Thin-strapped sandals and water shoes were piled haphazardly to the side of the welcome mat adorned with bright flowers. Tables were set up in a long line in a garage lit by string lights, an array of food displayed as a banquet. The six of us carried hot trays of chicken katsu and sticky rice covered in saran wrap up the walkway like a procession.
I was an honorary member of this newly introduced family of five for the beginning of the summer after my freshman year of college. I’d met and befriended many different people over the course of two semesters, but my roommate Shawny had quickly become my best friend. She had invited me to stay as a guest at her family’s home on Oahu, and our day so far had consisted of body boarding at Lanikai beach and visiting a Buddhist temple. Shawny’s family is Japanese, and over the course of my first week on the island, I had tried more new foods and visited more places than I ever had before. As I entered her family’s potluck to celebrate her second cousin’s graduation from the University of Hawaii, I was immediately pulled into a hospitable hug followed by a kiss on the cheek by her elderly grandpa.
This ritual continued as I was introduced to her entire extended family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and family friends. I was accustomed to my reserved and detached family members, who rarely even greet each other with polite and awkward hugs. We held hands in a circle extending to each corner of the room to pray over her cousin’s accomplishments and each shared something we felt thankful for on that particular night. Mine was simply being there.
I learned that her whole extended family lived in the Honolulu area, which made me think of my own family spread all over the country in far away states, like Utah, Nevada, and Florida. We only see each other during big holidays or weddings, sometimes not even once every few years. To live together on one island, congregating for every occasion and accomplishment felt beyond my comprehension. We only focused on being thankful together on one day of the year, forgetting to concentrate on our many privileges on every other day that passed us by.
Shawny’s family sat around me and inquired about my family and upbringing in Montana, a place as unfamiliar to them as their home was to me. They tested my pronunciation of vowels in the Hawaiian alphabet and my opinion on the gelatinous poi offered on the side, and laughed when I had to ask for a fork—my talent with chop sticks is severely limited. Shawny and I recalled our shared experiences during our first year going to school in Oregon, and they listened in earnest. As we ate and conversed, I never felt like an outsider tagging along to someone else’s family event. There existed a sense of belonging and unity I seldom felt even in my own family gatherings.
As we said our goodbyes, we were sent away with plates of leftovers that would last for days—chicken long rice soup, edamame rice, kalua pig, and butterfish. Parting was the same as greeting—a strong hug and a kiss, maybe two, on the cheek, for which Shawny apologized embarrassedly. I didn’t mind—to me, the opportunity to be welcomed into her family’s home and witness their love for one another, and their values of togetherness and inclusion taught me more about them than she could ever describe to me in words.
By: Mikelyn Rochford