Where I’m From

I usually don’t like telling people at Swarthmore where I’m from. 

This is because I can inevitably predict what they’re going to say when I tell them that I’m from Hawaii, which usually falls along the lines of “Oh, how lovely! My family and I vacationed there once and it was so beautiful! I would love to vacation there again! You’re so lucky!” Usually, I’d bite my tongue before it spills anything regarding how exploitative the tourism industry in Hawaii is, or how I genuinely have no clue what vacationing in Hawaii is like, as my family probably couldn’t afford to actually take a “staycation” in Hawaii. I mean, I could tell those people that the governor of Hawaii is a Swarthmore alumnus, but ultimately, telling people where I’m from is just a terrible rapport-builder for me. And if they really want to know, I can just point to the multiple stickers I have on my devices about Hawaii and my hometown of Kahului, Maui.

This year is different though. On Aug. 8, wildfires raged on the island I spent the first 18 years of my life on. In the aftermath, at least 97 people are now dead, and the town of Lahaina has essentially been reduced to ashes, displacing thousands of people in the process. My extended family — the people who I went to family parties with, the people who would come to any events my parents hosted, the people who were inextricably connected to my childhood — are among those displaced. While their homes may have survived the Lahaina wildfire, they still cannot go back to Lahaina due to harmful airborne compounds from the ashes of the wildfire.

Despite my hometown and Lahaina having an entire mountain between them, I cannot say that I have zero ties to Lahaina. Before my parents moved to Kahului and had me, they used to live on Lahaina together with my extended family. When I was born, my parents chose to have me baptized at Maria Lanakila Church by Front Street in Lahaina. Childhood birthday parties consisted of me and my family getting into our minivan and taking the hour-long trip along the pali (cliffside) to Lahaina Civic Center, which is where my sisters and I all had our first birthday parties. Post-wildfire, everything around Maria Lanakila Church is gone while the building is somehow still standing, and Lahaina Civic Center has been turned into an information center for those affected by the wildfires. In the span of one day, an entire town is now gone.

As soon as I realized the severity of what was happening in Lahaina, I immediately asked my dad if he had made contact with any of our extended family since the wildfires were first reported — he was unable to reach them. What followed was me looking through a spreadsheet I found on Instagram containing those who have been unaccounted for to see if they were safe. I’d ask my parents which names to look for and scroll through the alphabetical list to see if they were on there, and in turn, see if they were accounted for in some way. In my head, I remember saying that it was for my parents’ sake; after all, they were the ones who lived in Lahaina before.

I got a text from my cousin saying that she was able to get in touch with my uncle — apparently, they were able to make it out of Lahaina and were currently staying in Kahului, my hometown. My family immediately invited them over to our house for dinner to talk about everything that transpired over the last few days. We learned that our extended family split apart in the rush to escape Lahaina, with the majority of them taking shelter at hotels north of Lahaina in the Kaanapali region. At that time, cell service remained spotty in West Maui, thus making us unable to reach the rest of my extended family, but my family took some comfort in knowing that our Lahaina relatives were safe.

Josh Green graduated from Swarthmore College in 1992 with a degree in Anthropology, and eventually became Hawaii’s 9th governor after serving as Hawaii’s lieutenant governor from 2018 to 2022. When I was accepted into Swarthmore College in 2020, my parents excitedly told me that Josh Green, who was lieutenant governor at the time, was a Swarthmore alumnus, to which I responded that I already knew from checking his Wikipedia page after someone else told me. I guess that it probably made my parents proud to know that their firstborn daughter was heading off to the same college as one of the leaders of Hawaii’s state government.

