On Top Chef “Food Fight” the other day, I heard someone — typically, it was Marcel, that self-important brat — say, “There is no culture in Las Vegas.” A train of thought began chugging through my brain. I’m sure there is culture in Las Vegas, what we would call “local culture.” There is culture anywhere that people live where their parents and their parents before them lived, and keep up the traditions of their lifestyle.
I learned this some years ago in southern California. My best friend was hospitalized for surgery, and, unfortunately, there was a complication and she had to be transferred to the ICU for a few days. An ICU waiting room is a very interesting and revealing place to spend time, although not one most of us ever want to see. As I sat in the ICU between our hourly 10-minute visits, I saw a side of Orange County I had not suspected.
A rancher had been gored by a bull and was in very serious condition. His wife, in work boots, a Western shirt and dusty jeans, sat in the waiting room for most of the three days I was there. Friends began to gather: Each evening, women in pressed jeans and tailored shirts would come in to sit with her; their men, with their shiny belt buckles and tooled leather boots, would shuffle in to stand against the wall, cowboy hats in hand. They looked prosperous but hardy, with wind-blasted faces and work-worn hands. While the women commiserated in whispers, and worked out how they could help keep the stricken family’s ranch going, the men talked of cattle and orange groves and rodeo and land values. These were not the sun-bleached surfer dudes or moneyed housewives of Orange County, but people whose land had been in their families for generations, who worked the dry desert scrub, or kept the orange groves that gave the county its name and that still exist at the edges of urban sprawl.
It was a culture I hadn’t known still existed. True local culture is not obvious or generally available to visitors. It’s invisible to them, but it’s there. It can’t be known in the course of a flying vacation. It takes years to soak up. It takes knowing the history that these people know, and what is important to them. It takes the sense of place you get from walking the hills or beaches or climbing the mountains or swimming in the lakes.
This is one reason I came home to Hawaii 20 years ago. Though I had lived in the Pacific Northwest for 20 years and come to know it, I also knew that I would never be a true Northwesterner. And there would never be a culture I knew as well as my own, the local culture (Portuguese division) of the Islands.
In 20 years of living the Seattle area, and 16 years of reporting about it, I came to know the place pretty well. I lived there before “Californification,” before Microsoft and McMansions. I joined REI (Recreation Equipment Outfitters) when it was a co-op in a big old warehouse on Capitol Hill, where day hikers and Everest summiters alike bought used and new equipment at knock-down prices and there wasn’t a Patagonia label in sight. I sat with the Swedish housewives and learned to make lefse (Scandinavian flatbread) and Christmas cookies. I roamed the fields with fruit and berry growers, talked with wheat farmers in eastern Washington, met the hardy sort who lived in yurts with compostable toilets and kept their own sheep and ducks. I owned camping gear, a nondescript parka and hiking boots. I saw bears on the beach on the Olympic Peninsula and helped my then mother-in-law pick pods of bright purple poppy seeds, which made a delicious cake. People shared with me their secret sites for chanterelle mushrooms and I went out on fishing boats where the decks were slimy with the blood of line-caught salmon. I saw their lives, I listened to their lives but even as I landscaped my yard with herbs, grilled salmon and car camped in the Cascades, I knew I was in it but not of it.
It’s been interesting to watch the Islands marketing our local lifestyle. In the main, I’m for it. We need the tourist business and if introducing them to shave ice and SPAM musubi or giving them tours of the Kona coffee fields and Maui farms makes them more likely to come here, then, fine, those are secrets I’m willing to share.
But I hope people realize that a few days here does not make them ma’a to the culture. That food — though it’s my passion — is just one component, a visible and pleasurable one, but it, too, has its hidden side. How many tourists attend the kind of lu’au we give for ourselves? How many come to understand poi and kalo and its place in our lives, let alone in Native Hawaiian culture? Pretty much none. Which is as it should be. These things are for us. And until you learn about these things, you are — however much we may like you — not one of us. And until you’ve put on our slippers, you ought to be careful (unlike Marcel) about making comments on our culture. Or anyone else’s.