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10 Things You Didn’t Know About: Hawaii

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Hawaii is known for it’s pristine beaches, tropical climate, vibrant culture, booming tourism industry, and unique flora and fauna, but there is another side to this place that outsiders tend not to know about. On a recent visit to Hawaii, Tiffany Zappulla dove into some of the less publicized aspects of this vacation epicenter, and came back with list of ten things we stand to learn about the Aloha State.

10. The popular local food is exceedingly unhealthy

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Individuals born in Hawaii have the longest life expectancy of those in any other state, but it’s probably not due to “Hawaiian” delicacies. Fortunately, the melting pot of cultures – Filipino and Japanese are the most dominant ethnic groups before non-Hispanic whites – has introduced an array of fresh Asian cuisine to the islands, but if you’re ever invited out to Zippy’s (a popular, exclusively-Hawaiian diner and take-out hub), expect to have some Spam in your meal.

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Despite fresh fruits and raw fish being a stone throw away in most communities, locals flock to local food establishments for Spam musubis (basically, Spam sushi), run-of-the-mill macaroni salad, extra-processed “hamburger steak”, and curry that is bound to look the same going out as it did going in. Zippy’s is famous for a spaghetti covered in meat sauce that is more or less equivalent to Chef Boyardee. Other island favorites include fatty Portuguese sausage and malasadas (custard-filled pastries). On a diet like this, don’t expect to make strides on your “beach body” regimen anytime soon!

9. Not all is paradise in paradise

While Hawaii’s GDP is almost entirely sustained by tourism, it’s also a place where . . . you know, people actually LIVE. And, just like any other place, it has crime, poverty, and “shady” areas. Five-O primarily saunters around Chinatown on Oahu and tourist spots like Waikiki. Property crimes make up the highest proportion of crime statistics, and military towns such as Schofield Barracks and Kaneohe Station are infamous for such incidents.

Likewise, with great wealth comes great poverty. Accounting for the state’s high cost of living, Hawaii ranks 7th in the United States for poverty, and more than 10% of the population lives below the poverty line. Amid a glittering swath of luxury hotels and resorts lies the working-class sector that gives massages, mixes Mai Tais, and de-litters beaches. There are a handful of beggars on the streets of heavily-populated areas, and locals are wise to cover valuables even in locked cars (and even stow them in boats when they are on the ocean). Without proper security, living in paradise comes at a cost.

8. It is the only state with universal health care

If you have ever worked in mainland USA, it’s common sense that as a part-timer, you’ll never see health benefits from your employer. Workers who’ve transitioned from the mainland to the Hawaiian Islands for work, in contrast, must have thought they landed in Oz: Hawaiian law mandates that employers provide health insurance coverage to all workers employed more than 20 hours per week.

Yes, believe it or not, the Hawaii state government actually cares about the health of its citizens. That’s not to say that employers don’t try to skirt the issue – many of them are simply cutting hours to less than 20 per employee – but state regulations on insurance companies keep the cost to employers low and an emphasis on preventive care keeps Hawaiians healthy, making a much more efficient and cost-effective system that employers are less willing to turn down (especially if it means they’ll have long-term, healthy, happy employees). As a result, more than 90% of Hawaiian residents have health insurance, and live longer than those of any other state.

7. There’s actually a “Pearl” in Pearl Harbor….sort of

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When I first visited Pearl Harbor and saw the above structure, I thought: “A-ha! So THIS is what the famous harbor was named for!” Unfortunately, it’s not a giant pearl, nor is it even a statue of a pearl. I was surprised to learn that this seemingly appropriate epithet had no relation to the structure, which is nothing more than a radar station. SBX, or Sea-Based X-Band Radar, is a floating radar system that was originally ported in Alaska before visiting Pearl Harbor for repairs in 2009 and has been there ever since. The trinket is owned by the Missile Defense Agency and was built atop a modified oil rig which spans the size of two football fields, and is, apparently, the most advanced X-Band radar system in the world.

So what’s with the golf ball-esque design? The radome (radar + dome = radome…who knew?) is made of synthetic material that protects the radar from winds of up to 130mph. Oh, and the radar itself kind of looks like something out of Transformers.

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Speaking of that, the array not only tracks incoming threats, but executes a launch of its own ballistic missile from Fort Greely at suspected targets. Once the SBX ensures that the missile is on the right trajectory, the missile launches an Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle to obliterate the incoming warhead. Suddenly, visiting Pearl Harbor just got a whole lot cooler, even if it is just to see a giant golf ball.

6. There are fir trees, ranches, roosters…

…Even horses and cows.

They are by no means plentiful, but yes Virginia…you CAN cut your own Christmas Tree (on Helemano Farms, in Wahiawa). An impressive swath of firs whizzes by you on Kamehameha Highway on the way towards the North Shore of Oahu, and Kualoa, a 4,000-acre cattle ranch on the eastern end of the island is famous for its burgers (and its tours of Jurassic Park filming sites). A cowboy hat is not what vacationers typically plan to don at the islands, but think about it: where there are mountains, there must be valleys. You might even be better off ordering a steak (perhaps at Alan Wong’s Restaurant, an Obama favorite) in Hawaii than anywhere else – the meat is far less likely to have been tainted with antibiotics or hormones.

