For a short time in my first year on this island, I lived in a dorm in Waikiki. The experience was bittersweet. I was miserable in my environment, but I also learned things about myself that ideal situations wouldn’t necessarily have revealed.
I had a small lanai. According to the house rules, we weren’t allowed to leave anything — furniture, clothing, towels, accessories — out there. Still, shortly after moving in, I began to dry my laundry on a rack on the lanai because the laundry room was constantly busy and at least three of the six dryers were regularly labeled with a handwritten “Out of Order” note.
I knew that a resident assistant would eventually come knocking on my door to inform me of my rule violation, so before answering the door I pulled my laundry off the lanai and hid it in the closet. When she asked if I had anything on my lanai, I would dutifully show her my empty lanai. In this way, I avoided all citations and fines concerning unapproved objects on the lanai. It was a small triumph, but a necessary one for my spirit at the time.
My version of squalor began the moment I landed on O’ahu and was taken to my new home. I looked out of the shuttle window in wide-eyed wonder at the streets of Waikiki. Kalakaua Avenue was bursting at the seams at every corner, tourists spilling out into the four-way intersections. Designer shops lined the hand-laid stone sidewalks, and street entertainers loudly announced their feats to the passersby, hoping to attract a crowd that would fill their hats sitting expectantly on the sidewalks.
The shuttle driver looked back at me and smiled, “So! Not what you were expecting, yah?”
I suddenly realized how surprised my face probably looked. “Oh, yeah, I mean I didn’t know what to expect really. I’ve never been to the Islands. I didn’t even look anything up online actually.” I smiled feebly, hoping my dismay didn’t show through.
“Really? Well you gon’ have so much fun you know. Dis great place to live, and you be in da heart of night life, yah?” The shuttle driver confidently commanded me to enjoy my new adventure just as we turned onto the new street I would call home.
Kuhio Avenue was bustling in a different way than Kalakaua. People hurried toward their bus stops in hotel uniforms while young people scattered across intersections. The street was mostly shops and hotels again, but the stark contrast between one block over and Kuhio was heavy and pungent. It smelled different, dirty. There were more bars, and eager hustlers every twenty feet forced cheesy flyers into your hand.
It was dark out already, but there were so many people out it could have been the middle of the day. I knew I was moving into an apartment in Waikiki, available only for student housing. I knew I would be able to catch the number 13 bus right in front of my apartment and take it directly to the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, which was about two miles away. Beyond that I was going in cold.
I had done almost zero research on this new city I was moving in to, the island of O’ahu, or even my university to be quite honest. The apartment building was big, about twenty stories, but it had only two elevators, each with its own habit of quitting on you whenever it pleased. This happened often, usually when I had just returned home from grocery shopping and had my arms full.
I walked into my apartment – read: room – and set my bags down on the floor. My heart sank. Literally, I felt my soul darkening as I walked the very small perimeter and checked out my new inhabitance. The building was once a hotel, and each room had been remodeled to include a studio-size kitchenette. The front door grazed the four-top stove and oven as you entered the room. Whoever had redesigned this place should have received an award for making the most of every square inch.
Adjacent to the kitchenette was the bathroom, which ironically was bigger than the space allotted for cooking and eating. After viewing the entirety of the place in approximately 30 seconds, I saw the first cockroach in my kitchen sink. Needless to say, I screamed. After drowning it, or at least forcing it back down the pipe at least a mile away, I marched down to the front desk where the resident assistant was lazily spooning Cup O’ Noodles into her large mouth.
“Um, do you guys have roaches here?” I nervously tried to make it sound like a casual, though completely foreign to me, question.
“We have the place professionally exterminated. But it is an old building so occasionally one pops through. Why, you see one? How big?” She said all this while carefully twirling her noodles around in the cup, preparing her next bite.
The management had someone spray my room the next morning, and this kept them at bay temporarily. Over the next six months, my roommate or I would often see a roach, I would complain to the front desk, and the maintenance guy would rescue the haole in distress. This became almost a monthly routine.
The paramount slice of my experience at the Ohana, very adeptly named to lure us in to their Hawaiian family, was by far my roommate. Yes, a literal roommate. We were two women in our early twenties sharing a single room. This girl was one of the most peculiar people I’m sure I will ever meet.
I often used to wonder if God knew I needed some humor to keep my spirits up and my homesickness at bay when I first arrived on the island. This girl subsisted solely on candy bars. I would wake up to the sound of crinkling wrappers and constantly find them in the trash when I came home from classes. Naturally, this perpetuated the roach problem. She also stayed very thin and had an amazing complexion, which may have been the most annoying part.
The Ohana also had a pool, which students rarely frequented for swimming but readily used as a trash bin for bottles and used condoms, tossed from lanais on weekend nights. The lobby was guarded by the resident assistant, who would take breaks from eating behind the desk to bark at kids who frequently loitered on the front steps of the building.
A giant fish tank sat on a table near the elevators, pitifully void of life most of the time. One of the consequences of choosing to live at the Ohana was that they made it financially unwise to move out. Breaking of leases or changing roommates resulted in severe fees. As someone who had always prided myself on a general attitude of persevering through adversity, I stuck with it.
I spent a lot of time at the beach, the gym, and at the university library. I skipped meals so as not to have to deal with the preparations in such a confined area. I shared a shower with far too many cockroaches.
Looking back at my first few months at the Ohana, I realize I squandered away too much of my precious time in Hawai’i feeling sorry for myself. In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison asks, “But was it really like that? As painful as I remember? Only mildly. Or rather it was a productive and fructifying pain.” For me, it was mild growing pains and a price I would readily pay again if it means being where I am today.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Holt, 1970.