Noelani Piters | Essays

There are islands full of people who say my name the way it’s meant to be said. Noy. Noy-luh-nee. It took me years to realize I was saying it wrong.

At this point in my life, dozens and dozens of people have asked me how to say it. Nearly everyone I’ve met. “Is that right?” they ask.

There is the me who misspeaks, parroting “it rhymes with Zoe.” There is the me who misspeaks because it is easier. There is the me who says Noe and flinches, waiting for the confused barrage of Fanny? Millie? Nelly? There is the me who existed briefly as a freshman in high school, the me who tried to get away with the direct translation as a Myspace moniker. Heavenly Mist, but Mist for short. Misty. And we can’t forget the me with the Chinese name—the one tucked away as a stamp in a drawer somewhere, the one given to me by my grandfather—Sui Sin Far. The name I am likely butchering each time I speak it.

Imagine hovering above periwinkle-pink California mountains. Droplets suspended. More than haze, not quite fog, obscuring, ephemeral, diaphanous. So much of something that cannot be held. Trees sweeping calligraphic strokes into the range, half shrouded. This is my namesake, what my parents saw before they thought, my daughter.

In an effort to resolve the plurality, I collect my many selves. Peer through the kaleidoscope. See myself not in the repetitions, but. In the refracted light. In the rattle. In the finite beads and glass and semi-precious stones. Connected, bleeding, apart.

Funny, what distance does to us. Expansive, the way we long for connection from different points across the Pacific. From different points across time.

“Noe, he talks to your pictures, you know,” my grandmother Evelyn said. She mentioned this every summer when I visited Oʻahu, and she meant the photos in the living room on my grandfather’s gun safe. A kindergarten portrait, my brown hair flowing. A first-grade snapshot featuring missing front teeth and my first haircut. A photo of me sitting on his lap at the airport, my grandfather tickling my stomach the way he strummed guitar strings and singing Elvis’s “Hound Dog.” Maybe he said my name. Maybe he told me what he ate that day. Maybe he spoke of the swap meets, the park where he met his friends for coffee, or Maunawili, his small plot of land in the jungle abundant with banana palms, flowering ginger, heliconia. He knew how to keep plants. This was his passion. “Crazy,” my grandmother said. “Talk talk talk.”

Loneliness can ravage not only our brains, but our bodies, too. That’s not what killed my grandfather, but it could have.

Call it vanity. Call it oddity. But sometimes I sit by myself in a room and say my name over and over and over again. Willing my mouth to normalize the sensation. Willing myself into existence. Willing the dead back to life.

He went first, and no one expected it. My grandmother—petite, thin, hair once perfectly permed now limp and wiry white—found him one morning, stiff in his bed, confused why he wouldn’t wake. At this point, the woman who was once excessively tidy was already drifting, forgetful, my grandfather’s eternal frustration. He spent every moment worrying about her, and we wondered if, ultimately, this stress became too much. But we also failed to acknowledge his ongoing weight loss, how his loose clothes drowned him, how he stacked pillows on pillows atop the rocking chair to protect from the knock of bone on wood. For three years we ignored it because he ignored it, refusing to see doctors, indulging the body’s own tempo. My grandmother stood at his funeral, holding an American flag bound tight like omusubi, not knowing why she was there. It was humid, and all I could think was, how can we eat after this? His death was the first pebble in the landslide of losing.

But first, we ate. Fifty family members filled five of the six tables my mother reserved for the reception, held at a Chinese restaurant we’d never been to before. We settled in and the platters arrived—first crispy wontons pockmarked with fat bubbles and egg rolls, golden brown and oily, and then large serving bowls of scallop soup with a shiny ladle. Soon the tables seemed to explode, the dishes piling up before we could finish the preceding ones, roasted walnut prawns next to Mongolian beef, steamed rice and Peking duck with crunchy skin, a seafood dish in white sauce with slimy calamari, vegetables and fish, plates clinking, overlapping, teetering off the edge, broccoli and boneless chicken, fried noodles, pitchers of water shaking as the platters bounced between us. I remember now not the flavors of the food but the heart palpitations that came after, fluttering in my throat, quick even as I lay still for hours, quick even as I slept and woke to find the humid air still slick on my skin.

The first time I saw my grandfather cry—the last trip I saw him alive. Most days, he brought lunch home, daily specials from Golden Duck, ponds of beef stew or tangled spaghetti from Grace’s Inn, plate lunches from Don Quijote market (which he still called Daiei, though it hadn’t been for years). He told us about his Japanese neighbor—“nice man”—who had stopped by with food for him and my grandmother. One afternoon, as we sat circled in the small living room, door open, cool draft easing through the security gate, the neighbor walked by. “Herb,” my grandfather called. “I want you to meet my daughter.” I watched from a stool at the kitchen table as my mother introduced herself and my grandfather recounted the story, the gift. He tried, but then, he rasped. They said their goodbyes. He floated over to the rocking chair. “So nice. Brought us lunch,” my grandfather whispered, eyes glossy, words caught in the taut muscles of his throat.

