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Rather than share aloha, many people in Hawaii often must sell it to survive. People like Thad.

"Aloha, sister!"

The voice boomed out of a large open-air, wood-frame home on Molokai. Thad, the owner of a "rental car" company, pulled on a tank top and came outside. He said he had the "perfect" car for me: a rusted-out 1984 Suzuki jeep he'd picked up at a junkyard and patched up with duct tape. He'd "loan" it for $25 for the day, plus gas.

I said that I'd never driven a jeep before. He shrugged. No big deal.

"It's perfect for you, sister. It's blue. Matches your shirt."

The doors had no locks. The speedometer and odometer were broken.

As I backed out of the driveway, he folded his middle three fingers into the palm of his hand, stuck out his thumb and pinkie and waved the traditional "shaka" gesture of camaraderie as he yelled, "Don't forget about the gas, sister. And if you see anyone on the road, wave. They'll know you're a friend of Thad's."

Hitting the road on a drizzly January day in early 1997, during a weekend getaway from Honolulu where I had moved and was starting graduate school in political science, I felt the moodiness that had engulfed me begin to dissipate.

Maybe Thad sensed how I felt. Maybe he knew that driving around Molokai in an aging jeep would momentarily cure loneliness. But was his aloha genuine or was he just trying to make a buck?

Hawaii is often described as a visitors' paradise overflowing with aloha -- that caring spirit of generosity. It has become a major selling point to the more than 7 million people who visit the islands each year. But an economy based on pleasing those who come to visit means that the 1.1 million people who live here often must pay a price.

Today, most of the people who live in Hawaii earn their livelihood from tourism, the state's top industry. The cost of living has skyrocketed, particularly since the 1980s. And with an employment base tied primarily to low-paying tourism jobs, many locals work two or three jobs, or have been forced to move to the continental United States for better opportunities.

Many residents resent the state's dependence on the tourism industry. They question the wisdom of tying the islands' fortunes to a single industry. And a growing number wish that visitors would go elsewhere.

Or, if visitors must have the perfect vacation in paradise, some locals prefer that they stick to resorts and tourist enclaves such as Waikiki, leaving the quieter, more pristine parts of the islands to those who live here.

That doesn't mean you won't have a good vacation if you come to Hawaii. As long as tourism remains Hawaii's top employer, most who work in the business probably will continue to give visitors what they seek.

And, economic considerations aside, true aloha does exist. It's just sometimes difficult to detect, partly because the tourist industry has turned it into such a merchandising commodity that even island residents have trouble recognizing the genuine article.

Many who would rather see tourists go elsewhere are indigenous Hawaiians, people of the islands who trace their ancestry to those who lived here before the first Westerners arrived in the late 18th century.

Those with Hawaiian blood now make up barely one-fifth of the total population of Hawaii. The change in demographics began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the advent of American colonialism and the development of a plantation-based economy that brought in laborers from China, Japan, Korea, Okinawa, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Portugal and elsewhere.

These changes produced a great deal of intermarriage. At the same time, the numbers of those with full Hawaiian blood shrank as a result of imported diseases and the poverty that accompanied dispossession of land.

The descendants of these imported plantation workers often are described as "locals," a polyglot group that gives Hawaii a distinct multicultural feel. Yet, as locals have prospered, indigenous Hawaiians have swelled the ranks of the illiterate, impoverished and incarcerated.

Self-rule -- or sovereignty, as a growing movement is called -- is seen as a way not only to reclaim a more prosperous way of life for indigenous Hawaiians, but also as a means to allow Hawaii's rich culture to flourish outside of the tourist economy.

The meaning of the sovereignty movement is the subject of a vigorous community debate. Indigenous Hawaiians themselves aren't of one mind as to the movement's goals. Some want outright independence from the United States. Others want a nation created that would operate autonomously within the United States, as many American Indian tribal nations on the mainland do.

Opponents of the movement point to this lack of agreement about sovereignty as a sign of weakness. Those in the movement respond that the debate is part of what self-determination means.

Some express their desire for sovereignty to tourists by saying, "Haole, go home." "Haole," the Hawaiian word for foreigner, usually means "white," but not always now.

And the sentiment isn't directed only at tourists. Many non-Hawaiians, like myself, who live here feel at times as if we, too, are being asked to leave. We wonder if we should go home.

The idea has an even broader context, for I have no idea where home is. As an Asian Indian woman who has lived her entire life in the United States, being told that I'm a foreigner who should go home is not a new experience. Over the years, as some Americans have refused to see me as American, I, too, have stopped seeing America as home.

