Probably almost everyone in the US knows aloha. When you say, what is aloha, everyone knows it means “hello” in Hawaiian. It’s Hawaiian for “hello”. Some really sharp tools will add, “and goodbye,” to that little synopsis. As a bonus. It means “hello” and “goodbye.”
So, if you know me at all by now, you could probably guess that I’m setting you up for disappointment. It doesn’t mean “hello.” It actually doesn’t have a direct English translation. Instead you need many words–love, compassion, affection, kindness, gratitude, forgiveness, mercy–to begin to convey what aloha means. It is deeply significant to Hawaiians, embodied in native culture as both a force of nature and an expression of humanity. Our language as no such word. Neither does French or German or Spanish, as far as I’m aware.
It is also widespread across Polynesia, with aloha being recognized in the languages of Tahitian, Samoan, and Maori people, among others. Its usage today as a common greeting seems mostly limited to Hawaii, but the underlying importance of aloha is near universal as a developed concept across an enormous tract of the Pacific Ocean. I guess it’s kind of like the Trinity… or the Force. But it does not mean “hey sup”.
Let me attempt to drive the significance home with a short ghost story that a native friend told me recently:
Let’s say you’re walking at night. Or driving. And you may come across a woman dressed in white, with a haunting glow around her that cannot be attributed to the moonlight. She may seem to be in distress, or lost, or she may simply be standing there, minding her business. If you’re driving, she might remain in your rear-view mirror for a long time, or god forbid, appear in the bed of your truck, or the back seat of your car. You are, according to Hawaiians, supposed to not freak out and drive off a cliff, but instead show the woman aloha. Offer her something to eat, ask her if she is alright. Ask her if you can help her. Be kind to her–demonstrate compassion or care. If you don’t, they say, she will kill you. Within in 24 hours, technically, but for some reason I just imagine you getting blasted on the spot.
Now, here’s where, for me, it gets a little muddy. They say this white, glowing woman is one of the forms of Pele, better known as the Hawaiian volcano goddess, responsible for the creation and destruction of the islands. I do not yet understand the hierarchy of Hawaiian mythology, but I know there are gods plural. I do not know exactly how Pele stacks up against the others, but my hunch is that she’s pretty important. And if you see her in this form, wandering around Oahu or Maui or any of the other islands, you better roll out the fricken welcome wagon.
Apparently, this story is told to almost all Hawaiian children growing up. I love it so much because, a) it scared the shit out of me. I refused to look out of my window the rest of the night, for fear of seeing the white woman at a time I was feeling particularly introverted, and b) it begins to demonstrate the legacy and importance of aloha to an outsider like myself. It is a force of both life and death, and it defines humanity’s purpose in between those two events. So, I don’t know, maybe the next time you come to Hawaii, or meet a Hawaiian person, or meet anyone, you can say to them aloha just the same as you would before, but carry in your heart this time a piece of the compassion or significance it represents. It ensures nothing be lost in translation. So, thank you for reading as always, and, of course, until next time…