Maui

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Tom Vendetti

 

Meet Tom Vendetti, a Maui-based psychologist and filmmaker who has turned a series of unexpected life twists into two intertwined careers. He shares how his unlikely journey has unfolded, all driven by his quest for happiness.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Dec. 1, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Tom Vendetti Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

People often say to me: When you go to Tibet or Nepal, do you have culture shock? I say: No, the shock is coming back here.  And I truly mean that.

 

Meet a man from Maryland who became a mental health professional and advocate on Maui, and also produced about thirty films, so far.  We’ll show you how his unlikely journey unfolded, and what he’s learned along the way about the search for happiness, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing individuals over a period of decades, and I’m still struck by how often the element of chance plays a role in remarkable life stories.  The man you’re about to meet is no exception.  In fact, serendipity is a recurring theme in the story of Dr. Tom Vendetti, of Wailuku, Maui.  This psychologist and Emmy-winning filmmaker turned a series of unexpected twists into two intertwined careers that have enabled him to do good in the world, while pursuing his personal quest for happiness.  On this edition of Long Story Short, we learn how Tom Vendetti’s lifetime of journeys add up to the journey of a lifetime.

 

You were adventurous.  You were hitchhiking far away at age, what, seventeen.  You were heading out with your thumb and friends, and going to rock concerts, and spring break and other experiences.

 

Yeah; I always had this drive to see the world.  And surprisingly, my parents were okay with that.  But it was nothing for me to hitchhike to New York and see the play Hair, or go to a rock concert in Indiana, or even New Orleans to the Mardi Gras.

 

Did you start working early?

 

I started working right out of high school.  Primarily, it was during the Vietnam War days, and I was going to be drafted.  So, I applied for a conscientious objector status, and I only had a couple weeks before I was going to be shipped off, so the clock was ticking; right?  So, anyway, I went in front of this panel, and it was community members, some clergy, and military, and they just interrogated me, this kid, eighteen years old.  You dong love your country?  You don’t want to fight for your country?  And I tried to explain to them that it’s not that I wouldn’t want to fight for my country.  I would; it’s just this particular war that I didn’t believe in.  And within a couple weeks, the letter came, and it said that I was still 1A active, going to be, you know, drafted.  My mother said: I can’t believe that this is happening.  I said: Well, Mom, it’s happening.  She goes: I think it’s a mistake.  I said: Come on, Mom, they don’t make mistakes like that.  She said: Well, I’m gonna call them tomorrow and see.  And I was working construction with my father at the time, so we went to work.  And then when I came home, she took this sheet and put it out in the front of the house, and must have taken a spray can or something, put one, zero on it, which meant conscientious objector.  And I walk in the house and said: Mom, what’s going on? And she said: Well, it was a mistake; they made a typographical error.

 

Wow.  That’s a huge error.

 

That’s a huge error.  And again, I was just elated.  And because of that, though, I still had to serve my country for two years.  So, I had to find a job in the helping field either, you know, doing community service or something.  And that’s where I got a job working at Sheppard Pratt Hospital as a psychiatric aide.  And at the time, I had no interest in psychology.  Which again, it just opened this door up that I’ve been, you know, doing my whole adult life.

 

And you ended up getting a PhD.

 

PhD, and I also got a master’s degree in clinical social work from the University of Maryland.  After that, I decided to move from Maryland to Flagstaff, Arizona.  Back then, there were very few services for the mentally ill, so we created a program for them that got a lot of attention.  And a lot of that attention came from a program called Adventure Discovery, where we would take the mentally ill people hiking and on river trips, and things like that.

 

Why?

 

Well, again, there was some research coming out at the time that it was very therapeutic.  And we actually did some testing to verify it, which started my film career, by the way. We took ten mentally ill people on the San Juan River, and prior to doing that we did some pre and post tests for anxiety and depression.  The filming part came where I asked a friend of mine who bought a new camera back then. We did our testing, and made this documentary film, and the research that we did showed that not only the clients benefited, that the depression dropped and anxiety, but also the staff.

 

That is interesting, because what you’re telling me is that by seeking not to fight in Vietnam, it led you to your career and to your vocational passion.

 

Right; exactly.  So, I came back, and I put this film together.  And then, I became hooked.  So, I was the kid that was very shy in school.  You know.  I would know answers to questions, and wouldn’t raise my hand.  And when I realized through film that I could actually communicate, because I had a lot to say, you know, that this was my ticket for achieving that.

 

At the same time he was building his psychology career and developing his passion for filmmaking, Tom Vendetti yearned to see the world.  And that’s what first brought him to Hawaii, initially drawn to the Big Island of Hawaii because of his fascination with mountains.

 

It gets back to my early hitchhiking days.  I always wanted to see the world.  I had a girlfriend at the time, and we decided that we were going to travel around the world.  The first stop was Hawai‘i. So, we arrived in Hilo, because of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.  We ended up spending two years there, because, you know, we needed to make some money. So we started one of the first halfway houses for the mentally ill over there, which is part of the Mental Health Kokua system right now.  And then after we got the money, we ended up in New Zealand.  And someone at that point said: Where are you going next?  I said: Well, I really love mountains.  They said: Well, you need to go see Mount Everest.  I said: Where is Mount Everest?

 

You didn’t know where Mount Everest was.

 

No; I was so naïve.

 

And look at where much of your life has been focused now.

 

That’s right.  I had clue. And they said: Well, you have to go to Katmandu, and Nepal.  And I said: All right.  And it was May.  The monsoons came in a little early that year, so people were saying: You shouldn’t go up to Mount Everest; you’re not going to see anything.  You know, there’ll be too many clouds, and be socked in. I said: Well, I came all this way; I’m gonna go anyway.  On the plane, there was this man sitting in front of me, and he was in English, kinda broken English, pointing out all of the mountains.  And I noticed a lot of other people were paying attention to him, like he was somewhat knowledgeable.  But I didn’t pay much attention to it.  And then, when we got off the plane, he and his daughter walked up to me and said: Where are you going?  I said: I’m going to Mount Everest.  He said: Well, would you mind if walk with you?  And I thought he just wanted to practice his English, or something. As I look back at it, I am sure he was, you know, trying to protect me and take care of me.  But as we were walking on the trail, people were just going: Namaste!  Almost in reverence to this individual.  And then finally, I heard someone say: That’s Tenzing Norgay.  I went: Tenzing Norgay?

 

He was a Mount Everest rockstar.

 

He was. And in that part of the world, he was a hero, you know.

 

Because he was the Sherpa who went up Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary.

 

Tenzing Norgay and Hillary were the first two people to summit Mount Everest. So, when I heard that, I said: What are you doing here?  He said: Well, I’m on my way to meet Hillary; National Geographic is doing a thirty-year special about us summiting the mountain.  Would you like to be my guest?  And I said: Of course.  For a week, you know, we hung out together.  And then, when we were getting up to Kunjan, where Hillary was, first they walked up and embraced; the cameras were going, and so forth.  And then, he introduced Peter—that’s Hillary’s son, was there and then, Deki, Norgay’s daughter.  And then he said: I want you to meet my friend Tom.  And here I am, shaking hands with Hillary, going: What is this all about? Right?  And then, from that day on, it just changed my whole life, and I’ve been going back now for thirty years.

 

So, you were living on the Big Island, went away to see the world.  And then, what?  How’d you get back?

 

Then, I ended up back in Flagstaff.  And when I returned, I got a job at the Guidance Center again.  My girlfriend and I split up at the time, and my wife Nancy was also getting a divorce from her husband.  She was working there, so, it all seemed to kinda click at the same time.  And then, we fell in love.  And we decided to get married on Maui.  When we got back to Flagstaff, we started contemplating the idea of moving to Hawai‘i.  Before we knew it, we applied for jobs, landed them, and we’ve been living on Maui now for twenty-six years.

 

And did you say she’s in the same …

 

Yeah; she’s a clinical social worker.  We’re very happily married, and it’s been a good thing for me.

 

Among Tom Vendetti’s talents is a background in music.  This expertise serves him well in filmmaking, helping him to craft just the right mood for each project, as well as build bonds with exceptional composers and musicians.

 

In high school, I understand, you were not just a jock; you were a band geek, I think is the expression people use.  You did both.

 

Yeah; I played the trumpet from third grade all the way into college, and was on the Baltimore Colt marching band.  So, I got to see my heroes Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry back in those days, which was quite thrilling for me.

 

And that’s another of the things you discovered early in life, that you continued on.  Music has just been a continuing theme, and you use it in all of your productions.

 

Yes.

 

Original music, too.