Is my home the village in northern India where my father grew up, surrounded by three generations of kin? Or New Delhi, the cosmopolitan capital where my mother spent her childhood and young adult years?

Is it Muncie, Ind., the Midwestern college town where I grew up, or is it Seattle, where I lived for seven years and still own a house?

Or is it here, among these beautiful islands in the Pacific?

I love the fresh air, the ocean water and the green hills of Manoa that ring the University of Hawaii. Yet, loving and belonging are two different things.

The right to call this place home rests with Hawaiians. That right was taken away from them, officially with the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and unofficially with whaling and missionary activity several decades earlier.

Their language was banned, as was hula, their dance.

When activists angrily plead, "Give us our land back" at rallies held at such places as the monarchy's Iolani Palace, it's understandable.

As Hawaiians revive their language through immersion schools and other programs, their dance and many cultural practices as part of the sovereignty movement, I realize that what I've come to love about Hawaii is what so many others hate: the fact that it is not my place, that I cannot call it home.

Before I left Seattle, a friend who grew up on Oahu advised me to think about something simple: Hawaii might be part of the United States, but it is not America.

"Instead of worrying about why things in Hawaii are the way they are," he said, "just accept that they are."

After five years, that's how I understand local culture. Relax and enjoy the moment, whatever it may be, for some things are as they are.

This means experiences like being at Ala Moana Beach at 7 a.m., where about three dozen people -- all over 70 -- take a vigorous swim.

It's checking out the muscled men and women at 5 a.m. who pump iron at the Gym in downtown Honolulu.

It's enjoying the baritone bellow of a Hawaiian activist, who, one March dawn, began singing about reclaiming stolen land as a group of us slept on the floor of the University of Hawaii's campus center to protest a proposed tuition increase.

But sometimes understanding local culture comes much more subtly.

It's seeing a full moon rise over the sea from the cliffs at Makapuu Point along the windward coast of Oahu and watching its golden glow illuminate the one-mile trail on the way down.

On a similar night in urban Honolulu, it's about walking past the Blaisdell Center concert and exhibition center, and fragrant Tahitian gardenia bushes around it, past McKinley High School, past the saimin noodle shops on King Street, past the car lot and the 7-Eleven toward my apartment in Makiki, a nontourist neighborhood.

Or seeing outrigger canoe teams dipping paddles into the ocean at sunset at Ala Moana Beach. Or relaxing amid the orchids and sipping a chardonnay in late evening at the New Otani Hotel's Hau Tree Lanai on the edge of Waikiki, a place that writer Robert Louis Stevenson made famous.

A man on a Honolulu bus once told me that in Hawaii, everyone used to leave their doors unlocked. The open door meant it was OK for strangers to walk in and take whatever they needed -- but only what they needed.

That is real aloha, local style. It's not just generosity that flows from one person to the other. It's about accepting the gesture, without abusing it.

If you come to Hawaii, I don't promise that you'll find real aloha. Conversely, if you visit nontouristed areas, I doubt you'll be told to go home.

You might find warmth; you might be ignored. Someone might break into your rental car; someone might offer you a coconut, fresh off the tree. If you come, fall in love with Hawaii. But don't try to claim you know it. That's like saying you can own it, that you can belong to it. And that is not aloha.

If you go

Understanding the sovereignty movement perspective -- or even gaining a deeper understanding of Hawaiian cultural beliefs and practices -- can be difficult for visitors, largely because so much of what sovereignty represents is a desire to reclaim the islands for Hawaiians and to keep tourists away.

For those who do come, the Bishop Museum at 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, offers what is probably the world's most extensive collection of Hawaiian and other Pacific Island artifacts. Strolling through the museum reveals insights into how Hawaiians traditionally have lived and offers a sense of how self-determination can restore cultural practices. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Christmas Day. Admission is $14.95 for adults, $11.95 for children ages 4 through 12 and for seniors over age 65. For more information, call (808) 847-3511 or check the museum's Web site at

Sovereignty groups frequently use the outer grounds of Iolani Palace, the royal residence of Queen Lili'uokalani, the reigning monarch at the time of the overthrow, as a launching site for protests and public forums.

Local newspapers generally publicize these events and workshops taking place at such sites as the University of Hawaii's Center for Hawaiian Studies.

Iolani Palace is in downtown Honolulu on South King Street. Guided tours inside the palace are offered every 15 minutes between 9 a.m. and 2:15 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays. Cost is $15 for adults, $5 for children between 5 and 12. For reservations, call (808) 522-0832.

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