I wish my life was one big luau

21 May

Last night, my daughter had a mid-week hula practice in preparation for our big ho’olaule’a (fundraiser) this weekend.  Half of the halau (hula school) and our musicians descended upon a local Hawaiian restaurant to practice and eat.  If you just happened to choose Oahu’s for dinner that night, you got a free show.

As I sat with my two daughters, I looked around and smiled.  This is the kind of “village” that I like. The keikis (children) bounced around from table to table visiting every family.  The kupunas (elders) danced and everyone cheered (I especially admire the one who dances with her oxygen tubes attached).  As the keikis got up to dance, the kupunas all stayed to watch the little ones, even though their practice was over and they could have left.  Tutus (grandmas) hugged children that were not their own.  Moms kept an eye on kids from other families.  Babies were held on stage by daddies that needed to sing.  Bloodlines are blurred, patience abounds; we’re all looking out for one another.  There are smiles all around.  This is the way all families should work.  This is our ‘ohana.

Sometimes it’s hard to explain the concept of ‘ohana.  In the movie, Lilo and Stitch, Lilo gives a very simple explanation: “‘Ohana means family. Family means no one is left behind – or forgotten.”  In the United States, “family” typically refers to the nuclear family: mom, dad and children.  But an ‘ohana can consist of aunties, uncles, grandparents, cousins and those dear friends of no blood relation that you just can’t live without. 

I was raised in a Filipino/Japanese/Hawaiian-style family with a huge ‘ohana.  In fact, I have cousins that I didn’t realize weren’t blood related until I was in my 20’s!  I have carried on that tradition with my kids.  In fact, a true sign of whether or not my 7-year old really likes you is if she refers to you as her cousin. And, if you ask her how many brothers and sisters she has, she will definitively answer “one brother and six sisters”.  The truth is that 3 of those “sisters” are her 20-something trio of babysitters and two are DH’s daughters (which, because we are unmarried, are not legally her stepsisters).

DH, on the other hand, was raised in a “Leave it to Beaver” household; traditionally American in every way.  My kids fell into calling his kids “sisters” out of love almost immediately and his kids looked confused.  They called his parents “grandma and grandpa” out of respect and they thought that we instantly expected that they’d have some kind of responsibility towards them.  My kids did what they have been raised to do: give family labels to people they love and/or respect and I guess that was a bit of a culture shock to DH’s family.  But after explaining that the kids were free with “grandma, grandpa, aunty, uncle” out of love and respect, they became more comfortable. That’s when it occurred to me that the concept of ‘ohana might work in our “non-traditional”(unmarried) stepfamily where the question of what to call each other and who belongs to who often pops up. 

Here’s what I’ve come up with for our brood: We are an ‘ohana, which means we are a family.  We might not all be related by blood, but we watch out for each other, we are kind to one another, and we treat each other as we would want to be treated.  We are “bruddahs and sistahs” (doing my best Pidgin accent here) because sometimes your family isn’t only the one you are born into, it’s also the one you make along the way.

Now before you get all excited, let’s get a few things straight: I’m not demanding that my stepdaughters use family names in referring to me, my biological children or their half sister. I’d just like them to get past the voices that say “She’s only your dad’s girlfriend, she’s not your stepmother” or “She’s only your half-sister, she’s not your real sister”. Does it really matter what we choose to call one another in OUR family?  What I’d like is for them to “live aloha (which is not a new concept for them, it just has different words assigned to it) and to learn live ‘ohana-style so that labels and the lack of legal documentation (ie, marriage certificate) doesn’t matter, but the feeling and love does.  I’d love it if they didn’t blink an eye when my 7-year old introduces them as her stepsisters or her sisters or if they didn’t feel the need to correct the 2-year old that DH and I have together every time she called one of them “Sister!”.  I want them to know that my children and I refer to them as part of our family because of the love we have for them and that there’s no pressure to reciprocate. In fact, I’d like to surround them in so much love that all the anxiety over the invisible line that’s drawn between “us” and “them” just disappears…poof!

Our big luau is this weekend and luckily it’s also DH’s weekend with his girls.  They’ve been to a few luaus with us and love the Hawaiian culture.  They love the dancing, the music and the easy-going nature of our ‘ohana.  At luaus we are all bruddahs and sistahs, auntys and uncles, tutus and kanes (grandmas and grandpas); one big happy ‘ohana sharing a meal, some music and dancing and a lot of laughs. I love that his girls are exposed to that and that they eagerly soak up every minute of it.  With time and patience, I truly hope the ‘ohana concept will sink in.

If only real stepfamily life was one big luau. A girl can dream, right?

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