 

And in terms of editing, that’s my favorite part; putting the music to the scenery, especially beautiful scenery like, you know, the Himalayas and so forth. And I was so thrilled to have Keola Beamer, you know, work on this latest film.  We went to Katmandu, and he had the opportunity to record original music with seven local Nepalese, you know, musicians.  And it was just fascinating to watch, and also beautiful to listen to.  And it literally brought the film to life, as far as I’m concerned.

 

I wasn’t surprised to find out that they had partnered with you, because when Keola was a guest on this program years ago, he told me that he had become a Buddhist.

 

Right.

 

And that his mother, you know, Auntie Nona Beamer, had become a Buddhist, and they both said it was very Hawaiian in its values.

 

Right. Yeah.  Being around Keola Beamer and Moana as friends, again, that’s such a treasure, something that I, you know, love both of them dearly.

 

[MUSIC]

 

And who’s Paul Horn?

 

Paul Horn is a very famous flautist, flutist.  He’s known as the father of New Age music.  He’s a Grammy Award winner and has probably forty-six albums out. And he passed away not too long ago, but he literally said: Tom, if you ever want to use any of my music, it’s yours. We became that close over the years.

 

You traveled with him quite a bit.

 

Yeah. We traveled to Tibet.  I think it was 1992, I asked Paul, because he had played in the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids, if he would like to play in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.  He said: Man, if you can make that happen, we’re there.  And I said: Okay.  And believe it or not, we pulled it off.  And that was my first documentary film, Journey Inside Tibet, that was picked up by PBS Plus.

 

Which is one of the programming streams on PBS.

 

Yes.

 

[MUSIC]

 

So, I needed to find someone to narrate that; right?  And I always really liked Kris Kristofferson.  He was a person that I looked up to.  And I knew that he lived on Maui.  So, I had a VHS tape of what I shot, and the music, but I didn’t know Kris’ address.  But I, again, knew that he was on Maui.  Put it all in a package, and I wrote: To Kris Kristofferson, Hana, Hawai‘i, without a zip code.   ‘Cause I was fairly new to Maui at the time.  Put it in the mail, and several weeks later, I get this call from this man, Vernon White.  He happened to be Kris’ manager, and he was calling from L.A.  He said: Kris said he’ll do it.  I thought it was a friend joking, or something.

 

 

I said: Do what?  You know. He said: He’ll narrate your your film.  And I said: Really?  And I said: Well, how much will it cost?  ‘Cause Kris Kristofferson.  He says: How much money do you have?  I said: I don’t have anything.

 

He said: That’s what it will cost you.

 

Oh …

 

Yeah. And Kris came over to Kīhei, sat in the recording studio and did that, and was so gracious, and it was humbling for me to be in his presence, that again, it just kept me wanting to make more films, especially after it got on PBS.

 

I think you’re the first filmmaker I’ve ever met who doesn’t raise funds, but who earns the money in another job and pays for it himself.

 

Right.

 

That’s a lot of money, that’s a lot of travel bucks.

 

It is. But I would be doing it anyway. Traveling, doing it my whole life.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

With psychology, of course, I had to go to college and get degrees, and so forth. But I’m self-taught when it comes to filmmaking.  So, put a lot of energy into it, and again, it’s just a passion that I love doing, and it’s become a voice for me.  So, it fills that need, too.  The editing part became more like therapy for me.  It was extremely therapeutic.  Because of the content and the people, you know, that I interviewed and so forth, hearing their words, and then getting to relive it again through the images, you know, that I shot, I never considered it, even to this day, being work.  The bottom line with making the film was, like I said, I would get a bunch of friends and we would make it slash, vacation shoot.  My wife has been very supportive in that too; Nancy.  In fact, she’s gone on all of these journeys with me.  She loves the outdoors, she loves hiking and trekking, and so forth.  So, we invite friends.  And hopefully, you know, I have a plan, an idea in mind in terms of what I was trying to tell, in terms of the story.  In places like Nepal and Tibet, if you go in with a fixed plan, you’re really setting yourself up for disappointment.  You need to be open and just kinda let it all unfold.  And if you do that, it’s amazing; it often turns out better than the original plan.

 

Is that right?

 

At least, that’s been my experience.  Yeah.

 

So, you don’t create at least a Plan B first?

 

In that part of the world, it’s better not to be that attached to anything.

Oh, that’s interesting.  That sounds very Buddhist of you.

 

It’s very Buddhist.  Buddhism and even today’s world of psychology just go hand-in-hand.  If you get into a lot of what the Dalai Lama says about negative thoughts and, you know, and so forth, that’s cognitive behavioral therapy, that’s what therapists do.

 

Training yourself not to have negative thoughts.

 

Exactly.  And reframing things in a positive light, along with the buzzword in psychology now is mindfulness.  It’s a Buddhist term; right?  I could relate to that on both levels.  This last trip that we took with the Beamers in Nepal to film Tibetan Illusion Destroyer was about exactly what I’m talking about.  They have a festival up there every year called the Mani Rimdu Festival with the purpose of destroying illusions, thoughts, or you know, the way you perceive things, that lead to human suffering.

 

Tom Vendetti of Maui has seen plenty of that suffering through several decades practicing psychology, as well as fighting to improve Hawaii’s mental health services. And then, came a time when his own mental and physical health was challenged with a diagnosis of prostate cancer.

 

Basically, when I found out that ninety-nine percent of my prostate had cancer in it, it was like being hit in the head with a two-by-four, a wakeup call.

 

How old were you?

 

Fifty-five.

 

You were fifty-five.

 

So, I went and had the radioactive seeds, a hundred and twenty-two of them, put in my prostate.  And at that time, I got pretty depressed, to be honest with you.  I was lying in bed, and I said: I need to go Nepal—I was talking to my wife, even though I felt kinda weak and so forth.  But I just said I needed to go to there.  When I got up into the mountains, it was that quiet time again, and being able to hike and be into nature that just brought me back to life. In fact, that’s when I made When the Mountain Calls, on that journey, and reflecting on all of these … you know, the thirty years of my travels in Nepal.  I’ll never forget; when I got back from basecamp, I made it all the way there and back.  I was in Lukla again at that airport.  And I called my wife, and she said: I’ve never heard you sound so happy.

 

I felt a true sense of inner peace, true happiness.  I contemplated the meaning behind all the wonderful experiences I’ve had, and of how the mountains kept calling me.  They have taught me that life’s magic is always right here in front of us.

 

Well, there, they base it on four pillars.  One is an honest, transparent government.  Another one is respecting nature.  And they basically say if you get up in an environment where all the trees are cut down, and the rivers are polluted, you’re not going to be happy. The other one is preserving culture. That’s something that they cherish in Bhutan, and they don’t want to lose it with Western influence.  And the other one is economic stability.

 

Stability; not growth, but stability.

 

Yeah. There have been many, many studies saying that above your basic needs being met, happiness improves a little bit above that with income, but beyond that, there’s no correlation at all.

 

Income doesn’t bring you more happiness.

 

Exactly right.  And when I went over to the Bhutan initially, I was very skeptical.  I thought: Is this for real?  But I came back a believer, and I think it could be a model for the world. In different places, like Norway and that part of the world, they’ve embraced it.  But in terms of Western capitalistic types of societies, we have a long way to go if we want to take that on.  But that film won an Emmy too, which was kinda cool, you know.

 

You came home as an Emmy-winning filmmaker.

 

Yeah, yeah.  That was surreal.  You know, when you’re sitting in the audience and you’re thinking: Well, I didn’t have anything really prepared.  But when the spotlight hit me, I thought: Oh, my god.  I walked up, and there were these two big, giant television screens; right? And I looked up and saw myself up there.

 

I just kind of focused on one person in front of me and started talking.

 

Because you’re the filmmaker who wants to be on the other side of the camera.

 

Exactly right.  Here’s the kid who didn’t want to put his hand up in school, you know.

 

You know, I know that that airport that you went to at Everest is very small.  But what are the chances, you know, that you’d get together with the Sherpa who summited Everest with Sir Hillary?

 

See, that’s really an interesting question.  I wasn’t one of those people that just thought things happened by chance. But I’ve come to the conclusion, and it took me a long time to get here, that things do happen.  Again, it can be on a spiritual level, or it can be on a different plane than this objective level.  And that was a real awakening for me.  And that’s the only way I can explain meeting, you know, Norgay up there, and Hillary.  You know, when I walked away from that experience, I was thinking again, you can’t explain these things.  You know, you just gotta be open to ‘em.

 

What do you make of it?  Because you know, we hear stories that appear to be accidents and random chance all the time.  But these happenings take people to places they otherwise never would have gone.

 

Part of what I learned is that, number one, you need to show up.  Just simply put yourself in a situation to allow things to happen.  And if you do that, they often do.  It’s something that, you know, you can’t necessarily measure.  It’s got to be probably more on a spiritual level that I’m trying to get in tune with.

