Never Betray the Lei!
I have now seen it several times and the indiscretion is oddly funny. A speaker at an event, usually a mainland haole male, is introduced and then graced with a Hawai'i lei. Appearing baffled, they remove the lei and look around for a place to politely dump it.
The first time I saw this blunder was at a multi-level marketing seminar at the Ala Moana Hotel. I have a perverse way of entertaining myself. A Colorado outfit was going to conquer the islands with a new miracle, health something system. If you get in now, you'll lose weight, cure blindness and make millions. I love showmanship. Studying the motley crew on stage, I was expecting a couple of the warm-up speakers to be introduced with "Fresh out of Federal prison..."
The main act was a tall, lanky guy who looked ill at ease in his Hawaiian shirt. Maybe it was itchy. Maybe he hadn't had time to wash it after he nabbed the day-glow print from a lobby shop downstairs. His introduction was a humdinger, something like inventing cable TV and the chocolate chip cookie. As he walked to the podium, a comely assistant approached, holding a lei aloft. The huckster looked confused, then slowly lowered his head while the lei was placed around his neck. Then another girl did the same. And then several others. He was given many leis, for he is a big kahuna on his Colorado island.
The motivationalist then got a funny look on his face, as if the tuberoses had been replaced with chunks of Limburger cheese. He didn't know what to do. He looked around, helpless. He walked back to his seat, bent over and clumsily set the leis on the chair.
I left before he finished his sales pitch. I wondered if he'd sat on the leis when he returned to his seat or just shoved them onto the floor.
The gift of a Hawai'i lei is an honor. The gesture represents, aloha, welcome, love, gratitude, respect and celebration. To immediately remove a lei is a gross faux pas.
I cannot think of a faster way to insult an entire culture and tradition. Sure, one could erect a massive neon Aloha Waikiki across Diamond Head, like the Hollywood sign. Or maybe replace the iconic statue of King Kamehameha I with one of a smiling Captain Cook waving a shaka. You could plop a McDonalds on Mauna Kea. White shoes after Labor Day is bad, but nothing is as heinous as removing a lei.
While the action is demeaning to the generous host, it speaks very ill of the recipient. Like a tattoo on one's forehead that reads Stoopid. Or an auto bumper sticker that taunts Pimp The Police! Not only does it quickly advertise one's cultural insensitivity and ignorance, the rude action instantly demeans one's credibility.
At an art lecture at the UH Manoa, the haole speaker removed his lei. Toastmasters International, the public speaking workshop, offers many ways for a speaker to build rapport and credibility with an audience. They do not advocate that one drop trou and moon the crowd. That antic would be preferable to removing a lei.
The auditorium was filled to capacity. Some stood in the back to hear the internationally known artist. As is customary on these gentle isles, a professor placed a handmade wreath of small flowers, Kukui nuts and dark green leaves around the artist's neck. And then it happened.
In a nervous flash, the guest speaker removed the lei as if it were made of venomous sea snakes. A vampire couldn't get away from garlic any faster. He looked pained as if Pele had roped his neck with lava.
I was so offended, I stood up to leave. Unfortunately, a very large and angry looking woman was blocking the end of my row. Rather than try to climb over her, I decided to sit down and watch the show. Surprisingly, the audience did not rise en masse and storm out. Locals are inured to the affront. After all, aloha is gracious.
It takes a real man, a gentleman and an aesthete to wear a garland of flowers around his neck. Never betray the lei.
A Higher Hawai'i Power
There is an extremely successful line of clothing that was created in Hale'iwa on O'ahu. Surely you have seen their popular logo on the back of a car. HE>i is a Christian based brand. The capital letters HE (God) is greater than little ole me with a lowercase i.
Success breeds imitation. Or maybe a retort. I recently saw a bumper sticker that made me laugh, then nod in approval. SHE>i Why not? No one really knows if God trims his snowy white beard or shaves her hairy legs.
About a week later, I saw a pickup truck with surf racks and a crowd pleasin' capper on its rear bumper. SEA>i This is one notion we can all agree on.
Aloha says Hello and Goodbye.