5. Most of your vacation will be spent in traffic

Just like back home! The reason is simple: Oahu, if it were its own state, would have the third-highest population density of any state in America. Even including the other islands, which are more or less vacant, Hawaii as a whole ranks 13th in population density. The bigger issue, though, is that the entire island of Oahu operates on far fewer roads than its density competitors (which are New Jersey and Washington, D.C.). The three major ones, which you will need to hop on at some point (like everyone else) to get anywhere from or to Honolulu, are aptly named H1, H2, and H3. The other highways, such as Nimitz, Pali, Kamehameha, and – my personal favorite – the Likelike, run mostly around the island’s perimeter. The entire Oahu road system basically looks like a subway map for a small city.

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Oahu roads

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New Jersey roads

You can easily tell from the comparison photo above that, if you are stuck on H1, not many alternate routes exist. While there are plans to rebuild the now-defunct urban rail system, the only other public transit option that exists is The Bus (the literal name of the Oahu bus system) which, since buses have to wait in traffic too, leaves you back at the drawing board.

Think you can dodge traffic by making an escape to the other islands? You can, but remember that you’ll be doing so in exchange for driving around terrifying mountain ridges on “4×4-only” roads. And may God help you if you run out of gas…

4. The flora is just as alive as the fauna

As evidenced by the above video of some mimosa pudica plants, or “Shy Grass.” Guaranteed to keep the kids (or adults who might as well be kids) occupied for hours. It’s like a never-ending game of wack-a-mole!

3. Everything on Oahu is “Honolulu”

You may have read that Hawaii has the most unified school system in the United States. This is because all 283 schools in Hawaii are part of the state school system – no school has its own separate district. Likewise, the entire island of Oahu is unified politically, and the entire island is part of Honolulu County.

This came to my attention as I became expressly confused when locals started referring to certain cities on the island – Pearl City, Aiea, Hawaii-kai – as being IN Honolulu. Honolulu, you see, is not just the name of the capital city, it’s the name of the whole county…and the whole county is the entire island of Oahu. Thus, when locals choose to completely drop the “city” part of the address and merely list “Honolulu,” a non-native has practically no idea where to find the place on the entire island. In fact, some territories and towns even have similar names ACROSS islands. Put “Waimea” rather than “Waimea Falls” into a GPS and you will end up on an entirely different island (in your fantasies, prior to drowning).

The island is divided into nine different administrative districts, all a part of what is called the Honolulu Consolidated City-County, making Honolulu City a merged entity, not a separate territory. Such a form of consolidation is not rare in the United States – Philadelphia is the largest city-county – but the amalgamation seems more perplexing for Hawaii, because Honolulu City is frequently marketed to as a city, as the municipality’s boundaries are irrelevant for purposes of tourism.

2. Caucasians are a minority

According to the 2010 Census, only 22% of Hawaii’s population identifies itself as non-Hispanic white. Such a staggering contrast to the mainland makes for an interesting composition of social issues, including some incidents of racism, reverse-style. Cases of school bullying have been reported, and the last day of school – especially outside the island of Oahu, which has the most ethnic variation – is commonly referred to as “Kill Haole (Foreigners) Day.”

The history of native Hawaiians mirrors that of Native American Indians on the mainland. Their homeland was invaded and annexed by a foreign society, planting long-lasting seeds of bitterness and resentment, but they are far more populous and less marginalized than Native American Indians, giving them more sway in the political and legal domains.

That is not to say that if you are white and visit Hawaii you’ll be beaten up and spit upon. Arrogance goes a long way to fuel hate crime. Ride the tour bus with dignity and respect, grasshopper, and the aloha spirit will follow.

1. You’ve been pronouncing everything wrong

Most importantly, the very word, “Hawaii”…which is actually pronounced “Havaii.” Sadly, the Likelike Highway isn’t pronounced as it looks, but rather induces memories of troubled faucets (“Leak-eh Leak-eh”). “Aloha” is also probably one of the least used words among locals. “Mahalo”, the word for “Thank You,” is used more commonly than the latter. And let us not forget the indispensable laundry list of pidgin terms that any visitor would find most useful:

  • Sandals and flip-flops are “slippers”
  • “Shaved” ice is “shave ice”
  • “Brah,” a term of endearment, used at the end of a phrase like some on the mainland would use “man” (“Welcome back, brah”)
  • “Humbug,” used as an adjective when something is disappointing (“It’s too windy to surf…that’s humbug”)
  • “Junk,” not to be confused with “Humbug,” used to describe something undesirable. Also used as an adjective, not a noun: “The waves are kind of junk today, huh?”

You might find other terms listed in travel guides, but those listed above are the most common. Therefore, don’t going throwing around the term “Ohana” as if you know what it means, because you’ll only look even more like a haole. Know what I mean, brah?

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Filed under: Hawaii, Lists, USA

About the Author:

Tiffany Zappulla is VagabondJourney.com’s Korea correspondent and travel tech reviewer. She pinched pennies throughout college, sacrificing parties, treats, and occasionally even food so she could start traveling to foreign lands. So far she’s toured Scotland, Spain, and Japan (twice) on a budget, and spent three years living in South Korea actively engaged in the culture and lifestyle. Aside from her qualifications in ESL, Tiffany does other freelance writing and odd jobs. She is currently living the broke American life for awhile before deciding on her next adventure. Connect with her on Google+. has written 31 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.