 

Have you found a spiritual path?  Are you still deciding?

 

I’m always going to be on that path.  I’d be the first to say that I really don’t know what’s going on.  I’m still working towards that so-called enlightenment or nirvana, or whatever, however, whatever term you want to put it in.

 

Have you stopped going back there now?

 

To uh …

 

To the Himalayas.

 

No; in fact, I just got back.

 

Oh; okay, then. 

 

When I had the opportunity to film His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, a few years back, I asked him what the significance of Mount Kailash was.  So, I’m making a film right now that’s focusing on three areas—preserving the Tibetan culture in China was the first question, the second one was the significance of Mount Kailash, and the third one was happiness. In fact, I’m almost finished that one.

 

Well, what does he say about happiness?

 

Well, he said he has no way in the world to know how to fix happiness on a global level, but on an individual level, it’s possible.  And it gets back to what we were talking about; calming you mind, again, ridding yourself of negative emotions or thoughts that create negative emotions, and back to that kind of basic Buddhist teachings.

 

Did you see your Sherpa friend again?

 

I asked him; I said: Is there any place in the world that you would like to see or to hike or trek?  And he said: The Grand Canyon.  I said: Well, that’s where I’m from; when I get back, I will write to you and we’ll hike the Grand Canyon together.  And by the time I got back, he had passed away.

 

Oh …

 

Yeah.

 

Too bad.

 

Yeah. But I was thinking, you know, here I am, traveling all the way to Nepal to find happiness, and he’s saying the Grand Canyon.  Is it right in my backyard?  You know.

 

Do you think that both your career—your dual careers, really; do you think those were all about finding happiness?  Or defining it?

 

Well, it certainly ended up that way.  Initially, like I said, I had no desire at all in psychology.  And I always wanted to see the world, but I really didn’t even know about Buddhism or, you know, the teaching of Buddhism or the philosophy behind it.  But that’s really what has impacted my life in terms of the way I see the world now.

 

At the time of this conversation in 2019, Tom Vendetti has retired from fulltime psychology practice, and devotes most of his time to filmmaking.  He’s working on new projects, and we’re proud to give some of his films a home here on PBS Hawaii.  Tom Vendetti has learned from prominent people in different parts of the world.  He says he’s also gained insight from the years with his Maui patients, whom he admires and respects for their strength and intelligence.  We want to thank Tom Vendetti of Wailuku, Maui for sharing his search for happiness.  Perhaps he’s inspired you to focus on what’s truly important in your own life, and to show up in life, because that’s where chance, serendipity, can take you on an unexpected, life-changing journey.  For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

I’ve been asked by Keola to make a film about Auntie Nona Beamer.  And it’s something that I’m really looking forward to. That’ll be my next film.  So, I feel honored to make the film.  She’s had other films made about her, but it’s been primarily, you know, talking heads, people talking about her.  The goal of this film would be to capture her spirit, and to capture it through her words, through her, you know, hula and chants, and the songs that she’s written, and the beauty of the islands.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

[END]

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Francis “Palani” Sinenci

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Francis "Palani" Sinenci

 

After leaving his isolated hometown of Hāna, Maui, Francis “Palani” Sinenci spent decades away in the military before becoming inspired to reconnect with his Hawaiian roots. Serendipitously, he fell into the art of building traditional Native Hawaiian houses. Over the past twenty years, he has become a master, having built more than 300 traditional Hawaiian hales thatched with grass or leaves.

 

Program

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Nov. 24, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Francis “Palani” Sinenci Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

And do hale stand up to strong, strong winds?

 

Well, we really haven’t had one that’s Category 5. But we had a storm … and we had campers at our site.  And you know, we heard the wind—whoosh.  But we were living in a cement house with a pitch roof.  So, the next morning, I go outside; our pitch and tar roof, that thick, blew off the house.  I go: Oh, god.  So, I went and looked down at my hale.  Six leaves blew off the hale, which were not tied.

 

That’s it?

 

Six leaves.

 

So, very durable construction.

 

It is durable.  It’s like a coconut tree; it bends with the wind.  Yeah.

 

He lashes together hale, or traditional Hawaiian houses, that can withstand fierce winds.  Francis “Palani” Sinenci, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  After retiring from the U.S. Air Force as a Chief Master Sergeant, Francis “Palani” Sinenci is now a chief of a different order.  He has built over three hundred hale, or traditional Native Hawaiian houses, thatched with grass or leaves.  Uncle Palani, as he’s often called, is a master hale-builder.  He grew up in the isolated town of Hāna and Kāpahulu, Maui, to a Native Hawaiian mother and an immigrant Filipino father.

 

I had a really fun life.  ‘Cause I was born in Hāna, the plantation was just winding down, and cattle was being brought in, so I was in that transition stage.  And so, I just grew up fishing all the time.  You know, we lived right close to the ocean, right next to a boarding house with all mixed ethnic workers from all over.  They had Japanese, Portagees, Filipinos, Hawaiians, and we lived in a place called Old Camp.  My dad was from the Philippines.  He was a plantation worker.

 

And he came to work plantation, and he got sent to Hāna?

 

He almost went to jail, ‘cause my mother was only fifteen years old when they got my older brother.

 

And your mom was from Hāna?

 

Yeah; my mom was from—

 

Hawaiian from Hāna.

 

Yeah.  But lucky thing he didn’t go to jail, ‘cause I wouldn’t have been here.

 

Oh; ‘cause that was your older brother.

 

That was my older brother.

 

Got it. 

 

Yeah.

 

How many siblings do you have?

 

It was altogether, nine.  And there were two girls and seven boys.  And I’m number two.  And I lived with that number-two syndrome for all my life.  ‘Cause my older brother immediately got hanai’d by my tutu lady.  So, I was the oldest in the family, so I had to take care of my siblings while my mom and dad went to work.  Yeah.

 

So, does that mean you took care of feeding them during the day?  Your siblings.

 

After I got to be about like eight to ten years old, yeah, I started taking care of the younger ones.  I was a really good spear fisherman, ‘opihi picker.  And we did a lot of kalua pig, and all.  You know, regular stuff.

 

So, you gathered your food.

 

Oh, yeah.  We were gathering.  We were on the lower part of the ahupua‘a, I guess you call it, and we’re mostly ocean people.  So, some of the people from Kaupōor Ke‘anae, they’d grow the taro, these guys would grow the goats and whatever. So, we’d trade, you know.

 

You would have the fish.

 

Yeah, we’d trade.  We had fish, and then every week, we’d get taro.  I didn’t know where it came from, but they brought in taro. Sometimes, we’d have goat, and we’d have beef.  So, I was on the border of when Hawaiians just starting to start eating rice.  So, I was raised up eating rice.  And taro; we pounded all our own taro.  Every week, we had taro.

 

So, whatever you ate came from the land?

 

Came from the land.

 

And the sea?

 

Yeah.  It was fun. I had a good childhood.

 

But you ended up traveling all over the place.  So, you went from a very small and remote area, very isolated by geography.

 

Yeah.

 

What made you leave?

 

Well, about my high school days, I joined the Civil Air Patrol.  It was the thing; it was a way to get off island, free, on Air Force airplanes. So, I joined the Civil Air Patrol, and we used to travel to different islands, and got a taste of other than Hāna or other than Maui.

 

After graduating high school in the isolated town of Hāna, Maui, Francis “Palani” Sinenci says he got itchy feet, and wanted to see the world.  So, he enlisted in the Navy, and left behind his rural life and worked on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, the USS Hancock.

 

I was an air crew survival equipment technician. In other words, I took care of the pilots’ survival gear, and some of his environmental systems within the aircraft, like breathing, his G-suits, his ensemble.

 

Did you rig up his parachute?

 

Oh, yeah.  In fact, one of the pilots got shot over South Vietnam, and he jumped out of the plane.  Not ejected; jumped out and used my parachute.  And he came back to me one day and he says: Here’s your Crown Royal. So, the person that packs the parachute that was used gets a bottle of Crown Royal.  That’s the tradition.

 

After traveling the world on an aircraft carrier, Francis “Palani” Sinenci wanted to attend college.  So, after four years in the Navy, he returned home to Maui to enroll in school.  That plan did not last long, as Sinenci says he got itchy feet once again, and enlisted in the Air Force.  Sinenci would spend the next twenty-five years in the Air Force, rising to the rank of Chief Master Sergeant.

 

I know what happened between the time you were in the Navy and the time you joined the Air Force.

 

Met my wife.

 

Yes.

 

Yeah.  I went to a party.  And she looked fourteen years old, playing the piano.  And I asked my auntie: Hey, who’s that little girl playing the piano? She goes: That little girl is nineteen years old; she’s going to University of Hawai‘i.  Oh, that changed my whole … oh, yeah; intelligent, too.  I don’t know if she’s watching.  But anyway …

 

Long story short; we’ve been married fifty-one years.

