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Image: Kevin Whipple

"What are you doing here?” It’s a question I still get when I disclose that I’m from Hawaii. Never mind I’ve lived in the Seattle area since 2000.

I get it. Hawaii seemingly has it all—nearly perfect weather, instant access to warm, sandy beaches, incredible food, a cherished native culture coexisting with global traditions, and unparalleled natural splendor. Why leave?

Growing up, I remember my parents, teachers, uncles, aunties, and grandparents encouraging me to “get off the rock.” The rallying cry had a clear message—stay, and you might end up content but unfulfilled. Leave, and maybe something better awaits.

Hawaii, you have to understand, is more rural than most people realize. Especially on the Island of Hawaii, known as the Big Island, where I was raised. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, many homes in the Puna district where we lived didn’t have water lines. Instead rain-catchment systems allowed for showering, laundry, and other household uses, but the water from those systems was deemed unpotable due to acid rain caused by the nearby erupting volcano. Every week, we’d take our cache of gallon plastic water bottles and stand in line to fill them up for cooking and drinking. It was just our way of life.

Meanwhile, with no major manufacturing, technology, or science sectors, the state is light on opportunities. Most Hawaiian careers are in government or the tourism and hospitality industry. And taking a job in the latter can be problematic for many Native Hawaiians. One resort alone, developed on Maui in the late ’80s, disturbed a burial site that dated back a thousand years, the resting place for more than 900 indigenous people. It’s like tiptoeing across a tightrope that’s held in place by culture on one end and commerce on the other.

So yes, I’m here. I chose the Seattle area because its close proximity to the ocean and backdrop of towering mountains reminded me of home. I attended the University of Puget Sound (Go Loggers!), built a career, and now I own and keep a home with my wife and nine-month-old daughter.

Even I find myself asking, “What am I doing here?” When Seattle is bleak and rainy in February, I long for a lazy day at Hapuna Beach. When a friend shares a scenic drone video of Hawaii on Facebook, I can almost smell the rainstorms coming in off the Hamakua Coast. I miss talking pidgin, the common, broken English language of Hawaii. When I was young, I thought it sounded foolish and lazy. But when I hear it now, it warms me.

I feel a tinge of anxiety about losing the part of me I left behind. Occasionally I worry my daughter won’t get to make similar memories, but I shouldn’t. She’s going to have it better than I ever did. She gets to grow up in a progressive, modern city full of opportunity, biospheres, and light rail. My wife and I can choose the best of my childhood for her when we visit family in Hawaii. First up? Swimming lessons in crystal-clear, 80-degree water, no baby wet suit necessary.

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