Awesome topic idea! I've loved reading everyone's posts here.
I might've mentioned elsewhere on the board that I live in Hawaii. I've lived here all my life, and it's a lovely, lovely bunch of islands. There are 8 inhabited ones (though Niihau is essentially private property and you need special permission to go there), plus several to the northwest (stretching almost up to Alaska) that were named a Marine National Monument by President George W. Bush in 2006 to protect the many unique marine species and birds found there that don't live anywhere else in the world, so those islands and the surrounding ocean are accessible only to scientists studying the animals living there. We've got lots of native plants, birds, fish, and insects that are unique to Hawaii, ranging from birds with curved bills to drink nectar from flowers, to caterpillars that eat other insects. (Charles Darwin would have probably found tons of great stuff to write about if he'd visited here.)
Sadly, most of the native species are only found in the ever-shrinking rainforests and natural areas, and so Hawaii is known as the endangered species capitol of the world. Many species have sadly been pushed to extinction in the last 300 years or so due to habitat loss as well as competition with humans and introduced species. (Thus, it's very difficult to bring in animals and plants from other states and countries; bags are checked for animals, plants, and even seeds, pets are quarantined for a month or so, and some types of animals such as snakes aren't allowed at all unless the local zoo is bringing them in, in which case it would have to be just one male of the species so they won't breed and spread.)
I live on the island of Oahu -- not the biggest island, but certainly the most populous one, and the home of our state capitol Honolulu (of which Waikiki, the tourist district, is a major part). I live in a small town called Kaneohe (pronounced "Ka-neh-o-hey"), and it's a lovely place nestled between gorgeous green mountains and the ocean. There are lots of great hiking trails, beaches, and forest-y areas, as well as suburbs and shopping/business areas. It's kind of nice being on a different side of the island from the city, yet it's easy to get there (because the island is only about 40 miles across at its widest point), which is good since I go to school in the city. I've been to the islands of Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii ("The Big Island") as well; they're all wonderful, and I'd love to visit them again (and also see the other islands) sometime.
Politically... well, Hawaii has a bit of a complicated history that I'll probably get into in a future post. We were the 50th and most recent state to be added to the United States, and that happened in 1959. Our current governor is Neil Abercrombie, who previously served as one of our representatives in Congress. Hawaii has a reputation as a pretty liberal state which I think is somewhat exaggerated. It's true that we're very ethnically diverse and fairly progressive on many social issues, and we certainly elect a lot of Democrats, but once elected, they don't really make the progressive changes they promise when they're campaigning. They just uphold the status quo.
Our elected officials also tend not to spend money to fix problems until said problems have become enormous; thus, our roads and sewer systems are woefully deficient, our public education system is badly in need of reworking, and there's a large homeless population. Our economy is almost completely dependent on tourism and nearly all our food and supplies are imported from the US and other countries, which is a huge problem as fuel and shipping costs continue to go up. (Quite a change from just a couple hundred years ago, when the Hawaiian islands were completely self-sustaining and didn't need anything imported.)
People here generally aren't very politically involved, sadly. Our voter turnout tends to be among the lowest in the country because people don't see the point -- the incumbents nearly always get reelected (especially if they're Democrats), and with our state getting only two electoral votes, we don't get much say in presidential elections. Even if one of the major candidates happens to be from Hawaii, as has been the case for the past two national elections with President Obama.
There's also some controversy about Hawaii's status as part of the United States. Some people of Native Hawaiian ancestry resent our statehood because Hawaii had once been a sovereign nation, and the last Queen of Hawaii was illegally overthrown in 1893 in a coup by a group of American businessmen (who had previously forced the King under threat of violence to sign a constitution stripping him of much of his authority and allowing only white property owners to vote). There's now a small but vocal sovereignty movement that wants Hawaii to separate completely from the United States and become an independent nation again. Most people, even the majority of Native Hawaiians, don't want to go that far, but there's wide support for more rights for Native Hawaiians since currently, they don't have the same recognition and relative sovereignty that Native Americans and Alaskans get. Sadly, the bills that would have done that (championed by our former Senator Daniel Akaka) haven't managed to make much headway in Congress since first being proposed in 2000. However, in 1993, President Clinton signed a resolution apologizing for the overthrow that happened a hundred years prior. Again, I'll get more into the history in a later post.
For interesting cultural things, the first thing to understand is that Hawaii is a mishmash of cultures. For a bunch of tiny islands with a relatively small population, we are incredibly culturally diverse, since people come in from all over the world either to visit or to stay. There's a particularly large Asian population (mainly Japanese, but also many people from China, Korea, the Philippines, and other countries). As a result, celebrations like Chinese New Year and the Japanese Obon festival (honoring the spirits of the dead) are pretty huge here. Different ethnic groups tend to gravitate towards different parts of the islands, so depending where you go, you might see a wide range of cultural practices. Also, it's generally considered bad luck to take stones from volcanic areas. Most people don't believe in the ancient Hawaiian religion, but they still don't want to take the chance of angering Pele, the volcano goddess. Supposedly, the bad luck has afflicted some skeptical or unknowing tourists who took lava rocks, so yeah... best to just not do it, regardless of what you believe.
Hawaii also has the lowest white population of any state in the US. In fact, whites are a somewhat persecuted group here and are often referred to with the term "haole."
(The term is sometimes used in a derogatory sense, but is usually just a descriptive term in the same way that "white" and "black" are -- generally, it's only meant to be offensive if the sentence containing it is belittling, or if "haole" is preceded by the f-word.) Wikipedia's article on the term
has a good rundown of its possible meanings and origins.
To clear up some misconceptions people might have due to popular media portrayals of Hawaii, though:
* Only tourists wear really loud aloha shirts. Locals may wear aloha shirts with more subdued colors at work (since they're more comfortable than suits and ties in our hot, humid weather). Generally, though, people tend to wear t-shirts and shorts when they're not on the job (or even if they are, sometimes).
* Grass skirts and coconut bras were not traditional Hawaiian attire. Chiefs wore helmets and cloaks made of red and yellow feathers (from our colorful native bird species); their outfits can be seen on the Wikipedia page for "Ancient Hawaii."
Most other people (men and women) wore loincloths and nothing else.
* A hula
dance you see in movies or TV shows (or in most restaurants and clubs in Waikiki) probably isn't traditional. Before the arrival of Europeans, hula
was only done by men. In most cases, if you see something done in Waikiki, it's not really what the ancient Hawaiians did. The Polynesian Cultural Center is somewhat better, but inaccuracies still abound.
* Not everyone who lives here is Hawaiian. Just as most people who live in the US aren't considered Native Americans, most people who live in Hawaii aren't Native Hawaiians. Only a tiny minority of people here even speak Hawaiian (and I'm not one of them, sadly, though I know a few words and phrases).
* Not everyone in Hawaii surfs. I don't know how to surf, though I'd like to learn.
* It's not sunny here all the time. Or even most of the time, really; depending which islands/areas you visit and what time of year you come, you may see a lot
* Luaus are not common outside of the touristy areas. The ancient Hawaiians *did* have luaus to mark special or important occasions, but these days, only people of Native Hawaiian descent who are celebrating special events tend to have them. Other folks have barbecues or other types of parties and don't call them "luaus."
* We do still have drugs, crime, poverty, and other social problems here. On the other hand, we don't have anywhere near the level of violence, gangs, and international terrorism you'd see on Hawaii Five-O.
Anyway, hope you all enjoyed a little slice of "paradise" here! If you have any questions, feel free to post, or PM me. And I'll post a bit (or more) about Hawaii's history soon.