I didn’t grow up embracing Pidgin. After Pidgin-ing out on job sites, my father would code-switch back to “proper” English at home. Growing up, this fluidity felt central to the language, the almost subconscious ability to distinguish when it was appropriate to wield its power and when to stash it in your back pocket. Not understanding this difference had its consequences. My mother, who grew up on Kauai and moved to the “big city” of Honolulu to attend a private boarding school, recalls her high school history teacher ordering her to stand in a corner and stare at a wall. Her offense? Saying “da kine.”
This stigmatization traces back to those sugarcane plantations: Pidgin as broken English for the uneducated immigrant. The Hawaii State Board of Education has repeatedly attempted to ban Pidgin from the public school system, with former Gov. Ben Cayetano once declaring Pidgin “a tremendous handicap” for those “trying to get a job in the real world.” Growing up, I wore my Pidgin lightly, fearing that indulging in its subversion was a one-way ticket to nowhere, a way of limiting myself to the bottom of that concrete pit.
In the ’90s, a wave of writers and activists fought to combat this perception, sparking something of a Pidgin Renaissance. Through poetry, novels, and essays, writers like Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Lee Cataluna, and Darrell H.Y. Lum positioned the once dismissed dialect as literature. Emerging out of that shift stomped Pidgin theater, Pidgin dictionaries, and a Pidgin Bible, dubbed “Da Jesus Book.” “Talking li’ dat” (“like that”) even managed to penetrate the most resistant institution: academia. At Syracuse University, to my shock, I studied Yamanaka’s seminal novel Blu’s Hanging, which mines the Pidgin of its protagonist to spotlight the underbelly of working class Hawaii. In 2002, the University of Hawaii at Manoa established The Charlene Junko Sato Center for Pidgin, Creole, and Dialect Studies, dedicated to conducting research on “stigmatized dialects.”
A leading voice in the movement is Lee Tonouchi, who’s often referred to as “Da Pidgin Guerilla.” In the late ’90s, as a student at the University of Hawaii, Tonouchi had an epiphany while reading a poem by Eric Chock, who co-founded Bamboo Ridge Press, the leading publisher of Pidgin-centric writing. Titled “Tutu on the Curb”—“tutu” being Hawaiian for grandparent—Chock’s poem is expressive and comical: “She squint and wiggle her nose / at the heat / And the thick stink fumes / The bus driver just futted all over her.”
“I remembah being blown away by da Pidgin,” Tonouchi, who writes and speaks exclusively in Pidgin, says by email. “I wuz all like, ‘Ho! Get guys writing in Pidgin. And we studying ’em in college. Das means you gotta be smart for study Pidgin!’”
Tonouchi started flirting with his native language scholastically, first in his creative writing class, which got him thinking: If I can do my creative stuff in Pidgin, how come I no can do my critical stuff in Pidgin too? Over time, he started writing his 30-page research papers and his entire master’s thesis in Pidgin, “until eventually I just wrote everyting in Pidgin.” Part of the decision was practical. As a kid growing up on Oahu, he felt perplexed by the books he read. People no talk li’ dat, he thought. “Writing how people sounded seemed more real to me,” he says.
Since graduating, Tonouchi has dedicated his life to establishing Pidgin as its own intellectually rigorous and poetically descriptive language. He’s published multiple books of Pidgin poetry and essays, written a play in Pidgin, and co-founded Hybolics, a literary Pidgin magazine that’s short for hyperbolic, used when someone is behaving like a snooty intellectual: “Why you acting all hybolic for?” Perhaps most groundbreaking was an English class called “Pidgin Literature” that he taught at Hawaii Pacific University in 2005. It was regarded as the first of its kind: a college course fully dedicated to fiction and poetry in Pidgin. Yes, brah. He even lectured in Pidgin.
Over the years, Tonouchi has noticed a decline in Pidgin, particularly among the young. “When I visit classrooms as one guest talker, I see that we kinda losing da connection. Simple kine Pidgin vocabularies da kids dunno,” he says. “I tink Pidgin might be coming one endangered language.”
There was a period in my life, after I moved away for college, when I scrubbed Pidgin from my lips, my tongue colonized. “You talk so haole,” my mom would say half-jokingly, employing the Hawaiian word for “Caucasian.” I knew my tongue should loosen, should adapt to the inflection of my aunties and uncles, to the comforts of poke and Mom’s home-cooked shoyu chicken. I was home for the holidays, surrounded by friends and family, but instead my tongue stiffened, intent on proving that I had transcended the confines of the tiny island I called home. I was acting all hybolic.
It took me years to realize that shunning Pidgin meant shunning where I was from, the food I ate, the beaches I roamed, the people I loved. Today, it’s hard for me to fathom a Hawaii without Pidgin. Particularly in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, how else would locals, with a single sentence, signal their localness to one another?
On a recent visit home, I went to the beach. Oahu’s North Shore is a disorienting mix of sunburnt tourists and the very local; having lived in New York for more than seven years by that point, I imagined I looked like a cross between the two. As I sat in front of the crashing waves, a tanned surfer with sun-bleached hair approached me apprehensively to ask for a bottle opener. “Try wait,” I said, rummaging through my beach bag.
It was barely perceptible, but his face flashed with the comfort of recognition: He was talking to a kama‘aina, a local. After I handed over the bottle opener on my key ring, he had one more question. “You like one beer?”