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8 Signs You're Still a Tourist in Hawaii

Hawaii Culture
by Jill Meinecke Apr 23, 2014

Hawaii is one of those magical places that leaves most visitors daydreaming of what it might be like to actually live there full-time. Well, if school, work, or other commitments mean you can’t become an island local anytime soon, you can still try and live like one while during the precious days you’re there on vacation. An essential first step to doing so is ditching the telltale signs that you’re a tourist in Hawaii. Not only will this get you into an aloha state of mind, but as long as you actually acknowledge you really are from the mainland — and don’t try to pretend otherwise — it can also be a way of showing respect to the way things are done island-style.

1. You’re driving a shiny new sports car … through the rainforest.

Every local knows that in order to truly enjoy your surroundings in Hawaii, you have to own a cruiser or a beach vehicle that can hold all your toys and take a beating. Usually, this is an old pickup truck you can throw your surfboards, kayaks, and friends into. Only tourists are cruising the rugged back roads and rainforests of the island in a shiny rented sports car, afraid to get it a little dirty from a day of adventure.

My favorite drive, Maui’s rugged North Shore from Kapalua to Wailuku — which is less known and wilder than Maui’s famed Road to Hana — has the best panoramic views. These come at a cost, though. You have to drive along an unpaved path etched into the side of the mountain, teetering off the edge, thwarting certain death for just a little while. Rental car companies technically forbid you to travel this road because of the conditions. You can check with local companies, like GO Rent a Car Maui, as opposed to the national car rental brands, as they may have less restrictive policies. They can also give you cars without big stickers showing they are rentals, always a plus.

Locals know the unspoken right-of-way law: If you’re going mauka (toward the mountain), yield to oncoming makai (toward the sea) traffic. This is especially critical on a road that’s a hair wider than a golf cart. Cruising this road, you’ll always encounter the occasional svelte sports car, whipping around corners, filled with tourists who’re angry you won’t make room for them. All you can do is observe the rules of the road and hope others follow suit.

2. You sleep in.

When many people go on vacation, they want to take it easy and sleep as late as possible. By then, though, locals have already had a workout, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, and been at work for a few hours. With Hawaii’s trade winds liable to pick up during the day, surfers have long known that the best time to get in the water is at first light — so many of them wake up at 5 AM or even earlier. Many other locals do the same, running on the beach or hitting the gym at sunrise. At the other end of the day, you’ll find local bars are pretty dead by 9 PM. In Hawaii, life follows the sunshine.

Of course, when you first arrive, you may actually wake up early due to jet lag. Because of this, many resorts’ breakfast buffets start at 6 AM, and in Hawaii’s tourist-oriented economy, it means the workday starts early. In fact, Oahu’s morning rush hour starts at 5 AM and is over by 8 AM.

3. You pronounce it “high-low” and the “like-like” highway.

Hawaiian words are notoriously hard to pronounce, and Hilo (hee-low) and the Likelike (lee-kay-lee-kay) Highway are the least of your worries. Most people aren’t accustomed to all the vowels in the Hawaiian alphabet, but after time transplants learn how to pronounce the local kine slang. When tourists show up and butcher the local language, it’s painful, but funny.

I’ve heard a lot of people in the Puna District (an area of the Big Island, 30 miles south of Hilo) helplessly ask for directions to “High-low,” clearly looking for “Hee-low.” It’s an honest mistake on any novice’s part. Another common mispronunciation is the Hawaiian snack poke, which is diced, marinated ahi tuna salad. Pronounced po-kay, people often pronounce it po-kee — or worse, poke, as in, “I will poke you if you pronounce poke wrong.”

4. You think resort luaus are an authentic Hawaiian experience.

Not to be misunderstood here: Many elements of a tourist luau are based on valued parts of Hawaiian indigenous culture, and many native Hawaiians work at them. But while native Hawaiians might participate in hula competitions, make leis, and play the ukulele, their own luaus at home look very different than ones designed for tourists. So go ahead and enjoy a tourist luau if you’d like, but explore more authentic ways to get to know Hawaii’s indigenous culture.

5. You’re wearing anything other than worn slippahs on your feet.

Locals in Hawaii have rough feet from continuously being immersed in salt water, walking over treacherous lava rock barefoot, and having their toes in the sand. Locals brand slippahs — which is what Hawaiians call flip flops — purchased at Long’s Drug Store for $5.99 are all you need.

In Hawaii, a poor man and a rich man side by side are indiscernible. The poor man wears board shorts, a tank top, and beat-up Locals slippahs. The rich man wears board shorts, a tank top, and beat-up Locals slippahs. The tourist sticks out like a sore thumb: They’re wearing their ritzy, strappy sandals or loafers, have manicured toes, and yelp aloud when stepping on the hot sand.

And real locals will wear their Locals beyond their shelf life, too, because everyone knows it takes a while to break in a good pair of shoes.

That said, if you want to bring home a pair of good-looking Hawaiian slippahs designed in Hawaii that is committed to environmental stewardship and supporting local communities, look for the OluKai brand. Since starting their business with handcrafted leather slippahs, they’ve moved onto tennis shoes and even booties. Yes, their pricing is a bit more mainland, but you’re supporting a Hawaiian company.

6. You still think “aloha” only has two meanings.

A word packed with so much significance, aloha has applications for all facets of life, not just in coming and going, and locals know the importance of “living aloha” on the islands. Many tourists believe aloha only means “hello” or “goodbye,” but it really signifies a way of life through unity and oneness with mankind and ’Aaina, the land.

If you want to learn more about this word, and its importance to Hawaiian culture, take the time to get to know the islands better.

7. You haven’t made Spam musubi part of your regular diet.

Perhaps the sweetest and most savory little snack you can get your hands on, Spam musubi is a staple in any local Hawaiian’s diet. You can find these delicious little suckers everywhere: plate lunch joints, da beach, on the counter at the gas station, you name it. Spam musubi is a great snack any time of day, and it’s portable, too. They’re perfect for driving, alongside your saimin (noodle soup), dinner, you name it.

Tourists are apprehensive. They may recall that Spam is a processed meat that was served to US soldiers during the Second world war. What they don’t know is that the meat has remained extremely popular in Hawaii, which consumes more of the stuff than any other US state.

Also, tourists can get skittish about refrigerating everything; more often than not, these sushi-inspired treats are Saran-wrapped and sitting atop the counter for convenience. But once you get brave and go for that first sweet and savory bite of Spam musubi, you’re hooked.

8. You honk instead of throwing shakas.

Nothing is more of a dead giveaway that you aren’t a Hawaiian local than honking in traffic. We try to keep it calm, cool, and collected here on da island, and honking a car horn is aggressive and obtrusive to our way of life. In Hawaii, wordless communication is done with the shaka, which is like a sideways thumbs up with your pinkie sticking up. It can mean everything from great and okay to chill out. And do it with your palm facing you, lest you want it to mean, “I’m a tourist.”

I once heard someone honk in traffic in the sleepy surfer town of Paia on the North Shore of Maui. As with most small towns, people tend to cross the street when there’s a break in traffic, especially over a two-lane highway coming from the beach. In retaliation to the blatant noise pollution by the obvious tourist honker, a peeved local shouted, “Go back to the mainland!” then threw a shaka out the window.

A version of this article was previously published on April 23, 2014, and was updated on January 11, 2021, with more information.

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