After the Lahaina wildfires, I found myself growing more and more doubtful of the Hawaii state government when it came to light that Hawaii’s extensive siren network was not utilized at all while the wildfires were raging. Hawaii’s history of illegal government overthrow aside (that is a huge topic on its own already), it made me question the actions of our state government, as our state government already has a history of not prioritizing the local Hawaii community. For example, in recent years, water restrictions were placed on Maui residents, but no such restrictions were placed on hotels and resorts. To my knowledge, I am pretty sure that the various pools at resorts and hotels use just as much, if not more water than those affected by the water restrictions, and it only serves to show that our state government seems to prioritize the tourism industry over the local community it was meant to serve.

Recently, it has been announced that West Maui will reopen to tourism on October 8th, two months after the wildfire in Lahaina occurred. Already, most of the Lahaina community is protesting this decision, and a petition demanding to delay the reopening of West Maui began to circulate on social media. While I am aware that a good amount of people who call Maui home are employed by the tourism industry and are dependent on it for their livelihood (including my father), the tourism industry as a whole has proven to be extremely exploitative. A case can even be made about the tourism industry being indirectly related to the Lahaina wildfire, as water in West Maui has been used mostly for outside purposes, transforming Lahaina into a tinder box. In addition, in order to get to West Maui (at least, the hotels that have been largely unaffected by the fire), you must drive through Lahaina, and thus go through the burn site, which most residents are unable to access to at least look at the ashes of their homes as of the time I am writing this. So why is our state government reopening West Maui to tourism when the Lahaina community is still reeling from the devastation of the wildfires?

Being both a Swarthmore student and someone who calls Hawaii home, I find the state government’s actions to be close to a betrayal of my home, seeing as the head of the state government is also an alumnus of Swarthmore College. Logically, I know that one person does not represent an entire state government. Despite this fact, I can’t help but feel like I am at an intersection between the Hawaii community and the higher education institution that I chose to attend, both of which I share with the state governor in some capacity. This is only further amplified by the fact that I am the only current Swarthmore student from Maui, and I can’t help but feel like I should be doing something for the community that essentially raised me. The intersection of both of the communities I am a part of is ultimately intertwined with the conflict of state interests against community interests, so, in some sense, I still feel betrayed by my state government (and, essentially, Josh Green) for choosing to prioritize the tourism industry over the local community, while I’m attempting to raise awareness of what the Lahaina community is facing at Swarthmore.

I arrived back at Swarthmore for my senior year wearing a “Maui Strong” shirt, which has become the Maui community’s slogan for solidarity post-wildfire. All I can say is that it felt like a mood whiplash — here I am amongst people who are excited for the school year to start, from young, starry-eyed freshmen to extremely jaded seniors who really just wanted to get their last year done with, and I can’t help but feel like I’ve left a part of me behind on Maui. On some level, I feel extremely guilty being here at Swarthmore, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation, while I could be volunteering back on Maui, or at the very least checking on my extended family to make sure that they’re alright. Never has the feeling of wanting to go home hit me this hard before.

One night, I texted a few of my friends from Maui who were currently on the mainland (what people from Hawaii call the contiguous United States) and asked if they ever felt guilty for being there while Maui was recovering from the wildfires. All of them said they did. I could probably insert something poetic about how we all persevered and stayed strong despite being so far from our grieving island home, but it would probably be more accurate to say that we are all grieving for Lahaina in our own way. There is a deep sense of community in Maui, where everyone somehow knows each other, and all of us from Maui who are on the mainland are doing our best to support our island home in any way we can.

As a Swarthmore student, I am completely aware that most people here are aware of Hawaii’s history (at least, an extremely watered down version of it), but also see Hawaii as a vacation destination. I am also aware that a decent percentage of Swarthmore’s student body have financial privilege, whether they would like to admit it or not. As both a Swarthmore student and a Maui community member, all I ask is that you don’t forget about what has happened on Maui, and, if you have the financial means to, donate directly to those who have been affected by the wildfires, as the people of Lahaina need your support in the coming months. Finally, we need to uplift the voices of the Maui community so that we can, at the very least, ensure that nothing else will be lost or taken advantage of.

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