Stepping off the airplane, I walk along the familiar concrete path at the Honolulu airport. I take a breath. The air in Hawai‘i always feels surprisingly dense when it hits my lungs. Within the first day, my body achieves equilibrium with the windy, warm air, reminding me that I’m home.
My dad picks me up from the airport, and as we drive to Pauoa, it crosses my mind that everything is so green. The mountains, the trees, the weeds on the side of the road. When did I stop expecting things to look so alive? Living in Los Angeles can be so intoxicating, I realize, that only when you step away do you grasp how much the noise and traffic and infrastructure had enveloped you.
My Lyft driver to LAX airport, upon finding out that I was from Honolulu, had exclaimed, “You’re so lucky you’re from paradise!” I winced and gave my compulsory response: “It’s not what you think. People struggle there, too.” But I know that a part of me buys into that storyline. I look forward to returning because I also believe that it’s sort of utopic. I feel this sense of utopia most in those moments when Mom helps me with laundry. When I go to a beach that hasn’t been claimed by tourists and listen to grains of sand dancing underwater. When I see old friends and reminisce about how funny we were when we were small.
But every time I return, I also feel like I’m searching for evidence of some misplaced, simpler version of myself. This girl who takes the bus to Walls from Kalani High School, asks for extra adzuki on her Waiola Shave Ice, believes in the binary of Good™ and Bad™, grabs tightly wrapped musubi from the place that later became Domino’s on Ala Moana Boulevard, comes home after school to watch Gossip Girl, and dreams about what it must be like on The Mainland. She slurps down Uncle Clay’s Icees (before they got healthy), folds plumeria petals back onto themselves to make accessories, and feels grounded and small and magical when she gazes at all the stars in the sky.
Home is where we were raised, where we learn to walk, swim, play. Where our first laughs bubble out of our tiny mouths. It’s where I learned to draw. But home is never perfect. Home, wherever that is for you, is also where we experience our first loss, our first heartbreak, and the first time we feel like we don’t quite fit in. This version of myself that I remember, she also doesn’t think that she’s ever going to be good enough, or that anyone on this island will understand her.
The thing about utopias is that they don’t exist. They are something to aspire to, or maybe they are merely memories of fleeting joy that tether you to the possibility of finding them again. As much as I try to resolve the difference between this idealized memory of home and the present experience of it, there is a part of me that doesn’t actually want this resolution. I like that I can reach into my back pocket and touch this glimmer of utopia. I close my eyes, roll the window down to feel the warm breeze, and put a piece of li hing on my tongue. The salty sugars remind me of innocence, of a time when things were simpler, if not perfect. Maybe that is just enough.