Creative non-fiction / September 2014 (Issue 25)

Humuhumu's Longing

by Jamie Wang

"You only are free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place —no place at all."
        – Maya Angelou

Since the Hawaii trip, I often dream of Pele, the volcano goddess famous for her passionate love and revolutionary way of creating new land. Her hair runs over her voluptuous body—fertile as volcano soil, dazzling like flame; her immortal warmth burns off my flesh and bones leaving only my soul.

The trip was the first one I took without James (my then fiancé) since our relocation to Hong Kong, which in turn had been a giant leap for him having spent most of his life in Melbourne. As agreed, he would spend his savings on a Japanese snow trip, and I would spend mine to go to Hawaii. A coming marriage of fire and ice, as our friends sometimes mocked.

Prior to visiting the Big Island, I had only been to Honolulu and Maui. Both were overflowing with tourists, the smell of nachos fermenting in the air. By contrast, my encounter with the Big Island was love at first sight. The island had a raw, close to vicious, landscape with black volcano rocks covering both sides of roads, declaring their territory. Their vastness was almost as forceful as the night, which blanketed the city and offered no escape. The island reminded me of a wild beast, rebellious, and at the same time, mysteriously inviting.

I had been drained from work, the relocation, my habit of dividing life into an endless series of dots, just so I could plan and worry infinitely. Hence the trip was meant to be relaxing with no strict itinerary, except one must-see—the volcano: this ancient, powerful creature, home of Pele. Seeing a volcanic eruption with my own eyes would unveil some unknown part of myself, or so I believed.

The tour was scheduled to start at 3 pm because the lava would be more visible at night. A three-hour one-way hike was required to reach the viewing point. When I arrived at the gathering spot, Toki, the guide was already waiting: tall, well-built, wearing the sturdiest shoes I had ever seen. Like most other white Hawaiians I had met, he had long deep almond-shape eyes, almost Oriental in their appearance. He greeted me, and I was surprised by the gentle tone that emanated from his imposing frame.

"Don"t worry too much about carrying the water. I have got enough in my backpack, also some refreshments, headlamps, masks and ponchos. The walk is not easy."

And it was not.

The terrain was completely covered by cooled lava, like a black sea with perpetual, untamed waves, the debris of Pele's miracle and wrath. One really needed to concentrate on each of their steps, as a fall might result in serious injury.

"Are you a full-time guide, Toki?" I asked during a break after catching my breath.

"Oh no, I am a canoe instructor, also a park ranger at Volcanoes National Park. How about you?"

"I, um, I work for a bank." I always announce my profession in a semi-apologetic tone, afraid people may label me as Bartleby, the depressed scrivener surrounded by walls. "But one day I will do something else, once I figure out where I want to be and settle down."

"Then you must follow your heart. Life is irreversible, just like my receding hairline."

The way Toki talked was slow, mixed with occasional Hawaiian, almost rhythmical. With the same gentleness, he said this area was once residential. Then the houses, homes, church, the black sand beach, highways were gradually swallowed by the lava from the Kilauea eruption over twenty years ago. There were no casualties, as the lava flow was slow enough for everyone to escape. But nothing was left: the town of Kalapana was erased from the map and nothing would grow back on the lava-eaten land for decades. The order was reset.

"Why are people still living on this side of the island? Isn't Kilauea one of the most active volcanoes remaining in the world? Aren't they, aren't you scared?"

"We are Hawaiians. If there is an eruption, it is just Pele creating new land. This is part of our life and rules for living."

"How about those who lost everything in the eruption? Will they ever come back?"

"People don't abandon their home. Some of the areas we passed through still belong to the old residents." Toki pointed to the direction where we started, "There is guard at the entrance, as we were in fact trespassing on someone's home."

"Home is where we choose to settle, not a certain place we have lived. This land looks like the Dead Sea to me. The only living things are those spiders you pointed out."

"They won't give up. They will always hope to come back when the opportunity arises," Toki's voice contains infinite patience. "I heard Australians also go back and rebuild after bushfires, isn't this true? You never leave your home just as you never ditch your heart."

I went silent afterwards. It was true, of course. Toki's words brought me back to heart wrenching memories of Marysville, a beautiful town close to Melbourne, devastated by a the bushfire of 2009 in which only 33 out of 390 homes survived. But only two years after Australia's biggest bushfire, local residents began to move back to rebuild their town. I recalled the same admiration and astonishment of people's resilience and their attachment to a place I felt when first reading the news.

