Bicycles covered that art studio – old, rusty bicycles propped up against walls, bright bicycles hanging from the ceiling, watercolor paintings of bikes and pictures of them, too – shining in a setting sun underneath a grinning group of teenagers. Professor Sharma, Mimi, Maya and I were exploring the streets of a bustling Chinatown for First Friday, an event that showcased local art and music. We could hear rock music as we had walked into the studio and Mimi and I were instantly drawn to it, so I found myself following Mimi around to another room, where an older band was jamming out a dance-able rock tune. I found myself clapping and stepping to the beat and when I looked behind me, I saw Professor Sharma with Maya in her arms, moving to the music as well. She put Maya down and told her, “Go dance with Zoe!” I smiled and bent down to try and get her to dance with me, but she was looking up at the dancing crowd of mostly women with gigantic, soulful, brown eyes – clearly starstruck. One of the women noticed this adorable-to-the-core little girl and gave her a black egg-shaped shaker to shake to the beat. Perhaps because her father is an incredibly talented professional drummer, at two years of age, Maya already has the ability to move and clap to rhythms, so she soon got the hang of it, eyes still wide, taking it all in. I let myself fall to the drum beats as she shook, appreciating the bubble of joy that surrounded the stage of people dancing, some with eyes closed and big smiles. I would look down from time to time to whisper to Maya to show off her dance moves. We had been having dance sessions in my room the past couple days, where she and I face each other across a low table and she tries to copy how I move to the music. Afterwards she always would say, “More music! More music!” I remembered this and bent down to dance with her. She started to shake and a big grin overtook her face, brightening her eyes and evoking warmth in my heart. I grinned, too, when Mimi came down from watching in the seats behind us to shake and move to the beat, as well. Love expanded within me as I watched this dynamic duo – a sweet two-year-old in ribboned pigtails and an energetic, white-haired, beautiful woman – dance side by side, full of joy.
The band ended their set too soon for all of us and Mimi pointed out “Honolulu fashion” as we walked out. Women were all dressed up – in full-length gowns and what looked like prom dresses. Maya became infatuated with these bright, sparkly dresses and would go right up to someone to touch the fabric. She did so to three different women and they all found her to be especially cute. I am constantly amazed at how confident and outgoing Maya is – at her age, I would have hid from these women, instead of going up to them fearlessly.
But to be fearless and innocent is a beautiful combination, and in Hawai’i I have been working on the former. I have been exposing myself to new experiences and forcing myself to go up to strangers to ask them if they were interested in being interviewed. I have been filling my days here with work, play and spontaneous adventures. This last week, I have taken to carrying my laptop to the University of Hawai’i library, or to a local coffee shop to transcribe interviews, looking up titles of books and articles about Blacks in Hawai’i and writing up field notes of events. During my time here so far, Professor Sharma and I have conducted nine long interviews, and although because of confidentiality, I cannot write about the content of the long discussions we’ve had with local Black Hawaiians and Black musicians in Hawai’i, I can certainly say every single one was fascinating to both Professor Sharma and I. These stories need to be told, to be analyzed and thought about, and I come away from each interview feeling so thankful that these wonderful people opened up their lives and experiences to us, even though race and racism is a difficult topic of conversation, especially in the context of Hawai’i, where race is not seriously discussed.
Back at the art studio, we passed by a bicycle display that had a little figurine of a hula dancer on it, and a man told Mimi to press a black button on the bike. It emitted a loud beep, which caused us all to laugh. People in Hawai’i, I’ve found, are incredibly kind. When we were searching for a parking spot a bit earlier, for example, two local men offered their parking spot to us so that we could park for free, and later, when we made our way to a barbershop that a Black man that we were interested in interviewing owned, Professor Sharma talked to him about our project and he said he would love to help. The barbershop was having a cut-off event, where the barbers made shaved or cut designs into a man’s hair and would later be judged by the owner. We observed the scene for a bit before heading out again into the darkening streets.
Mimi, like me, is drawn to new experiences, so she spotted a Capoeira circle next to a street. When I saw it, I started running in excitement, and found myself to be part of the circle, clapping in rhythm and later joining into the tribal-sounding chants, watching the two men in the middle. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art dance that was created mainly by African slaves in Brazil and has Native Brazilian influences, according to Wikipedia. A row of percussion players were lined to one side of the circle. Three players were hitting berimbaus, which looked like combinations of stringed instruments and a drums. The other men were holding bigger drums. The men inside the circle were moving slowly and gracefully, bodies low to the ground, playing off of each other and sweeping their legs over each others’ heads. I loved that they were laughing and smiling to each other as they did so – this was not a martial art like karate that evoked sharp, hard movements, but rather a playful, beautiful, flowing dance that required two people to connect their movements and therefore their hearts. We could not stay long, but I vowed to one day learn that art, to be part of that world of gentle, graceful movements.
After seeing more art and walking around a bit, we headed back to the car to go home. Mimi fell asleep in the front seat while I showed Maya how to make bows out of the ribbon in her hair. As I watched Maya fiddle with the shiny strips, I remembered how we had all traveled, all in the same seats as we were then, to the North Shore on Labor Day. We passed by gigantic fields of pineapple and a Dole plantation. The soil was a sandy red unfamiliar to me and we passed by many small farms, towering, sharply cut mountains and street vendors. I fell in love with the tranquil ocean that glistened in the sun and for the first time in Hawai’i, I felt completely safe and free to swim in those salty waters. I watched little, tan local boys giggle over and over and the waves crashed over their heads, washing them to the sandy shore, and smiled to myself as I fell asleep underneath a perfect blue sky.
As I remembered this in the car next to Maya in the car seat, I was filled with a feeling of homesickness. There was something about being so full of joy here and experiencing everything that made me want to have my family here, as well, looking out at the gorgeous ocean or eating chicken katsu with me. When I observed the simple love of my professor’s family, the haven of protection that surrounded Maya everywhere she went, I felt a pang of lonliness for the familial love of my Central Illinois home and the haven of our farm. I love this family, these kind souls who took time to show me every part of this island and accepted me into their home. Professor Sharma is an incredible role model for me and Mimi reminds me of my own grandmothers, with her hilarious quirks and strong spirit, and I will miss Maya with all my heart, this beautiful, angelic girl full of kisses, hugs and love. It pained me that I would be leaving in a few days, back to Chicago and then back to the farm, but I could already feel the strong bonds of the farm pulling me back home.
This has been an experience of a lifetime – I have learned so much about research, life and love. Mimi suggested that I should come back to Hawai’i for graduate school in Japan Studies, which is a possibility I am considering. Instead of cementing my future plans in journalism and writing, my experiences here have shaken everything up, like the contents of that egg shaker Maya shook to the music in the art studio. A whole new world of possibilities have arisen in my life. I have too many dreams, too much I want to do and too many places I feel compelled to visit. But I am incredibly thankful for the kindness and open love of Professor Sharma’s family and feel incredibly lucky to have met them, and to be given this opportunity for life-changing adventure.