As soon as the word slips off my tongue, I feel stupid.
It’s oddly a surreal moment for something so small: I am huffing and puffing up a hill off the Pali highway. The guys ahead of me say they’re veering off. A puff of air fills my cheeks, and without thinking expels through my lips. “Shoots guys, bye!”
To anyone not from Hawai‘i, it’s probably innocuous enough– maybe a weird use of the word “shoot,” which usually either conveys a gun blast or a substitution for an angered exclamation– but nothing offensive.
Still, I’ve lived here long enough to know that, here, it’s a word usually used by locals, something like a mix of “okay” and “sounds good” (I think). I’ve also lived here long enough to know that I am by no means “local.” I could double my four years of residency and I still don’t know that I’d be able to claim that I’m “local.” I didn’t grow up here, I moved here for a job, I spend most of my time near the University. I don’t really get to make a claim on anything.
Which is fine. I’m not upset– I know I’m lucky to get to live here at all. I’m just consistently in a state of uncertainty: is my living here an exploitation in and of itself? Will I ever be able to feel at home here?
Of course, those aren’t questions running through my mind as I walk up the road. I’m just hiking, and trying to talk story with a few guys who are helping my friends and I get back on the right trail.
I say the word and immediately feel like an idiot. Why did I do that? I think to myself. Who do I think I am? I have, frankly, silently mocked transplanted folks who try desperately try to “sound local,” failing miserably at hiding their own discomfort with being a stranger in a place they want to try and claim as theirs. I have tried to keep myself in check time and again. It’s not a big deal, I suppose, but I know better. I know that I sounded stupid, too. So what the hell happened?
Later, the memory slips back into my mind and I sit in my discomfort. “Shoots.” A word bandied over my head at guys passing each other in my gym. It is thrown down hallways and over balconies by students at the schools where I teach as they share plans and gossip for the day. Sometimes I have it bounced at me, a pass I’m not ready for, by kids after I clarify an assignment, folks who assume I’m local, or people who decide to share it with me anyway.
I hold it for a moment and admire it, like every other local word, phrase, or marker I’ve learned. I haven’t been here long, but it’s long enough to appreciate living somewhere I can finally be mistaken as belonging. It’s is always tempting to slide on the cultural uniform of this place that has, in many ways, finally provided a haven for external acceptance. When I let myself slip, I act like I know how to play this game, exhale and throw a word or phrase in, hoping for a moment to let the masquerade continue.
Still, I know to do any of this– shimmying into someone else’s life as a disguise to make myself more comfortable– isn’t any better than any of the other times I’ve felt pressured to play with words or rules that weren’t mine either, in the name of “fitting in” or “being professional” or “getting ahead.” I know that, if I try and throw these words and phrases back, try to bandy and toss them with the same levity as actual locals, I’ll only fumble miserably.
Which, of course, is what I did that muggy afternoon walking up the Pali. For a moment, I thought I could get away with the ruse, with the idea that this was a world I could claim for myself when I know that’s the farthest thing from the truth.
“Shoots.” My mouth closes at the end of the word and my lips purse immediately, a quick burst of shame and embarrassment wash from my tongue to the tips of my toes.
I sit, later, and shake my head.