 

And I know you call her your wife for life.

 

Mm.

 

And I asked her where she calls home, because you’ve lived so many places.

 

Yeah.

 

And she said: Wherever my husband is.

 

Good answer.

 

It is a tough life.  And she’s in the Reserves, or she was in the Reserves.

 

Was.

 

Right? So, how did that work?  You then joined the Air Force.

 

Luckily, we lived close to the base.  And she went temporary duty sometimes, off base to other bases, but only for two weeks at a time.  You know, the Air Force and the service is like one big family.  They always take care of each other. Yeah.  So, there’s no worries.

 

During the time you were in the Air Force, and then the—first, the Navy, and then the Air Force, were you keeping Hawaiian traditions?  Or how much a part of your life was Hawai‘i?

 

Well, actually, I kind of wanted to distance myself from home.  ‘Cause I wanted to see the world.  And I go: Oh, man, the world is my oyster.  You know, I really loved what I was doing, and I was traveling a lot. And I go: Hāna is just a little dot, you know, I grew up there.

 

At the end of your service in Air Force, in which you did very well, you were all set to retire on the mainland.

 

Uh-huh.

 

Where?

 

South Carolina, Charleston.

 

Why South Carolina?

 

Because I had a home there.  And my home was like Hawai‘i; I had banana trees, literally, my back yard was a Hawaiian garden.

 

And you were okay living in Charleston.

 

Charleston, South Carolina.

 

Rather than back home.

 

Yeah; my son was there, my wife was there, you know. So, yeah.  And all my friends were there.  Close to the golf course, I had all my imu rocks.  You know, I was like at home.

 

What happened?  Why aren’t you in Charleston right now?

 

So, one night, a friend of mine calls me over to his house.  He goes: Hey, brah, come over.  Hawaiian Senior Master Sergeant.  Come over, and let’s watch some some videos.  He just came back from Hawai‘i.  So, I go: Sure.  So, my wife and I go over, and we’re having pupus and drinking beer.  And he shows the Merrie Monarch.  I go: Wow!  And I started getting emotional.  And I said to my wife: Tomorrow morning, I’m putting in my retirement papers.  And she goes: What?  Where we going?  I go: We’re moving back to Hawai‘i.  And she goes: Really?  Yeah. She goes: What about our house?  I go: We’ll sell it or leave it for the son.

 

Just like that.

 

Just like that.

 

And it was the call of the Hawaiian culture?

 

Yeah.

 

Which you had not really repressed.  You’d lived it, but you also didn’t really seek to immerse yourself in it.

 

Yeah.

 

Wow.

 

And it was Eddie Kamae, and he was playing, you know, cowboy songs and all that.  Wow; I really got choked up.

 

So, it was two films; Merrie Monarch and Eddie Kamae?

 

Eddie Kamae; yeah.

 

Wow.

 

And later on, I told Eddie Kamae; I go: You know, you’re responsible for bringing me home.  When we had a chance meeting over in Maui at a festival.

 

Inspired to reconnect with his Hawaiian roots, Francis “Palani” Sinenci retired from the Air Force, packed up, and shipped out to Hawaii from South Carolina.

 

 

And you knew where you would come when you got home, you would go to Hāna?

 

Well, actually, I didn’t go to Hāna.  I just wanted to come home.  You know. And so, I came home, and the first thing my brother-in-law says: Hey, you know what, we need a kūpuna at school.  They were lacking teachers and stuff.  I go: What’s a kūpuna? You know, like, all my Hawaiian stuff was all left back in the old days.  So, he goes: A kūpuna, you know, a teacher, an elder.  I go: Oh, okay.  I don’t know anything about kūpuna. So, he goes: Well, you know what, go and interview with our principal, Jan. I go: Okay.  So, I show up.  And I considered myself old at that time; I was forty-eight years old, you know.

 

I was forty-eight years old.  ‘Cause in the military, when you’re forty-eight, you’re an old man.  And you really are; they make you feel like an old man.  So, I was doing backflips, and they called me an old man.  So anyway, I went and interviewed.  And she goes: You’re from Hāna; yeah?  I go: Yeah.  She goes: Can you speak Hawaiian?  I go: I can understand.  You know, I was brought up by my tutu lady, and yeah, I can, little bit.  She goes: No problem.  She says: Here’s what you gotta do; we’re gonna hire you, with all the classes I need to take.  So, I had like, two ‘ōlelo classes, and an ‘ukulele class.  She goes: Can you sing, play ‘ukulele?  I go: Sure. You know, what local boy doesn’t know how to play ‘ukulele.  So, I got these three things; now I gotta go. So, immediately, she hired me immediately. And so, I had to report to work on Tuesday.  So, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday nights, I was in school.  Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday days, I was teaching.  So, I was going to ‘ōlelo classes.  By the time Friday came, I just said: I gotta get out of here.  Honolulu of course, I was living here.  And I used to just jump on my truck and go to the airport and fly to Hāna, and just go fishing.  Just forget everything.  Sunday night, fly back here.  Same thing; teach.  I was working like, twelve to sixteen hours a day, retired Air Force.

 

Yeah; your wife told me you don’t have a lazy bone in your body.  You’re always doing something.

 

Yeah.  It’s weird.

 

You just keep going.

 

I just don’t want to waste time.  Because tomorrow is not guaranteed.  That’s the way I look at it.

 

Francis “Palani” Sinenci kept himself busy reconnecting with his Hawaiian heritage, practicing taro cultivation and working as a kūpuna, or Hawaiian cultural elder, at Helemano Elementary School in Wahiawā, Central O‘ahu.  One day in 1994, he received a request from a fellow kūpuna that would shape the rest of his life.

 

So, one day, one of my kūpuna says: Uncle Francis—we always call each other auntie and uncle in front of the kids as a sign of respect.  And I don’t know if she’s older, or younger than me. But she goes: Uncle Palani, why don’t you build us a hale?  I go: What’s that?  She goes: A hale.  And I grew up with hale ‘au‘au.  That’s bathroom.

 

M-hm.

 

Hale hopau pilikia, hale unu, and these kinda hale. Not a sleeping house.  She goes: Hale pili.  I go: Oh, pili; like pili grass?  She goes: Yeah.  So, I said: You mean a grass shack, don’t you?  She goes: Yeah; it’s a hale, not a grass shack.  ‘Cause when I was growing up, a hale was a grass shack.  I want to go back to my little grass shack.  Everything was grass shack.  So, I go: I don’t know anything about building a hale.  She goes: Well, we’re gonna send you down to Waimea Falls Park, and you’re gonna see Uncle Rudy, and he’s gonna teach you how to build a hale.  So, I go: Okay.  So, I go down to Waimea Falls Park, and meet Uncle Rudy.  He’s back there by all his archaeological stuff in the back.  And he’s smoking a pipe.  So, he introduced me.  He goes: Oh, you want to build a hale; yeah, boy?   You want to build a hale, boy?  ‘Cause he was about sixty.

 

I go: Yes; yes, sir.  So, he brings out this pad, and he starts drawing the posts, the tenons and, you know, how to connect the hale.  I go: Wait a minute; I know how to do that.  And he goes: Really?  I go: Yeah.  He goes: Why are you here?  I go: No, when I was in the sixth grade, that was my homework.  Our teacher, Mrs. Naone said: You guys go to the library, and go find something Hawaiian, and come back and do a show-and-tell, you know, story. Gotta write about it; you gotta draw the pictures.  So, that’s what I did.  Everybody did like, lamalama torch, all the other things, you know.  I chose hale-building.  So, he writes down all these things that I need to do.  You go to Bishop Museum, you look, you go read this book, this book, this book.  So, I went to Bishop Museum, looked at the hale there, they let me go inside.  And I got Russ Apple’s book, Dr. Russ Apple, and I read through it.  I go: Oh, yeah, this is easy.  So, I went out and gathered the wood, and I built a little hale, about a six-foot hale for a project that I was working at one of the schools, Helemano School.  And when I built it, I invited him to come up to come up for the christening or blessing.  Yeah; oki ka piko.  And he came up; he goes: Wow, boy; you get ‘em.  Now, if you like become one master, you gotta build one twenty-by-forty.  I said: Uncle Rudy, I’ll never be a master; this is too much work.  He mentioned that: You need to go back to Hāna, and go build a kauhale at the Hāna Cultural Center.

 

What’s a kauhale?

 

It’s a group of different type of houses.  Or a village, like a small village.

 

He wanted you to build a small village?

