What It Really Means to Be on Island Time

hawaii time

Growing up, the meaning of “Hawaiian time”—that locals possess a more lax attitude toward punctuality—felt as emblematic of local humor as Lie Hagi and four-tu-tu, tu-tu-tu-tu. Thirty minutes late for the dentist? Hawaiian time.

Cruising into the party two hours after it started? Hawaiian time. Missing a deadline for an essay about Hawaiian time? Hawaiian time. In 2018, T&C Surf Designs even trademarked the phrase “I NOT LATE I STAY ON HAWAIIAN TIME,” which they’ve printed on tank tops, stickers, hoodies, and license-plate frames: a good-natured way of symbolizing what it means to get along on an island chain that ranks first in the country for racial and ethnic diversity, and in the case of Honolulu, within the top 20 for worst traffic in 2019.

But the concept can also be weaponized. My mother, who works at a department store at Ala Moana Center, recently recalled an interaction her co-worker had with an associate from Boston.

“I know you’re on Hawaiian time,” the associate huffed over the phone regarding an incoming package, “but we need it ASAP.” Her implication was clear: You lazy islanders, lounging around with your mai tais and rubber slippers, lack initiative—and by extension, a sense of purpose.

I’ve tilted toward this bias. When people on the continent ask why I moved to New York from Hawai‘i—as if I’d foolishly ejected myself out of a postcard from paradise—my typical response is that life in Honolulu felt too slow. This lethargy felt cultural, the way the belated arrival of an Abercrombie and Fitch store or an NSYNC concert still elicited waves of 7th-grade shock. But it also felt baked into the architecture of the city itself: escalators lagged, yellow traffic lights dawdled, the seasons stretched into one long eternal summer.

As a teenager, I’d watch the ball drop in Times Square through the fuzz of my television, while outside my window the sun had just set. It was 7 p.m. We were five hours late to the party, stuck forever in the past.

Sugarcane Plantations

Hawaiian time is an inflection of “island time,” a term that gained colloquial traction during the U.S. military’s invasion of the Pacific post-World War II. Westerners accustomed to frigid winters and a rigid clock romanticized the idea of an island paradise, where time seemed to melt into a soothing drip.

But beneath that fantasy simmered traces of cultural friction. According to professor Davianna Pōmaika‘i McGregor, a founding member of the ethnic studies department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, this friction was most pronounced during the rise of Hawai‘i’s first corporate industry: the sugarcane plantation.

Plantation owners, who were mostly descendants of missionaries, enforced stringent 10-hour work days that defied the Native Hawaiian approach to planting, which centered around the cycles of the sun and moon and the two seasons, kauwela (the hot season from May to October), and ho‘oilo (the wet season from November to April).

Hawaiian time is an inflection of “island time,” a term that gained colloquial traction during the U.S. military’s invasion of the Pacific post-World War II.

McGregor also points out that capitalistic wage labor contradicted uku pau, a Native Hawaiian system that compensated agricultural workers per job rather than per hour. As a result, journals kept by Kaua‘i’s Ladd and Co., the first commercial sugarcane plantation in Hawai‘i, characterized Native Hawaiian workers as lazy and unmotivated, a stereotype McGregor says erroneously persists today. “It’s not at all a sense of laziness,” she says. “It’s just a different approach to work, a different orientation to planting and cultivating the land.”

James Viernes, a Chamorro scholar from Guam, where the vernacular is “Chamorro time,” stresses the importance of islander urgency. “Whether it’s Hawai‘i or Guam or Samoa, our ancestors really did live and die by time,” he says. “I mean, if you don’t get up and get in that canoe at the right time, you’re going to miss the currents that are going to take you on a successful journey. If you don’t get up on time and plant those seeds, your harvest is not going to feed you.” That understanding of time, dictated by the cycles of nature, is the reason many indigenous cultures see time as circular rather than a straight line. As the outreach director for the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at UH Mānoa, Viernes supervises a lot of students—“all islanders like me”—who shrug off deadlines and show up late for meetings, claiming they’re on island time. He’s grown frustrated with the excuse, calling unexamined usage of the phrase, with its ties to imperialism, “dangerous.”

Gesture of Protest

But he also sees employing “Hawaiian time” as a form of “everyday peasant resistance,” to borrow a phrase from the anthropologist James C. Scott; as a gesture of protest, however small.

“I think the reason we take so much pride in this ‘island time’ is that yeah, it’s funny, but if you really look at it, there is a level of resistance in that term—in saying that, despite all this history of outside influence coming in and dominating us, we’re still insisting on our Hawaiian time, our Chamorro time, our Fijian time,” Viernes says. “An insistence on island time is a way of maintaining island identity.” Through this lens, he continues, embracing Hawaiian time becomes a way for the 50th state to stand outside of an “artificial nationalist American identity where it never existed.” In short, it is a claim to sovereignty.

An insistence on island time is a way of maintaining island identity.

As expected, since I moved to New York nine years ago, my life has moved considerably faster, dictated by the demands of a city that feels single-mindedly oriented toward bigger, shinier, faster. I learned to walk like a New Yorker, lunging perpetually forward despite often not knowing where I was headed, yet feeling guilty anytime I slowed down, guilty anytime I wasn’t participating in the city’s ambient rat race, which was really just a way of staying vaguely afloat. What I mean to say, in the most New York way possible, is that I like it here.

But after returning to New York following a month in Hawai‘i, I can feel myself trying to inhabit two opposing time frames simultaneously—Hawaiian time and a New York minute—as if conducting dueling orchestras, willing them to be one. Pausing an entire hour, even a day, before responding to difficult work email? Island time. Walking the Williamsburg Bridge instead of taking the train? Island time. Seeking spaces that permit reflection in a city forever honking, shuffling, and churning? Island time. After all, Manhattan is an island too.