Mahalo For Just Saying “Thank You”

They say (you know who they are, don’t you) that first impressions last. This post, which appeared on Felloffatruck Publications on 29 March 2007, records a first impression of Hawai‘i that our subsequent experience of dead aloha has done little to dispel.


I’ve been in Honolulu for the grand total of two days, and I’m already sick of aloha and mahalo.

Aloha you know about. Or you’ve been living in a cave and have never heard of Hawai‘i. Even without the ‘okina. Aloha is that smurfy word that means “hello” and “goodbye” and “good health to you” and “come here, big boy, I’ve got something to sell to show you”. Sorry, honey, but I don’t need a genuine Hawai‘ian shell necklace made in Bangladesh. Or a $13 cardboard ukulele, either. Mahalo.

Oh, ‘scuse me, I forget. I haven’t told you about mahalo yet. Though you might have guessed from the title, it means “thank you”. It’s the second most common Hawai‘ian word in the language. It’s a long, long drop to number 3. Wear your parachute. Rolled off the tongue of a shop clerk who’s just sold you gold-plated orange juice … whaddaya mean, it’s not gold plated?!? Did you see that price tag? For Māui’s sake, with this assault on my wallet, I should be getting a share in the mine…!!

Where was I? Oh. Yeah. Mahalo. Rolled off the tongue of a shop clerk who’s just sold you that orange juice, it has all the sincerity and emotional warmth of “have a nice day”. Yeah, yeah, I know. ¡Turista, turista! And it’s been a long day in Paradise already. Still …

Maybe I wouldn’t notice the trinkety quality of these relict Hawai‘ian words if I hadn’t lived in New Zealand. Aotearoa. Te Ika a Māui. Where the Polynesian heritage survives in a much more robust state than in Hawai‘i, where, I read, the native language has had to be reconstructed, almost like the Zionists had to reconstruct Hebrew before they could use it as the official language of Israel.

Even the words are largely the same, though whoever transliterated Māori into Roman letters tended to use “r” where the transliterator of Hawai‘ian used “l”. Thus, aloha becomes aroha in Māori. It means much the same thing, but you’ll never hear it as a greeting in New Zealand. It carries much more of a sense of a person’s material and especially spiritual wellness; a certain kind of Protestant might find the meaning of aroha to be close to “state of grace”. The closest you get in Māori to the casual greeting component of aloha is kia ora, which roughly translates to “Hi, how are ya?” but lacks most of the latter’s throwaway quality. Or at least it did. It’s been awhile since I was last there.

Hawai‘ian Hawai‘i, Māori Hawaiiki, means “home”, “homeland”; in Māori, it has a sense similar to that of Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. Kanaka maoli, one of the terms for “native Hawai‘ian”, is obviously related to Māori, the native New Zealand people. The word māori, we are told, means “normal”, “natural”, or “ordinary”. In your face, pakeha.

Speaking of in your face. Remember hula hoops? Good. You can forget then now. Sorry I mentioned them. As far as I know, hula dancing in Hawai‘i is pretty much restricted to cultural shows. Not so in Aotearoa. Try this haka (the Ka Mate, technically a haka taparahi and practically a cliché in New Zealand, so much so that most people know it as The Haka) on for size:

Yes. It is customary for a Māori warrior to bug out his eyes and stick his tongue out at the opposition. It’s considered big-time threatening. Yes it is. American kids, do not try this at home. (Speaking of which, the University of Hawai‘i football team actually has its own ha‘a, but the NCAA won’t let it be performed on the field, or be part of televised games.) Compare this fellow – the video is mislabelled “Haka”, but what the man is performing is actually a weru, a challenge that is part of the ritual of greeting for visitors to a marae:

The video shows a professional performance, staged for paying customers to a marae in Rotorua, one of New Zealand’s cultural showplaces. It’s a lot different when you’re living in the country, and you’re being welcomed onto the marae sacred to the iwi of your town, and you’ll be going to work and play with these people, and you know they mean you.

It’s also a lot different when you realize that the haka and other elements of Māori culture are not cooped up in shows for tourists or even sports fans. Like the dance troupe that found itself waiting for the same delayed flight that we were, once upon a visit to the Auckland airport, and decided to rehearse right then and there.

When two haka-dancing Polynesian cultures, in this case the Kiwis and the Tongans, get together, look out below:

(Apologies for the “totem pole” remark. Bloody Aussie commentators.)

Gets you in a mood, doesn’t it? A mood to tackle all these Waikiki shop clerks. Les Belles Dames Sans Merci. C’mon, you French scholars. You all know that means “The Beautiful Ladies That Never Say Thank You“.

They say mahalo instead.

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2007, 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.


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