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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 16, 2003

Ex-resident finds Hawai'i, South share many common bonds

By Wade Kilohana Shirkey

It was a slower way of "counting life" that allowed Katie Leithead to make an almost seamless transition back home to Hawai'i for a visit after more than 30 years in the Deep South. It was a cadence she had carried in her soul for three decades.

"The way to measure Southern time," said Leithead, 48, is " 'one' Mississippi, 'two' Mississippi ... it's a slow count.

"A computer guy told me: 'Turn off your computer for 30 seconds — and I mean 30 SOUTHERN seconds!' " she recalled.

"Hawai'i is that same 'slow down, relax, take in the smells,' attitude.

"Take off your shoes. Let the sand flow through your toes. You feel it as soon as you get off the plane."

The former student of St. Andrew's Priory and Kalani High School said that the first thing her husband taught her when she married and moved to coastal Louisiana was: "When you move to a small town in the South, you don't beep at anyone (in traffic). And you don't (talk stink) behind their backs — because everyone is 'ohana. There is a basic friendliness — and humility — just like here."

"Yanked" out of a comfortable senior year in Hawai'i by her parents' divorce, Leithead found herself in New Orleans, seemingly thrown into a strange milieu of unfamiliar people, customs, language — even humor. "To this day," she said, "I hate those (typically Louisiana) 'Mr. Bordeau jokes'! I didn't understand them," she said.

"And, no ocean! When I asked for the nearest beach," she said, friends suggested the cement wall along Lake Pontchartrain. "That was soooo depressing! I felt like I had fallen off a cliff!"

But she eventually found common bonds between her old home and her new, both plantation-based societies where outside influences had been thrust on a native culture.

In both places there is a basic suspicion of "outsiders" and a certain difficulty for newcomers to assimilate, she said. "We're all," here in the Islands and in the South, "like one big plantation."

And she's not subtle in explanation. "Outsiders raped" — and continue to rape, in Hawai'i's case — "the original cultures," so much so, she says, that in some ways all each culture had left was a dependence on one another.

"They (outside influences) took — or tried to take — away our customs, our way of life. But they couldn't take away our love of our land," she said.

Whatever you called it, aloha 'aina was very much a part of the Southern mindset. "Southerners are tied to the land — and we care about each other. We take care of each other," she said.

As an example, she cited her husband's orthodontic patients. For fishing families, "we don't start billing until June" and the accompanying shrimp season, when they'll have money to pay.

And in both locales there's a resurgent tradition: the 'olelo makuahine, or mother tongue. As Hawai'i has its Hawaiian immersion schools, Louisiana has French immersion schools.

"My child spoke French before English," she said, noting how her son once tripped over English in conversation with her. "Sorry. I don't know the English word," he told her.

In travels, she finds "there's nowhere that has that ... cohesion, that basic comfortableness," that she finds as soon as she gets off the plane back home — whether that's in the South or Hawai'i.

And now on this visit, the mother of three, she a child of the Islands and Louisiana, was greeted by a reassuring feeling of comfort.

A flood of old memories came back: Coco's, Zippy's — and chili rice — Sister Lucy at the (St. Andrew's) Priory, "B" bathroom at Kalani (where she remembered you'd as likely get "a lickin' " as not), and Golden Dragon restaurant's duck with plum sauce.

And the smells: plumeria, pakalana, guava — even wisps of teriyaki from beachside hibachis. And "Oh, yeah, pikake! Here, everything smells so ..." she searches for the word. "Pretty! I miss the cleanliness — the air is so pure. The trades." New Orleans, by comparison, smells "old, dirty."

Somehow, the perky little blond whirlwind's combination of aloha spirit and Southern hospitality i "No, Southern manners!" she says — charmed friends and strangers here, including the taxi driver who "adopted" her for the day, driving her around town, waiting while she shopped — even making her dinner reservations.

Whether it's the South or Hawai'i, "It's nice to be nice," she said.

"She's never met a stranger she didn't know," said her husband, Buzzy.

It's only fair, Katie would agree: After all, Southerners DO depend on the kindness of strangers.

Katie Shirkey Leithead is the younger sister of The Advertiser's Wade Kilohana Shirkey. He writes on Island life.