 

Yeah.  So, I go to Hāna, and I see Ms. Coila Eade, who was kind of my mentor too.  She’s there, and she goes: Yeah, we need a kauhale.  So, she goes: You know, I’m from Hana.  She goes: You know how to build a hale?  We don’t know that you can build a hale. So, I had to go out and gather more wood, and build a small table model, using dental floss for the lashing, then cement and rocks, and built a hale for them.  And I presented it at the meeting, and they said: Okay, you’re hired.  So, I started my career right there.

 

And were you loving the process by that point?

 

Doing the first one, and then making the model, you know, everything sinks in, and you get some muscle memory.

 

So many different things.  You get the rocks.

 

Oh; yeah, yeah.

 

I mean, it looks simple, but it’s not.

 

I mean, for me, well, it came natural, ‘cause I worked with cords and stuff.  After I finished the kauhale, everybody in Hāna was like, jumping in and helping out.  In fact, one of the hales that I built, we didn’t have pili grass, so I had to use the alternative thatching materials, which was loulu palm, palm leaf, loulu, and ti leaves.  And that one hale took about almost half a million ti leaves to thatch the totally enclosed sleeping hale.  So, I had the whole community out there, gathering dried ti leaves, and then putting them in bundles.  And then we lashed it all on.  And that catapulted me to a hale-builder, master hale-builder.  In fact, when I called Russ Apple—he was still alive, and I said: Russ, how do you become a master builder?  And he’s been tracking, he was tracking me.  He goes: You’re a master.  I go: No way; I gotta build a twenty-by-forty before I proclaim myself a master.  And the first twenty-by-forty I built, my wife and I, in strong wind, started to build it.

 

Where was that?

 

In Hana, at the place where we’re at right now. So, I built my first twenty-by-forty with my wife’s help.

 

And it’s your hale.

 

Yeah.  So, as we were building, the wind was blowing, it was starting to rain.  And we’d build these A-frames, and stand it up like this, and my wife was holding it in the wind.  I go: Don’t you let that thing fall.  Oh … she didn’t.  And we built the hale.

 

Do you marvel when you put those together about, you know, how you do it? I mean, you know, how durable it is.

 

I’m awe every time I build.

 

What are some of the things that impress you about the building?

 

How they can stand up to the weather, and how ingenious and simple, ingenious how those fittings come together.  And I firmly believe—you know, these EZ Corner tents that you see pop up, you know, people put them together?  It’s almost exactly like a hale.  The framing and everything is the frame of a hale.

 

If I were to be there to watch you do the work, what would I be surprised to see? What’s some of the most interesting parts of the job?

 

You will probably be amazed at how many people we can hold on the ‘oloke‘a, which is the scaffolding system.  By the way, you cannot build a hale without.  I mean, many have tried, and I’ve got reports back where they used modern metal scaffolding.  But an ‘oloke‘a, has to conform, or a traditional hale building ‘oloke‘a is actually building a hale, then another hale over it.  Because the scaffolding system has to be commensurate to the size of the hale, and the workers.  So, it’s gotta be kind of like ergonomic; yeah.  So, it’s gotta fit the guys and the people too.

 

So, first, you build the scaffolding.

 

No; first you build the foundation, then you build the scaffolding after the posts is all in to build the roof part.

 

And what do other people use you hale for?

 

Mostly for gathering places, like most of the hale that I build are called hale hālāwai, which means, you know, meeting place. And gathering, and some just for show.

 

Over the last twenty years, Francis “Palani” Sinenci has tirelessly built various types of hale across Hawaiian cultural sites, schools, private residences, Haleakala National Park on Maui, and even on the U.S. mainland, and in China.

 

The title that I have as a kahuna kuhikuhi pu‘uone suggests that I’m an architect.  The word kuhikuhi pu‘uone, breaking down the word kuhikuhi pu‘uone was to show how to build on a pile of sand.  So, now we have architects who use blueprints.  Back in the old days, they used a pile of sand.  Like, if a kahuna is gonna demonstrate how to build a heiau, he would go like this.  He would say: Okay; get the sand, and then stack all the rocks, stack all the wood. And I actually did one, demonstrated how to build a hale on a pile of sand.  So, kuhikuhi means to show or direct, or envision; pu‘u, a pile, a pu‘u; one, sand.  So, someplace I read, over on the Big Island, that became the title for the royal architect, kuhikuhi pu‘uone.  And at one point, somebody said: You’re a kuhikuhi pu‘uone.  I go: I didn’t get that title; somebody else gave me that title, I didn’t put it on myself.  I’ve met more people building hales than people do, except if you’re a concierge.  Of course, you meet a lot of people.

 

I have people from all walks of life that walk away with something.  Either just making a shaka or understanding the Hawaiian culture, or just coming to find out that, hey, I appreciate my job more than building hale.  You know, either positively or negatively, it impacts everybody.

 

Well, you bring people together to build it.

 

Yeah.

 

And then, it becomes a gathering place forever after.

 

I’ve had people get married, met at these hale gatherings.  And then divorced, and came back again.

 

Yeah; halawai, the word for meeting is really a truism.  Hale halawai; you meet, you gather, you eat.  And most of my hales are used for pa‘inas.  Yeah.

 

How many hale have you built now?

 

It’s over three hundred.

 

This takes tremendous energy and strength.  And you’re doing this, and now you’re seventy-six now.

 

Takes a village to build a hale.  Literally.

 

So, are you doing mostly the overseeing now?  Because you’re in your seventies, and you’re doing the main work.

 

Overseeing; I wish that was so yesterday.

 

So, you’re out there doing it.

 

But I mean, keeps the blood flowing, you know, keeps the energy going.

 

In 2018, Francis “Palani” Sinenci was featured in Ka Hale: A Revival,  a short film about his efforts to preserve the traditional practice of hale-building.  The film received a People’s Choice Award in the American Institute of Architects Film Challenge.  Working with his hands and showing no signs of slowing down, Uncle Palani also is rebuilding structures from Hawai‘i’s past.  In addition to restoring a Native Hawaiian fishpond in Hāna, he’s now turning his attention to recreating plantation era Portuguese stone ovens.

 

Mahalo to Francis “Palani” Sinenci of Hāna, Maui.  And thank you for joining us for this edition of Long Story Short on PBS Hawai‘i.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

So, I devised this shaka.  And you coil it up, you pre-cut all the lashing.  Like if I say: Hey, throw me a number three shaka.

 

And what’s a shaka?

 

This is called a shaka, a coiled piece of rope. Okay; this is how we test to see if you did it right.  So, you’re supposed throw.  Did it come out?  Oh, yeah. See, no knots.

 

No knots.

 

 

 

HIKI NŌ 11|14|19:
The Effects of Deployment on Families and Other Stories

 

TOP STORY

 

“The Effects of Deployment on Families”
Students from Aliamanu Middle School in the Salt Lake district of Oʻahu explore the effects of military deployment on family members. The story focuses on how the impact of a parent’s deployment can be more problematic for younger children than it is with their older siblings.

 

ALSO FEATURED

 

“Shy Girl”
Students from Hilo High School on Hawaiʻi Island tell the story of a severely shy female Hilo High student who came out of her shell after she found her niche in her schoolʻs media club.

 

“Miss Filipina Kauaʻi”
Kauaʻi High School Class of 2019 graduate Tiffany Sagucio gives a first-person account of her experience as a contestant in the 2019 Miss Filipina Kauaʻi Pageant. Tiffany produced this story as part of her Gwen Ifill Fellowship for young journalists, named after the iconic PBS NewsHour anchor who passed away from cancer in 2016.

 

“Raised Crosswalks”
Students from Waiʻanae High School in West Oʻahu tell the story of a new pedestrian protection measure launched on Farrington Highway in Waiʻanae—raised crosswalks.

 

“Fishing Line Recycling”
Students from H.P. Baldwin High School on Maui report on an effort to reduce the amount of harmful fishing line discarded into our oceans.

 

“Poi Mill”
Students from Kamehameha Schools Maui Middle School show us how Native Hawaiian students are learning about their culture through the cultivation and presentation of taro.

 

“Kinai ʻEha”
Students at Kalāheo High School in Windward Oʻahu introduce us to a non-profit organization that provides workforce training for young people who are homeless, incarcerated or just looking for guidance.

 

 

 

NĀ MELE: TRADITIONS IN HAWAIIAN SONG
Josh Tatofi

 

As a young child, Josh Tatofi thought he had an ordinary life. “I thought everyone’s dad was a rock star, and I thought everyone was playing music,” he says. His father, Tivaini Tatofi, was a founding member of local island music group Kapena. “I didn’t really know that my childhood was special until way later,” says the younger Tatofi.