We arrived at the viewing site at twilight—a cliff not far from the volcano. A few people had assembled with tripods, but no one was really taking photos or talking. They stood still with their faces written with amazement, tears streaming down. "Now this is what you came all the way for," Toki said. Soon I became one of them.

The thick boiling lava was slowly pouring into the sea. Pele was in no rush, carefully painting the earth with her elegant yet savage brushstrokes. Underneath the ocean, the new land was formed as soon as the lava cooled down. As if she wanted to demonstrate her power to us—the outsiders who were yet to surrender—the volcano started spewing fiercely. The burning liquid gushed from the earth's heart, shooting metres high, and gusts of fire and mist rose into the air—the world was dissolving. At the far side of the sea, a whale swam by. It did a back flip, its body flying in the air, its split tail blurred at the edge by passing purple clouds. On the left, was glittering ocean, on the right, boiling red, and me in the middle, waiting for Pele, the creator to reveal the path to the unknown.

The way back was pitch black. I could only see the few inches lit by my headlamp. As we walked along, Toki pointed out some stars flickering in the sky. I learnt their names and how he used them for navigation during his canoe trips, some as far as to Canada and back.

"It is always safe if you can read stars and listen to your heart," he said.

"Toki, do you live by yourself?"

"I do now. My wife is living in Washington with her aunty."

"How come you didn't move with her?"

Silence descended between us, as thick as the darkness. How I wish I hadn't asked that last stupid question.

"My wife is from Japan." Finally Toki started to say with great difficulty. "We met in Honolulu, got married. She moved to the Big Island, took an administration job at Volcanoes National Park and stayed for 25 years. I promised we would move to some other cities in America as soon as she retired. But I lied. When the time came, I just couldn't leave."

Another silence grabbed my tongue. A dull ache crept into my heart, a limping knife slicing into it. I could almost see the face of Toki's wife, utterly disappointed, her helpless palms held up, hoping for a different ending. A marriage of fire and ice, James and I. What if the sparkle and excitement of differences at the beginning are only the phantoms that haunt the years to come?

Just at that moment, Toki started humming:

I want to go back to my little grass shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii
Where the Humuhumu, Nukunuku a puaa
1 goes swimming by

It won't be long till my ship will be sailing back to Kona
A grand old place that's always fair to see
I'm just a little Hawaiian and a homesick island boy
I want to go back to my fish and poi

His face softened and his eyes drowned in sadness. The lyric flew in the wind, and Humuhumu was with me on my way back to Hong Kong.

* * *

James was already at the gate waiting, and his face instantly glowed when he glimpsed me in the crowd.

On the way back home, I mentioned the story of Toki not being able to leave the Big Island and the Hawaiians' choice to live under Pele's rule. James nodded and said, "The same as the Japanese returning after a tsunami or Americans after a tornado. Some people don't abandon their homes."

"James, do you think we are evolved from fish or monkey?"

"Huh, where is that from?"

"Oh nothing, just a random thought."

I could get away with that answer to conclude almost any of our discussions. It is like my trademark, being random. But fish are not. Their lives are guided by some uncanny memories. Salmon swim back to where they were hatched to spawn, no matter which part of the ocean they are in. Just like James, Toki and many others attach themslves to their birthplace or somewhere they have lived.

"You know, there is a theory called place attachment..." James's voice cut through my imaginary salmon migration, brought me back to dry land. "It basically talks about the bond between place and people, the relationship between place identity and personal identity. So people do return post-disaster and rebuild from zero, if there is a strong sense of place."

"Impressive insight. Since when you are interested in this area?" I was semi-startled. James was not your know-everything type of guy, and this was definitely not his domain.

* * *

Place attachment, how intriguing. I wonder if Toki has ever heard of it. I never asked him why it had to be the Big Island. Was it the smell of the soil, the colour of the sky, the chipped wood on his canoe? Or maybe the spell cast by Pele that steals his soul? I wondered how dark and ferocious the return home was for the salmon. A golden time for grizzly bears, eagles as well as fishermen—the fattest and best sashimi season.

