignty in Hawai’i. From the reading, students get a taste of one Native Hawaiian woman’s perspective on the colonization of the islands and the subsequent effects of capitalism and tourism. Some of the realities Trask points

  • Over 30 years ago, at statehood, Hawai’i residents outnumbered tourists by more than 2 to 1. Today, tourists outnumber residents by 6 to 1; they outnumber Native Hawaiians by 30 to 1.
  • More plants and animals from Hawai’i are now extinct or on the endangered species list than in the rest of the United States.
  • Nearly one-fifth of Hawai’i residents are considered “near homeless” — and just one missed paycheck will result in missing the rent or mortgage.
  • Groundwater supplies on O’ahu will be unable to meet the needs of residents and tourists by the year 2000.

At the end of the excerpt I give students, Trask makes a request: “Now that you have heard a Native view, let me just leave this thought behind. If you are thinking of visiting my homeland, please don’t. We don’t want or need any more tourists, and we certainly don’t like them If you want to help our cause, pass this message on to your friends.”


Trask’s view alienates some students. A classroom conversation that stays in my mind was centered around one young woman’s reaction to Trask’s demand that tourists stay away. This young woman was held up by the idea that she should relinquish her individual right to go any where, regardless of the consequences. After all, she had already vacationed in Hawai’i, had a great time with her family and would love to go back. Who’s to tell her where she can and cannot go?

Although I did not agree with the student, I could see why she was having a hard time swallowing Trask’s request. Trask forces readers to challenge themselves, to think about what kinds of privileges they may have as “Americans.” The annual pilgrimage to blissful paradise is something many have learned to see as the payoff for trudging to work every day. What lurks behind this reasoning is a deeper, more political, and historical argument. In the canon of American history, Hawai’i is supposed to be a U.S property, justly acquired and owned — hands down, no questions asked. It is our paradise to use at our leisure, and traveling there is supposed to be one of our quintessential, “American,” middle class rights of passage.

At first, I was disheartened by this type of student response. But I have also come to realize that history is complex, and when it is taught from the perspective of education-as-liberation, it will inevitably clash with some traditional American values. Learning to develop our own perspectives on the world takes time, and students need to be able to process their own feelings of social justice for themselves.


Eventually, with a lot more work, students move themselves to a deeper understanding of the islands. As a response to a mini-unit I taught on Hawai’i, one of my students, Wi-Moto, wrote the following poem:

Can we go on vacation?
Can we see the clear blue waters
And bathe in the sun rays?
Can I marvel at the green
and sip the coconut juice?

Should I play on the golf courses?
Should I swim in the pools?
Or should I turn my head
To see what’s over my shoulder?

Standing there are the people of Hawaii.
The homeless, poor. The dying race,
The slowly fading culture.

Images of death and destruction,
Ghosts of the weak and suffering.
They’re being pushed out;
The forgotten natives.

I don’t want to vacation anymore.

While such a poem shows how the mini-unit led to an increased understanding about Hawai’i and tourism — and for Wi-Moto, a willingness to take a personal stand on the issue — I also felt less-than satisfied when I read it. My dissatisfaction, however, was not with Wi-Moto’s poem but with my curriculum. In my attempt to expose the atrocities of colonization and tourism in Hawai’i, I had not focused enough on Native Hawaiian resistance
and survival. This is painfully obvious in the 3rd and 4th stanzas where
Wi-Moto refers to the “dying race,” “fading culture,” and the “weak and suffering .. forgotten natives.”

Hawaiians, however, are far from weak. Over the last 220 years, they have
more than proven that they won’t let themselves be forgotten. Hawaiians have resisted the onslaught of colonizing forces ever since before they
killed Captain Cook in 1779 on the beaches of Hawai’i after he had desecrated a sacred temple (see article, below). In 1893, Queen Lili’uokalani
ardently protested the overthrow of her government – and 100 years later, 20,000 Native Hawaiians and supporters marched in downtown Honolulu to commemorate the Queen and express their outrage at her overthrow. Today, Hawaiians are involved in cultural revivals and land occupations, and have re-opened demands for Native Hawaiian sovereignty.

This year, during the centennial of Hawai’i’s occupation by the United States,
a number of protests and projects are being organized. One resource, Resistance in Paradise, is aimed specifically at classroom educators, giving them a chance to commemorate the last 100 years of resistance to the U.S. occupation (see listing of resources).

Hopefully, the next time I ask a group of students what images come to mind when I say the word “Hawai’i,” I’ll get more substantial answers than “sex, hula, and naked ladies.”

King Kalakaua, the last reigning King of Hawai’i, ruled from 1874 until 1891.

Wayne Wah Kwai Au teaches at Middle College High School in Seattle, WA. He can be e-mailed at wau@cks.ssd.k12.wa.us