 

Download the transcript of this program

 

NĀ MELE: Traditions in Hawaiian Song - Josh Tatofi and his bandmates Travis Kaka (left) and Laupepa Letuli (right)

NĀ MELE: Traditions in Hawaiian Song – Josh Tatofi and his bandmates Travis Kaka (left) and Laupepa Letuli (right)

 

Born in Honolulu, Tatofi grew up on Windward O‘ahu, in Kāne‘ohe, before moving with his family to Maui in his early teens. It was in Kāne‘ohe that Tatofi would have a breakthrough moment, when his friends of the Hawaiian music group Hū‘ewa invited him onstage at a bar to sing a Hawaiian-language song.

 

NĀ MELE: Traditions in Hawaiian Song - Josh Tatofi's performance includes a Hula performance

The program also features hula dancers from three different hālau: Hula Hālau ‘O Kamuela, Hālau Hi‘iakaināmakalehua and Hālau Ka Liko Pua O Kalaniākea.

 

Read more about Josh Tatofi in our June program guide cover story here.

 

More from Josh Tatofi:

 

Kaleohano, commentary

 

Kaleohano. Written by Louis Moon Kauakahi

 

Kāneʻohe

 

Kuʻu Leo Aloha

 

Kuʻu Pua Ilima

 

Lei Hala, featuring Hālau HiʻIakaināmakalehua

 

Leolani

 

Pua Kiele, featuring Hālau Hula Ka Lehua Tuahine

 

 

 

 

 

HIKI NŌ 10|24|19:
Archers to Art and Other Stories

 

TOP STORY:

 

“Archers to Art”
Students from Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha Public Charter School on Kauaʻi tell the story of how members of their school’s archery program created, through a process of problem solving, an activity that produces wildly colorful, spontaneous works of art. Student archers decided to place balloons onto the traditional archery targets with the intent of having the arrows burst the balloons. The wind caused the balloons to move around, so the students filled them with water to anchor them in place. They then decided to add paint to the water, and laid cardboard down to avoid messing up the surrounding area. Noticing the colorful designs the splatters created, they replaced the cardboard with watercolor paper. Thus was created this innovative genre of painting.

 

ALSO FEATURED:

 

“Waimea’s Rain Rock”
Students from Hawaiʻi Preparatory Academy Middle School in the Waimea district of Hawaiʻi Island tell the story of a legendary rain rock which was said to have saved Waimea from a devastating drought.

 

“Student Poet”
Students from Kauaʻi High School in Līhuʻe tell the story of a young poet who uses creativity to battle depression.

 

“Jiu Jitsu Preacher”
Students from Kamehameha Schools Maui Middle School in Pukalani tell the story of a martial arts school that is also a place of worship.

 

“How to Care for an Abandoned Baby Bird”
Students from Īʻao School on Maui show us how to nurse an abandoned baby bird back to health.

 

“Betty Santoki”
Students from Farrington High School on Oʻahu introduce us to a Class of 1962 Farrington graduate who has dedicated her life to keeping Japanese traditions alive in her community.

 

“Suburbia”
A student at H.P. Baldwin High School on Maui shares her inner-most thoughts about becoming a filmmaker in a personal video essay.

 

This episode of HIKI NŌ is hosted by students at Montessori School of Maui in Makawao.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Stephanie Han

 

Award-winning writer Stephanie Han draws from her life experiences to inform her poetry, fiction and non-fiction, which frequently grapple with identity in multicultural settings. Her childhood was anchored by books, which helped her make sense of others and the world around her. Though her life has taken her around the globe, she now calls Honolulu home where she continues her work as a writer and educator.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Oct. 20, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Stephanie Han Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Reading is one of the few creative art forms where we enter the mind of somebody on a deeply intimate and personal level, across time, across cultures. You’re concocting in your mind what the person looks like and they become something you invent.

 

As a child, she found refuge in books, which she called her friends because her family moved so frequently. She says reading and writing are linked and somehow writing chose her and she became a writer. Stephanie Han, next, on Long Story Short. 

 

One on one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people. Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Stephanie Han was born Stephanie Mi Suk Yoo but goes by her maternal family’s name. A resident of Kaimukī, O‘ahu, she’s a teacher with a doctorate at Punahou School at Honolulu, and she’s a writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, much of it about one’s identity in multicultural settings. Dr. Han is the author of “Swimming in Hong Kong”, a collection of short stories. Her father was one of Korea’s top scholars before he came to the United States to attend university, becoming a medical doctor and research scientist. Her mother was raised in Kunia Camp in central O‘ahu, a descendant of the first wave of Korean immigrants to Hawai‘i.  Stephanie Han’s parents met in the San Francisco Bay area, and after they were married, lived all over the United States, fueled in part by their wanderlust.

 

Where do you call home?

 

Now, Hawai‘i is home and in a sense I think it always was a spiritual and familial home to me, we just simply moved around the Continental U.S. I’ve lived in every place except the Pacific Northwest because my family was peripatetic, we were itinerant, and I have been as an adult. But this is the one place we always came for weddings, funerals, family birthdays, and gatherings, so, I would say, in a sense, if I could call one place an idea of home, this would be it. Hawaii was where I could have a sense of belonging, where I could have an Asian face but I could speak English and it wasn’t a big deal, um, where I saw different kinds of cultures and people interacting in a relatively peaceful way and this was a contrast to growing up in the mainland in certain areas where my family were kind of these pioneers, in the Midwest or in the South or even in certain areas of New England.

 

Did you experience racism or was it people who simply didn’t know what to say to you and said the wrong thing?

 

I think it was both, you know, my mother grew up in Kunia on the plantation and so when kids were kind of chicken fighting and kind of bullying me and beating me up when I was in third grade, she wasn’t gonna have that. She was, she…um, immediately asked um, somebody in the Korean community whose father knew judo, to take me on as a student.

 

So she was not a hovering parent in the sense that she approached the bully, she prepared you to approach the…

 

Yes.

 

Ok, so what happened?

 

And so, because she grew up, you know, watching boxing matches and wrestling in the Kunia gym, and so, yes, I was supposed to be a good Korean-American daughter, but I needed to know how to fight back. And so, um, we, me and the bully, we had it out in front of the drinking fountain. He was a head taller than me and the kids gathered, and I don’t even know how it…after a month, I was very confident, after judo lessons for one month, I obviously felt I could take him on, and um, you know, he hit me, and I punched him back, and then we were hauled off to the, um, by the school librarian, who, now, I know they must’ve thought it was really hysterical because I was a head and a half shorter…

 

And boy-girl, I mean usually boys don’t take shots at girls, right?

 

And boy-girl, exactly, and then…

 

So this is a bad bully…

 

Yes, and then, he was crying and I was not, I was just in shock and just paranoid that my mother would get mad at me and he never bothered me, nor did anyone ever bother me at the school again, and I was never physically bothered like that again because it was…it’s all psychological, right? It’s how you carry yourself.

 

Why did you move so much?

 

That was my parents, I think their adventure. So, for my mother, being, growing up pre-statehood, her adventure of travel…I mean, my family traveled a lot overseas, too, but her adventure was in the mainland and for my father, as an immigrant to the United States, this was also his adventure of seeing America.

 

That meant you switched schools a lot.

 

I switched schools every year until I was nine.

 

That’s a lot.

 

What you get used to is, you know, making friends, and you also get used to leaving, it prepares you for different kinds of relationships and different kinds of ways of navigating, and it also obliges you to be more open, and what it did was, it made me closer, I think, to my family and to my parents, and to hold on to things that were permanent, let’s say like coming here, seeing Grandma in the summer or seeing my cousins here, this became a kind of…a permanent idea.

 

Did you have any tricks about how to make friends as a kid when you were starting a new school?

 

No, and I think it did become difficult and it’s what propelled me to become a reader and a writer…because, um, at a certain point, I think, you know, we were often in these places like Iowa, where there were not a lot of Asian-American children, and I remember telling my mom that I had troubles making friends and she said, well, if you read a book, you’ll always have a friend. And this had to do with how she was, I think, and she was a bookworm, and she was a mom who, um, you know, sought out intellectual and creative things, and we didn’t talk as much about feelings, we could find those through books and things like that, so, um, you know, books became my world, books became a way I could make friends, she was right. Books became a path to understanding and to figuring out how people behaved, and from reading comes writing, an idea of expressing personal narrative.

 

I think I’ve heard you say that uh, your mom taught you the importance of creative expression, your father taught you never to quit, which came in very handy when you’re a writer seeking publication.

