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Homesick Hawaiians Get a Little Aloha Medicine on Mainland

June 05, 2005|Jeannette J. Lee | Associated Press Writer

HONOLULU — Leaving paradise for the first time can be tough.

Ari Wong said he was miserable after moving from Hawaii to Washington, D.C., several years ago for college. "I was very homesick and it was very hard adjusting," said Wong, now a federal law enforcement officer. "I couldn't get used to the food, so I lost a lot of weight. I kept getting sick. I missed my family, Hawaii's climate and the people."

It could have been worse. Wong said one reason he chose George Washington University was because it had a Hawaii club to help ease the transition.

Hawaii clubs are fixtures at more than 50 colleges nationwide. Membership ranges from fewer than 20 at some schools to 200 at the University of Washington and Stanford.

Many clubs receive lists of incoming Hawaiians and plan gatherings. They host annual luaus with island food and hula dancing. Members say clubs can be havens from what many Hawaii students see as a more fast-paced lifestyle and sometimes unfriendly encounters, especially in large East Coast cities.

"For a Hawaii person on the mainland, the culture here is different. Sometimes people around here can be a little less, uh, warmhearted," said Chris Farm, a junior at MIT in Boston.

Matt Tsai, a University of Pennsylvania senior, said support from club members helped him adapt. "We tell the freshmen, 'It's going to be cold, a little bit more high-paced, and people generally are going to be a little more in-your-face.' You have to learn to become more 'East Coast' and deal with it."

Even in a more laid-back region such as Oregon, Hawaii clubs can help students share a common culture. "We all miss the food and the beach," said Jennifer Slaton, a senior at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. "And the sun, because Portland is so rainy."

In frigid climes, upperclassmen at some clubs organize shopping expeditions, helping island freshmen shop for coats, sweaters and long underwear.

For almost all Hawaii clubs, the annual spring luau is the premier event. And these wouldn't be mistaken for some tacky frat-party luau with plastic flower leis and umbrella-shaded drinks.

Generally held in April, the luaus attract hundreds of guests, who are treated to authentic hula performances and spreads of traditional Hawaiian food.

Parents and friends in the islands often donate colorful flowers and tropical plants that are used as centerpieces, strewn on tables or affixed to walls.

Students perform the sacred traditional hula, or kahiko, as well as the flowing modern auana style. Many clubs also perform dances from other Polynesian cultures, such as hip-shaking Tahitian, the Maori hakka and poiball dances, and even Samoan fire-knife dancing.

Lewis and Clark's luau was unusual because many performers had no ties to Hawaii. Almost half the club's members are students from the mainland and abroad who are friends with members from Hawaii.

Most clubs have a majority of Hawaii students, although they encourage people who aren't from Hawaii to join. About 90% of the University of Washington club's members hail from Hawaii or have family in the islands, said Jessica Toyama, president of the 200-member Hawaii club.

The clubs also help students from Hawaii clear up any misconceptions that classmates may have about the islands. Tsai, a Honolulu native, said he had been asked such questions as: "How long have you been in the U.S.? Do you use U.S. dollars? Do you live in grass huts?"

Often, Tsai said, island students are asked how they could leave such an idyllic place. Even though college on the mainland may be cold, sometimes unfriendly and far from family, it offers an experience off the "rock."

"I love home and I want to go home one day," Tsai said. "But I feel like it's a rock and isolated. Things can turn into a repetitive routine. The mainland has so many experiences you just can't get at home."

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