Queen Liloukalani, the last Hawaiian monarch
So I leave tomorrow for vacation, heading eventually for a week on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. I am looking forward to the time way, the relaxation, the beautiful scenery, the ocean, the sand, and all of the other aspects of vacation.
However, I also suffer from a case of post-colonial island angst. This peculiar malady is caused by reflecting on what it means to be a tourist, particular the elements of race, class, and imperialism that play a role in my traveling to enjoy the exotic or foreign elements of an island whose past involves colonial occupation.
In my case the onset of this malady can be traced to my reading Jamaica Kincaid’s essay “A Small Place” in which she lambastes the white tourists coming to her home island of Antigua stating:
“An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness” .
She goes on to explain how tourists are oblivious to the suffering, oppression and marginalization of the residents of the island. She ties tourism to the island’s colonial past, particularly its experience as a British colony and sees it it as an extension of that past.
After reading the book, I resolved never to travel as a tourist to any Caribbean island and also threw in the resorts of Mexico to be comprehensive. I do not want to play any part in the post-colonial ugliness.
When it comes to the Pacific, my view is colored by my experience living on Guam for two years. There I saw first hand the way the residents both enjoyed economic benefits of being a US territory but also resented the loss of land and autonomy. There was definitely the sense of the Guam as an American colonial possession, an island with no vote in Congress, limited if any say in many key issues, and a history of American occupation dating back to the Spanish American war. As part of Guam’s marginal colonial existence, the education system was inferior to that in the 50 states as was the medial system (except for the military hospitals). Like those other islands, Guamanians made money off of tourists but did not particularly like them seeing them as rather clueless individuals who could be charged exorbitant non-resident rates for goods and services.
Based on my reading and experiences, I therefore am not a fan of being a tourist on an island, particularly one that has been colonized by a European/American superpower leaving the local population in a marginalized position.
Hawaii, however, presents a different situation. On the one hand it was a US colonial possession where the US deposed an indigenous monarchy and took power. There are also many issues around land rights and movements to increase Native Hawaiian rights. On the other hand, Hawaii is a US state with all the benefits and representation that entails. It cannot really be said to be a colonial possession, although its history involves colonialism.
Still, as a potential tourist, I wonder if in Hawaii I am the ugly being Kincaid describes. Am I with my white skin and economic resources clearly an outsider who would be better off staying home? I do not think so, after all I am helping the local economy and all of this angst at least shows I am conscious of the various dynamics. Still, I wonder about the acquisition of the land on which the resort hotel stands and I will be avoiding any luaus and hula shows. It is one thing to passive acquiesce in the demise of Queen Liliuokalani. It is another thing to consume deliberately a repackaging of Hawaiian traditions for tourist consumption.
But here is the question, why do I feel all this angst regarding island vacations when I do not feel it when vacationing in the mainland US? Should I not feel guilt visiting anywhere the indigenous population has been removed and/or marginalized? Perhaps it is proximity that bothers me, proximity to the dispossessed, and I would prefer to live my life not thinking of that reality.