 

Yeah, so that was definitely my father. So there’s a saying he used to tell me, fall down seven times, get up eight times. A really perfect example of it was me with math studies. So when I was in ninth grade, I went off to boarding school at Phillips Academy Andover, I was a straight-A student prior, I get to Andover, everybody was a straight-A student, so, I really struggled, and I was getting a…I think I was failing math, and so, my father and mother said, we’re tired of you, you know, calling us up at, you know, every night, crying about your math homework so you come back for Thanksgiving. So I came back for Thanksgiving, I did math six to seven hours a day with my father, and um, flew back, I passed the exam, and then I stepped off the plane in December and my dad said, we’re not…we’re conquering this math thing. And so, I did math with my father…I went to work with him six to eight hours a day, every single day of my three week holiday. I would sit there in the gas station, in the front seat of the car, while he’s pumping the gas, doing math problems, um, I did the entire math book, over Christmas.

 

Did you want to do that? Did you resent that?

 

Uh, at first I resented it, but then after awhile I liked it. Like I still know the quadratic formula to this day, because he made me write it down 27 times, because he said if you write anything down 27 times, you’ll never forget it. What it showed me was that you don’t have to be good at something, you can persist and you don’t have to quit, and then I went back and I went from being a D-student in math to two A’s.

 

What does your dad think of your career? He seems like a very success-oriented guy and goes by the numbers, and being a writer is not going by the numbers, especially as a female…

 

Yeah…yeah, my dad, um, human being status is, um, granted upon a Masters degree, so now I have a PhD, so you know, it’s ok.

 

Don’t you have two Masters?

 

Yeah, I have two Masters degrees.

 

And a PhD, the first PhD in English Literature…

 

Literature, from City University of Hong Kong.

 

And you do a lot of professional teaching as well?

 

Yes, so, I consider myself a writer and educator, and I think, you know, my father was a, you know, he was a research scientist and a university professor, too, so he’s proud of that, you know, so in a sense, although it wasn’t in science and most of his family were medical doctors, even my aunts who were 85 years old in Korea, were medical doctors in Korea at the time, which was quite radical for women, but so now, you know, he knows I teach and I write and it’s something that is parallel…parallels his interests.

 

Stephanie Han’s award-winning writings are influenced by the books she read growing up, as much as by her life experiences. Her narratives often center on female protagonists who deal with issues of race, gender, and colonialism, and above all, identity.

 

You said your friends were books?

 

Yeah.

 

And you do live other people’s experiences through books?

 

Oh yeah, like my early experiences were just, you know, like in Iowa reading Laura Ingalls Wilder. I used to ask my mom why she didn’t wear a bonnet and churn butter…like why…

 

Because that’s the real mother…

 

Yeah…I sent away to the Laura Ingalls Wilder home for photos of Laura Ingalls Wilder. So there are family photos of the Ingalls and Wilder family with my family photos because they, it became such a part of how I was trying to understand where I was living.

 

Did you watch the TV show, too?

 

Yeah, but I didn’t like the TV show as much. That was kind of just a short cut, and I was one of those, you know, that didn’t match, that was in, you know, on the shores of Silver Lake, that wasn’t in the second book, you know, I could really…

 

Who’s [INDISTINCT] anyway?

 

Yeah, yeah, I was like, you know, Pa didn’t play the violin like that. You know, I was really…I could be very exact about it. And there were some, also some things that were not quite, you might say kosher, about those books, of when it was written. You know, their treatment…her treatment of how she saw Native Americans, or how Pa was doing the darky kind of dance where he was wearing blackface, and I didn’t understand this as I was reading it, so I find it sort of interesting, you know, how you read one book to open your mind, and I did need those books when I was little, to understand the farm children that I was going to school with and their background and then how later you read them differently. So, um, but yeah, you know, that’s when I would, you know, I’d say, can we have apple pie like Farmer Boy? You know…

 

But reading does…depending on what you read, does teach you empathy, or at least the ability to identify

 

Yes.

 

with somebody else whose, maybe, outer behavior is off-putting…

 

Yes.

 

Because you don’t understand it or you don’t think there’s a reason for it, but when you read a book and you see what’s going on inside…

 

Yes, because reading is one of the few creative art forms where we enter the mind of somebody on a deeply intimate and personal level, across time, across cultures, even when we’re seeing a movie, we’re looking at somebody from the outside in, right? We’re looking at their face. We’re not looking inside their brain. So, when you’re reading, we’re entering somebody’s very intimate thoughts, it’s that magic…

 

And heart.

 

Yes, you know, how they’re dreaming, how they’re feeling, and sometimes you know, when you’re looking at a picture, um, or illustration, you might initially, you could have these reactions, you could be put off by their clothing or something and you might not be able to enter them in the same way, but when you read something, you’re concocting in your mind what the person looks like and they become something you invent. So, reading also propels us to imagine and it works a different kind of imagination gear, in a way, and we, we relate that to ourselves. Like, yeah, I remember I was riding a bicycle, yeah, that’s what it felt like, this person must be riding a bicycle in the same way, yeah, you know, and it becomes something else, verses, you know, I love photography, and I love film, and I love video, and, you know, all these other kinds of visual images, but, it’s something else, you’re outside in.

 

That’s a great point. What are some of the books that have made the most difference to you in reading?

 

Well, I would say…

 

Besides Laura.

 

It changed, yeah, it changed over the course of time, right? So, um, you know, I read, you know Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. When I was a teenage girl, then I read Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior, and that blew me away, I would say really the opening sequence, because it was the first time I could see the picture. There is a woman of color and she kind of looks like me, she’s Asian descent, and look, she wrote this book, and look, this character is not, you know, is fierce, and is a warrior, and is running through the woods and doing these things, and that was really eye-awakening, and I love Jane Austen. Years later, I read the Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki in translation which is very similar to the Austen book, and that was the book that my mother told me to read and I could see how she transposed ideas of, you know, protocol and manners and this, and how they came through to my upbringing. My narrative has always been something that’s been changing, um, narratives that were…I was told and then tried to imitate, so, I think about this idea of the stories that were maybe told to, let’s say me, through a religious or philosophical structure, which were Confucian virtues, right? Which were…Confucianism is built on the pillars of five relationships, right? King, subject, teacher, husband, wife, and almost all of them are hierarchical, except friend to friend, but there’s a very strict hierarchy that organizes a lot of Asian culture and that was the narrative, in a sense, that I think played out for me or continued to play out in a lot of my life. There was also narratives, uh, folk tales that I was told, so…a traditional, it’s a Japanese folktale, it was also told to Korean kids, was Peach Boy, which is…I’m not sure, do you know it…

 

Momotaro?

 

Yes, and I’m sure you’re familiar with this story…

 

I grew up with that story.

 

Yes, and he comes with a peach to this older parents, and he fights…you know, he makes friends with the dog, the pheasant, and the monkey, goes off and he kills all the monsters, and he comes back with wealth to his village and he’s the hero of the story, right? And this is a typical, Joseph Campbell journey…mythic…myth of the hero, which crosses cultures, right? But there really is not…we don’t find the myth of the heroine, and Campbell had said that’s because the wisdom that is had, women always have inherently, and Campbell was writing and speaking at a different time period, because women do need a narrative.

 

What you said before reminded me of something…I was fortunate enough to interview W.S. Merwin, and he said, um, when life is going along pretty well, you tend to read prose, but when you have something awful happening, some emotional thing, what do you do? You read poetry.

 

Poetry…

 

Is that true?

 

Yes, that’s totally true, and I write poetry um, when I have no words, that’s what I say, and then I write prose to try to make a linear sense of an issue.

 

As an adult, Stephanie Han has lived in many different places around the world. She kept moving in part because of the adventure of experiencing different cultures, but that was not her only motivation.

 

You told us how your, your family moved around quite a bit because of your father’s career when you were a child, but you continued to move around as an adult.

 

Yes, it set the pattern. So I thought…so that’s how I became an expatriate, ectera ectera, it set a pattern where you think moving is normal, um, it’s strange because there’s a different skill-set involved with staying, right? And so that’s, to me, this is now my question too, of staying, you know, this is my home now, so this is…this is the question of staying, and um, yeah, you set the pattern because, you know, and what you realize is, there are many people who actually do this…were just…were…maybe we don’t talk about it quite as much, or we’re referring to one place as the home, but a lot of people are rather itinerant.

 

It seems to me that you’ve been in a number of first-of situations, you might’ve been the first Asian girl in a class or…I mean, you’ve done so many um, so many activities in different countries, uh, what have you learned from that? Because it’s not surprising to me that you became a writer, somebody who’s already good in English and…generally, writers keep their distance, they’re detached.

 

Yeah, I think um, what I learned is that you have to be open and you have to be curious to different experiences and you also have to be tolerant, and I think being overseas um, for different periods of my life, also opened that up, and what I also found is language, speaking different languages matters, but you really need an open heart and you need to be able to laugh with somebody, you need to be able to eat food, you need to listen to their music and maybe dance a little, and that becomes more important than, often than, um, let’s say, exchanging literary ideas.

