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There’s a barrage of marketing around Hawaii’s famous greeting, but its deeper meaning influences island life. And the haoles who visit. (Hawaii Tourism/Hawaii Tourism)
There’s a barrage of marketing around Hawaii’s famous greeting, but its deeper meaning influences island life. And the haoles who visit. (Hawaii Tourism/Hawaii Tourism)

Bruce Kirkby

What's the real meaning of aloha? Add to ...

In Hawaii, “aloha” is everywhere.

No sooner have you stepped off the plane – instantly sweaty in that humid air – than you hear it. From baggage handlers, shoe shiners, taxi drivers and car-rental agents, it comes as both a greeting and a farewell. It comes out of the blue, from passing strangers. It comes as an apology from a woman who bumps your arm, and is mouthed by the tattooed pickup driver who waves you ahead on a busy freeway. You hear it on the street, in the parking lot and on the beach, and more often than not it's accompanied by the shaka – the quintessential “hang loose” sign.

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Soon you catch yourself uttering “aloha,” trying it out, getting into the local groove. Maybe you even flash the shaka, albeit timidly. Being so clearly a non-islander, you fear appearing ludicrous. Is your adoption of the island's famous phrase as awkward and out-of-place as the day your father called you “Dude?”

But no, it's not awkward. It fits. It sounds natural, feels authentic, and before you know it, “aloha” is floating from your lips – along with a carefree smile – at the drop of a hat. And why not?

Tropical escape is what tourists come to Hawaii seeking, and for the most part, this is what “aloha” conjures: images of floral shirts, white-sand beaches, palm trees, blue oceans and mellow vibes. And yet it's a word lost amid the barrage of marketing and branding. My last visit was in 2006, but the idea of aloha is with me still.

For aloha carries a far deeper meaning, one worth understanding, and the first hint of its true nature comes from the laid-back, carefree feeling that seems to permeate every aspect of island life. Hawaiians have a name for it: the Aloha Spirit, and they take it very seriously (so seriously that it is described in the State's Revised Statutes, 1986). Viewed as unique to the islands, and rightly so, the Aloha Spirit is a source of immense pride.

To understand Aloha Spirit, one must first understand aloha, whose root “ha” means the breath of life; a concept so central to Hawaiian life, it even appears in the islands' name. For centuries, if not millennia, locals greeted one another by touching foreheads and then alternatively exhaling and inhaling, literally sharing their breath. In 1778, when Captain Cook became the first European to visit the islands, he was unaware of this tradition, and rather than returning the air King Kalaniopuu puffed into his mouth, he is reported to have recoiled. Ever since, foreigners have been referred to as haole, or “those without the breath of life.”

Funny how a visit to the islands can feel as if it is imbuing us with that lost breath. Regardless, for islanders and haoles alike, aloha represents a wish: “May the breath of life run strong in you.” It is a touching sentiment, one we have no word for in English.

The Aloha Spirit is a manifestation of this poetic greeting: an attitude of friendly acceptance, of sincerity, of welcoming, for which the Hawaiian Islands are famous. In Hawaii, a person is considered to show aloha through the way they treat others; family, friend, neighbour or stranger. It is, in essence, a broadly recognized moral compass.

Cynics will protest that this is just another greeting-card romanticization of a lost era, and admittedly, the islands are not all rainbows and happy faces. Cars get jacked regularly every day at the beach. Surf thugs intimidate beginners (“I grew here – you flew here”). Malls overflow with tawdry trinkets, and the social tensions and racial turbulence in this isolated melting pot seem to know no end.

But the next time you are in a Honolulu traffic jam, look around. No one stares straight ahead, pretending not to see you while preventing you from merging. Instead, you'll see people giving shakas and an uncanny number of bumper stickers reading “Live Aloha.” Things are different here.

And you can't help but wonder when boarding a plane home, with your tanned shoulders, sandy flip-flops and not a care in the world: Can “aloha” be exported?

Your tan will fade. Your flip-flops will be cast aside for work shoes. But aloha, and its deeper meaning, just might stick. May the breath of life run strong in you. You simply can't wish better on a stranger or a friend.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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