“Is it because we have become so bitter that our people now crave so much sweetness?”
I didn’t know how to respond. I was quite certain that my friend/constant riddler was speaking about much larger issues in the Hawaiian community than our literal obsession with sugary foods and drinks. However, her words left a taste in my mouth: the bitter taste of truth. And now, even months after hearing them, I can still sense her words as they dance on my tongue, not yet sure of the lesson she was trying to teach me. So, I chew on her ideas, not yet able to fully swallow them.
This blog is my exploration of her question, my examination of my own journey to balance the bitter and the sweet in my life, and my effort to share it with you. This is something that I’ve been working on and pondering over for almost a year now. And while I was trying to wait for the perfect moment to share it—the moment when I would have had it all figured out—that moment never came. I don’t have it worked out. I don’t have a definite answer. No, I cannot tell you whether some sort of historical bitterness is the cause of our sweet cravings and the depressing status of our health. What I can tell you, however, is my story and what I have learned from it.
I stopped eating sugar over a year ago (see my blog “The Sweet Life” for more). What was initially a quest to better my health has become a quest to better understand our relationships with food, and more so, what “dietary colonialism” has done to not only our palates, but to our bodies, the first site of our independence (Pollock, 1992, p. 180). Thus, my quitting sugar gave me the space and time to truly reflect upon my sovereignty by first taking control of what I put into my mouth, each and every day.
It was a release from a form of incarceration, one of being locked into a detrimental relationship with food! I know that sounds strange and I know I sound extreme and perhaps even a bit too intense. However, the fact that the Pacific Islands have some of the highest obesity rates in the world and the fact that diabetes is not only one of the most common but one of the most serious health problems in the region is cause for extreme action; it is cause for intense response (Curtis, 2004, p. 37). I’ve learned that sugar is an addiction with severe impacts (read more on this here). Thus, in a way, I responded to my own “captivity,” as poet and activist Haunani-Kay Trask would phrase it, by literally eating my way out of it. I ditched the sugar and returned to natural foods, learning to cook, learning to eat, and learning to enjoy a truly “sweet” life without all of the processing and additives. He māʻona moku. I learned to be content with what the land naturally provided me.
However, it was not enough to free myself. My experience gave birth to a new understanding of colonialism, where and what it attacks, and as a result, a new approach towards decolonization, starting with our diets (See the “Decolonize Your Diet” blog for more information on this movement). “Dietary colonialism” began in the Pacific when our ancestors were not only introduced to new foods and flavors from afar, but also introduced to new ideas about what constituted a meal, when people should and should not eat, and what was deemed “appropriate” to eat at particular times of the day: “Even before World War Two, missionary wives and other women from the West were strongly advising the women of the Pacific on the ‘proper way’ to feed their families” (Curtis, 2004, p. 38). Over time, the “traditional foods of the islands such as fresh fish, meat, and local fruits and vegetables have been replaced by rice, sugar, flour, canned meats, canned fruits and vegetables, soft drinks and beer. The diet is high in calories and with little nutritional value” (Curtis, 2004, p. 38).
This is the legacy that we’ve inherited. And our colonization has gone even deeper as our dependence on imported foods gets higher and our desire for accessible and affordable meals gets stronger. The effect of introduced diseases continues. While we mourn the loss of the thousands of Pacific Islanders who perished at the introduction of new diseases in previous centuries, we often fail to see the thousands who are dying now as a result of yet another disease attacking our bodies, and our people, slowly.
Thinking back on my friend’s rather mind-boggling question, I suppose I wanted an answer, or a specific reason, for the fact that so many in our region are unhealthy. Yet, I soon realized that in searching for that one reason—and being far too reductive—that I would actually need to confront an entire system of reasons, one that is far too complex to attack in a single blog. Among other things, I would need to look at international trade and what foods get “dumped” on which islands like leftovers. I would need to examine issues of class in order to understand who can afford which foods, which classes get targeted, and which communities have access to food education and why. I would need to look at access to land and its impact on one’s ability to grow his or her own food. I would need to research the processes of globalization and the impact of “McDonalization,” or the fact that our societies are being taken over by a fast-food mentality, craving what is predictable, reliable, and convenient, even if/when we know it isn’t good for us. I would need to attack a system.
Needless to say, that isn’t easy. If fact, it’s overwhelming. However, my own experiences have empowered me to change myself, and in the process, to provide an avenue for others to change with me. My goal is not to make people feel guilty about their food choices. (In fact, I am far from perfect.) My goal, rather, is to empower people to take control of what they eat, to stop and think about their choices and the larger systems at work that contribute to health problems, and to liberate their minds and bodies by returning to a natural diet, one that honors real ingredients, cooking, and natural “sweetness.” My goal is to align with others in the effort to decolonize our diets, to decolonize our palates, and to work towards freedom from the inside out.
I believe in constantly working towards ea, which is the Hawaiian concept of life, breath, and sovereignty. As political scientist Noelani-Goodyear Kaʻōpua (2014) explains, “Like breathing, ea cannot be achieved or possessed; it requires constant action, day after day, generation after generation” (p. 4). Therefore, this is one of my actions towards ea. I will commit to promoting change on my new blog, He Māʻona Moku, and will provide as much inspiration and motivation as possible. I will commit to sharing recipes or bits and pieces of information. I will commit to celebrating the beautiful stories of those in our communities who are already moving towards decolonizing our diets (and our minds) and who are, through their work, lessening our dependence on imported goods. I will commit to changing our future one mouth (and even one mouthful) at a time. I will commit to promoting a satisfaction with what the land (and sea) provide us naturally, to reveling in freshness, and to savoring freedom.
Curtis, M. (2004). The Obesity Epidemic in the Pacific Islands. Journal of Development and Social Transformation, 1, 37-42.
Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, N. (2014). Introduction. In N. Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, I. Hussey & E. K. Wright (Eds.), A nation rising: Hawaiian movements for life, land, and sovereignty (pp. 1-33). Durhan and London: Duke University Press.
Pollock, N. (1992). These Roots Remain: Food Habits in Islands of the Central and Eastern Pacific since Western Contact. Laie: The Institute for Polynesian Studies.
Pūkuʻi, M. K. (1983). ʻŌlelo noʻeau: Hawaiian proverbs & poetical sayings. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press.