 

And when do you know it’s time for you to move on, or in the past, how did you figure out…was it outwardly directed or did it always come from within?

 

Um, no, sometimes people moved because they think moving will solve things, but moving doesn’t often solve what you…it could solve temporarily, a job, but maybe that’s the job wasn’t really what needed to be solved, or a question about this, right? So…

 

It’s a way of distracting yourself, in part?

 

Yes, right, and you know, there’s more…you know, there’s the adventure of being out verses sometimes, if you stay in one place, the adventure becomes of going in and going still, or going deeper, so I, you know, I…I’ve had people tell me, you know, I don’t think you can come to necessarily, any more wisdom, traveling and moving, then you can come from being in one place and going deeper. You might find that you can still come to very similar ideas of people and behavior and spirit, and some of the people I consider the most wise, who I seek counsel or friendship, or guidance from, are people who are in one place. Because they came to similar ideas and then moved and came to a different way of seeing things that were incredibly wise.

 

Interesting. One thing about staying is that you…if there are issues, you have to either work them out or, or hole up in yourself, and generally people do either…I mean, I would hope people who stay, find a way to work things out.

 

Yeah, and this just becomes the retreat of a writer, too, right? Reading and writing, for me, um, was always a bit of a social, personal retreat, so, I didn’t neces–, you know, if, the outside became too strange or difficult or, I just would read more or I wrote more, which I…I don’t necessarily advise to everybody.

 

Well, why have you moved as an adult?

 

Um…

 

Repeatedly?

 

Yeah, mostly, it was, I think it was work and opportunity, and a desire to seek, and a desire for adventure, and so I think that was the phase that I was also in, and um, there’s like a whole community, you know, if you’re an expatriate, that’s what you do…you just…you move, from place to place often.

 

And you always find people like yourself…

 

Mm hm, and it becomes a community.

 

It is a community.

 

So that is a community.

 

So how do you find people in that community?

 

Um, you know, they can initially be a much more often welcoming and opening…open to people, because everyone wants a place to live, everyone knows you need employment, so people come rushing forth with opportunities or jobs or places to live, they know you need help with this, because it’s kind of this strange pioneering community, right? Whereas, if you often move into community where people have been entrenched for along time, they’re more closed because you’re an outsider and the peculiar thing is, you know, expatriates, they often never really occupy the place that they’re in. They live in the peripheral of wherever they are and that is the community, it’s being on the periphery.

 

That’s interesting, so, perhaps, at this point in your life, that is still your home?

 

Um, no, I’d say…it’s funny, that’s why I think I ended up here because I don’t have to always be on the periphery here. I do have maternal family and maternal roots here, so it allows me to step in here. I didn’t attend school here which makes, you know, Hawaii is very rooted in people’s young, younger years of schooling…

 

Where did you graduate from…

 

Yes, but um, you know, my son is now local to here and my family is here in that sense, or I should say some of my older relatives. So, I can be both an outsider and an insider here and maybe that’s just right.

 

At the time of this taping in 2019, Stephanie Han is teaching at Punahou School and lives in Kaimukī, O‘ahu, where she also continues to write. Mahalo to Stephanie Han for sharing your stories with us and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

I don’t think people choose to be writers, I think writing chooses you and then writing becomes a compulsion. Reading and writing are very linked and um, when it is a certain level of a compulsion then it flows through you and you feel at that moment, this is what you were meant to do and you draft it very quickly and it’s almost as if your body is a kind of vessel for what the words are supposed to be, and there’s other times you sit there and you’re just miserable and you try to run away from the desk and you decide at that moment you need to clean your room, but um, you know, so it varies and you just have to, you know, kind of sit your butt in the chair.

 

 

 

[END]

 

 

HIKI NŌ
HIKI NŌ Class of 2019, Part Three

 

This is the third of four specials in which outstanding HIKI NŌ graduates from the Class of 2019 (and one student from the Class of 2020) gathered at PBS Hawaiʻi to discuss their HIKI NŌ experiences and how they feel the skills they learned from HIKI NŌ will help them in college, the workplace and life.

 

This episode features Carl Antiado, who graduated from H.P. Baldwin High School on Maui and is now a Computer Science and Engineering major at the University of Nevada Reno; Kobie Uyeda, who graduated from Waiākea High School in Hilo and is now a Kinesiology Pre-Med major at Oregon State University; and Brandon Marcos, who graduated from Kauaʻi High School on Kauaʻi and is now majoring in Computer Science at UH Mānoa

 

Each graduate also shows a HIKI NŌ story that they worked on and discusses what they learned from the experience of working on that particular story. Carl shows his story about a band teacher he had who inspired Carl and turned him onto a new perspective on life. Kobie shares her story “Stay Humble, Pray,” about an ex-convict/drug addict who speaks to students about how to avoid bad life choices. Brandon presents his story “Kapaʻa Gridlock,” an investigation into why traffic is so heavy on Kauaʻi.

 

 

 

HIKI NŌ
HIKI NŌ Class of 2019, Part Two

 

This is the second of four specials in which outstanding HIKI NŌ graduates from the Class of 2019 (and one student from the Class of 2020) gathered at PBS Hawaiʻi to discuss their HIKI NŌ experiences and how they feel the skills they learned from HIKI NŌ will help them in college, the workplace and life.

 

This episode features Kera Rasavanh, who graduated from McKinley High School in Honolulu and is now a Business Marketing and Digital Cinema major at UH Mānoa; Drake Dela Cruz, who graduated from Farrington High School in Honolulu and is now a Film and TV Production major at Leeward Community College on Oʻahu; and Serene Morales, who graduated from H.P. Baldwin High School on Maui and is now majoring in Digital Cinema at UH Mānoa.

 

Each graduate also shows a HIKI NŌ story that they worked on and discusses what they learned from the experience of working on that particular story. Kera shares her story “Hawaii Nature Center,” about an ʻāina-based education center in Makiki, Oʻahu that teaches elementary and middle school children how to care for the environment. Drake shows “Betty Santoki,” about a 1962 Farrington graduate who has dedicated her life to keeping Japanese culture alive in her community. Serene presents her story “Justin Yanagida,” about a Maui-based fitness coach who uses struggles from his own past to motivate others to turn their lives around.

 

 

 

HIKI NŌ
The Top Stories of the Fall Semester, 2018-2019

HIKI NŌ Episode 1008 – The Top Stories of the Fall Semester, 2018-2019

 

This compilation show features some of the top stories from the fall semester of the 2018-2019 school year. Each of the stories presents a variation on a theme that has become a hallmark of HIKI NŌ storytelling: empathy.

 

Program

 

–Students at Waiākea High School in the Hilo district of Hawai‘i Island tell the story of a married couple for whom empathy has become a profession and a way of life: husband and wife both work in the foster care industry and foster children themselves.

 

–Students at H.P. Baldwin High School on Maui tell the story of a fitness coach who channels his own physical and psychological challenges into developing empathy for his clients.

 

–Students at Maui High School in Kahului tell the story of a young woman who is grappling depression and has, on occasion, harmed herself. The student storytellers who created this feature deal with this sensitive topic with a great deal of empathy.

 

–Students at Konawaena High School and Konawaena Middle School on Hawai‘i Island collaborated on a story which shows that empathy is not limited to people’s feelings for other people. Human interactions with goats at the Dancing Goat Sanctuary prove that animals often elicit and deserve our empathy.

 

–Students at Kamehameha Schools Maui High School show how one teenager’s empathy for girls who suffer from low self-esteem inspired her to launch a positive self-image workshop for young women.

 

–Students at ‘Ewa Makai Middle School on O‘ahu tell an empathy-driven story about the highly personal connection between a young dancer and her art form.

 

–Students at Waimea High School on Kaua‘i tell the story of a girl’s battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in a way that leads viewers from feeling sympathy for to sharing empathy with the young patient.

 

This special episode is hosted by Yasha Ronquillo, a 2018 HIKI NŌ graduate from Maui High School who is currently a part-time HIKI NŌ teacher at her alma mater.

 

 

 

PBS HAWAI‘I PRESENTS
Tibetan Illusion Destroyer

PBS HAWAI‘I PRESENTS: Tibetan Illusion Destroyer

 

This film by Maui filmmaker Tom Vendetti documents the Mani Rimdu Festival in Nepal, which originated in Tibet and is still performed in an authentic colorful ceremony in the shadow of Mount Everest. The title refers to the Buddhist concept of destroying man-made illusions that lead to human suffering. Vendetti and renowned Hawaiian musician Keola Beamer were part of a Hawai‘i contingent that journeyed to Nepal to attend the festival. Beamer worked with musicians in Nepal to create the film’s original music.

 

 

 

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