I feel compelled to share my thoughts. I ended up checking out Wisefish Poke the other night, and was unimpressed with the product and more horrified at the repackaging and reselling of my culture from someone’s vacation experience.
Poke is special to me. Not because of my affection for raw fish, but for the important story that comes with it. I learned how to make poke from my hānai father, John.
Let me explain briefly the concept of hānai in Hawaiian culture. Hanai is similar to foster parenting, open-adoptions and not at the same time. When a child was given in hānai to another set of parents to raise- usually the child’s grandparents or other family member, the parents reared and loved the child as if they were born to them. Yet the child was well aware of the kinship, so there were never uncomfortable or awkward conversations regarding parentage or lineage. The child was simultaneously part of both families, and it cemented relationships in communities. For a better explanation of the concept of hānai read this wonderful feature in Hana Hou! Magazine.
John took me in as his son, initially because I was dating his stepson, but we developed a relationship of our own, and we keep in contact today. He gave me my inoa (Hawaiian name) and helped me find my aloha spirit- something that growing up in Brooklyn seemed so elusive and obscure. And because he became a father to me, I took to calling him Papa.
One evening, Papa asked me if I wanted to eat poke for dinner the next night. I said yes. Well, actually he said: “Eh..Boy. You like eat poke bumbye?”
“K, den. We eat poke.”
At the crack of dawn the next morning, Papa was up and getting ready to take his boat across the island to Honaunau, where he usually stepped off when he went fishing.
At the crack of dawn the next morning, Papa was waking me up and telling me to get ready to help him take the boat across the island to Honaunau, where we were going to step off to go fishing.
After a relatively easy morning of catching fish- some large, some small we were back on the road, hauling the boat back along a two hour drive along the Kona Coast, through Cowboy country in Waimea, my grandmother’s hometowns of Āhualoa and Honka’a, past Akaka Falls and into Hilo town…
“This is nice…” I remember thinking. “I’m going to enjoy the fish that I helped catch.” After a shower, I went into my room to relax and nap.
But Papa wasn’t having any of that. “Eh! You no work, you no eat poke!”
“But Papa, I helped you catch the fish!”
“Shaddup.” He said. ” Try come and help me clean da fish. Or I ring ya neck.” he finished, with a smirk on his face.
I looked at him and we both started laughing. “K. Let’s smoke one cigarette first?”
After a cigarette, we took about an hour or so to clean and gut the fish that was caught. Now, with fishy hands, I went to wash them with some soap and sugar, and was about to relax.
“Eh. You have to come help make the poke.” Papa said, right before I took the steps towards my room
“But Papa- ”
“You no like eat?”
“One cigarette?” I asked with a smile.
After a cigarette, Papa took out a knife set that was very special to him. They were mismatched, and really old-looking. Papa told me that his father passed those knives onto him which meant that those knives were older than the both of us. And he showed me how to slice the fish into large, and bite-sized pieces. Then salt the fish…. with Hawaiian salt, of course. A drizzle of sesame oil and soy sauce and some diced onions and limu. A good stir, and let sit in the fridge.
And then my Papa and I ate poke with rice that night. And we laughed.
This story may not seem like much, but it is a defining moment in my journey of self-discovery. A boy born in Brooklyn, with Kanaka Maoli ancestry finally unleashed his aloha, his mana and his connection to his ancestors, and the wonderful, colorful, abstract, elusive and complicated culture that is Hawaii. Recreating an activity that was commonplace for my ancestors, and learning how to work in harmony with the sea just to eat, it was a beautiful moment.
I take it seriously, because I’ve had a long struggle with my own identity and taking my place in this world. And for that day- from the crack of down until dinner, I learned my place and took it proudly.
Even being back in New York for four years now, and even though this is how I make my poke:
It always represents this to me:
I love my Papa. I make an intentional effort to review everything he taught me during my time in Hawaii. Aside from poke, how to dry fish(!) to to do a tune up, change oil, change tires, brake pads, he showed me that I’m Hawaiian. And that the Hawaiian-ness I was searching for was inside me the whole time. I just needed to work for it to shine.
Maybe next time, I’ll tell you how he gave me my Hawaiian name.