* * *

Day after day, I go to work, finish my work. I practice Yoga, Namaste then go home. I daydream and get married, to a husband with his wholehearted support of my dreams, a marriage that deeply comforts my parents. I continue wandering and looking for the place.

If I brought back any fire from Pele, it is slowly being put out by routine; the new tan from the honeymoon replaces the old one.

Only that unsettling feeling from Toki's choice is still there, like that naughty pea underneath twelve layered mattresses, making me toss and turn at night.

I start to look for evidence that can support a bond between me and a place, like using a GPS to position a dot on the map, but this time to locate my heart. One of my great "virtues" is to keep my belongings minimal, so that any move can be completed in the most efficient and least emotional manner, and hence my search for bonding objects proves futile. The closest thing I dig out to are a few old photos with scribbles on the back:

Photo 1: me standing in front of RMIT University City Campus

First day in RMIT. The lecturer has strong Australian accent. Slept through half of the Marking class. I miss Shanghai.

Photo 2: My mother and I posing in front of Sydney Harbour Bridge:

Mum cried today cause I said Melbourne is now my home. She said she lost her daughter. Am I betraying her?

And then there is a stack of photos of me packing for the relocation to Hong Kong (James's treasured collection, titled "Migration"). My notes on the back are confusing and self-contradictory, swinging from "I don't want to leave" to "If I don't move I will rot."

I resort to Google, hoping the experts can enlighten me. Robert Hay in Sense Of Place in Developmental Context draws parallels between a sense of place and an adult pair bond (most often a marriage). He suggests both can provide feelings of security, belonging and stability if fully developed. However, due to the increased mobility of modern society, the establishment of an enduring connection to people and places is increasingly being replaced by multiple or temporary attachments at different stages. Could this be the answer to my ever-changing perception of a place, a reflection of my own uncertain feelings towards myself, my identity?

Even though attachment might be temporary, no one can escape their past, the lives they have lived. The meaning of a place is like the acid using in etching, sinking into one's life, patiently waiting to be woken up. Then, what is Shanghai, my birthplace, to me? The wet market turned animal morgue I passed by every day on my way home. The snack street after the market: pancakes blooming with spring onion, rice cakes bubbling in red bean soup, meat skewered on stolen bike spokes. And my grandma who picked me up from school every afternoon, always there, holding me tight. As fragmented and discontinued as it seems, Shanghai has formed part of me.

Could this be the message from Pele—there is no and has never been a clear line between creation and conclusion. Life can be as blessedly simple as being born, living and dying, or as perplexing as a spiral: taking away everything, rebuilding and reliving, or the other way around. Life has no sequence. It is a cycle after all, and so is our feeling towards a place. Aren't we essentially in what Deleuze and Guattari describe as a constant state of "becoming" rather than living in a stable world of "being." A line of becoming has neither beginning nor end, departure nor arrival, origin nor destination; it has only a middle.

If my grandma, to whom I am more attached than my parents were still alive, would I be able to leave Shanghai without much difficulty?

If it were not for the near fatal accident that almost killed me in Melbourne, would my yearning for the beautiful air and boundless sky be more unbearable?

If James and I grow old together, will he secretly live in regret and despair from following me around to look for "the place" to settle?

There is no answer to any of these questions. Only I seem to finally realise that failing to build a permanent bond with a place does not signify me reducing to a slice of myself. I am not consuming my identity, rather adding more into myself, from every place I have lived.

* * *

The Australia Football League Grand Final is on this afternoon. Meat pie crusting in the oven, chips bathing in the golden oil, chilled beer sweating on the coffee table. Only I am unable to find any Australian sausages, so French ones will be served instead.

It is a good game as usual. James's team puts up a decent fight but loses at the end. Seeing his watering eyes, refusing to eat the juicy and supple French sausages, it suddenly strikes me that he is probably homesick.

After the game, I suggest we go for a walk. There is a nice park close by, overlooking the harbour and the sea. There are always some boats moored in the water, reminding us of the calming Elwood Beach with all its yachts.

Holding James's hand in mine, my tears start to stream down and soon wet my face. The silent cry turns to a light sob, growing louder and harder until I can't breathe.


People's names have been changed in this essay to protect their privacy.


[1] Humuhumu, Nukunuku a pua'a is the name of the triggerfish, widely popular in Hawaii. It was the official state fish of Hawaii at one stage.

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