If I had to choose a last meal—or, perhaps less morbidly, if this were an island, deserted, and if I were destined to eat one thing for the rest of my life—it would be Chinese food.

But if it were one dish. To get specific. Soft gau gee mein. Bulbous dumplings and a nest of noodles. The one we can’t find in California. The one from my favorite restaurant—Golden Duck on South King Street in Honolulu.

Because the food is good. Because it was my grandparents’ favorite. Because I can see them in the cracked burgundy booths, audibly mulling over what they’re going to order. Because there they sell Chinese pretzels and shrimp chips and tung mai on tiered chrome shelves. Because my grandfather talked about buying a condo across the street so they could easily dine in as they aged. Because I always imagined the move—packing up Reader’s Digests, translucent toothbrushes, the cream hand mirror, hauling the floral-cushioned couch my grandmother slept on down the steps, up the steps, plugging in the lamps, anchoring the gun safe just so—but it never arrived.

There may be better Chinese restaurants on the island of Oʻahu, but I wouldn’t really know. When we go, we go to Golden Duck. The restaurant is ten minutes away from my grandparents’ apartment and the family house. Correction: their former apartment. Correction: the former family house.

After my grandfather’s funeral, and before my grandmother moved to California, my mother cleaned out their apartment. They lived on Wilder Avenue for nearly fifty years. Two rooms split by a shoji screen with mint blue-colored cabinets and speckled linoleum floors. She started with the kitchen. Old sushi in the fridge. Moldy white bread on the counter. A corroded can of corn that had leaked in the cupboard and dried. A black bottle of ketchup circa 1997 under the sink.

What home is: a sketch drawn and erased over and over again, the grooves in the paper marking rooms and smiles and warm cooking smells that hover in doorways, blanket a whole house, seep into the walls of memory and never dissipate. It is my childhood home in Calistoga, the house on Dole Street in Honolulu, and all of the San Francisco apartments I have lived in, simultaneously and not at all. What I mean to say is home is not a place, but a crater.

Dole Street was two-storied white paint green Adirondack chairs beneath the carport weather-worn flared Dickey roof with doves roosting on the wire beneath the eaves on plaited twig and cotton one staircase outside with inlaid lava rocks spilling over cascading gauging at the slightest brush a whisper of shoulder meeting sharpness aching to embed the porous rock within my arms to hollow myself as a way of remembering converted garage and masking tape labeled light switches boxes untouched for decades papers quilt squares empty margarine tubs browning grass once weeded by hand surrounding and plumeria hibiscus an aloe plant two mango trees shading the yard yielding butter soft fruit with amber flesh dripping from my mouth leaving arms and cheeks sticky there is no mango in California that tastes this good that tastes like Hawaiian sun and sugarcane ripped from the soil like the relief of tradewinds cutting through a muggy afternoon I will always look for such sweet fruit sweet pulp so familiar as if the threads were forever strung through my teeth. I’ll fail.

I have not seen the monstrosity that has replaced the Dole Street house with my own eyes yet. I have only heard the stories from aunties and cousins—a mass of grey and frosted glass that goes from one edge of the property to the other. No sprawling yard, no grass, no trees. No memories.

It has been years since we sold the house to pay for the reverse mortgage. Since Auntie Fannie passed. Since she took the money to pay for her brother’s care, for my Uncle Howard. Google Maps still preserves what was, shows the corner block as if it were still there. Maybe they have finally updated the image, I think as I type in the address, willing myself not to press enter every time, dreading the answer no matter what I find. 

What home was: piercing crags and the roughness of a threadbare bedspread; the ooze of dobash frosting as I thumb it off resistant oilcloth; the slap of dry feet against carpet, against concrete. But my body remembers more than touch. It remembers the perfume of pikake and plumeria cradled by the wind. The must and musk of termite-hulled wood.  The whiff of Dove soap and sweat and Old Spice as I buried my head in my kin’s skin.

Once, my grandmother was named Eva. It was written somewhere, on some long-forgotten document—Eva Chong. “Why did you change your name?” I asked her as a child. “People thought Eva was short for Evelyn,” she said, “and called me that anyway. So I figured, I might as well change it.” She was like that, my grandmother, rigid in some ways, easygoing in others, to the point of pure fluidity. Both a stream and the rocks in its path. Both obstacle and the way around it.

When I hear my grandmother’s voice in my head, I hear her say my name. I hear her say it the way it’s meant to be said. I hear her as if she had called for me yesterday, but the last seven years of her life, she didn’t call me anything. She thought I was her niece.

Eh, you wan know someting? Pidgin English—also known as Hawaiʻi Creole English, a language born in the 1800s that braids Hawaiian and English with the languages of immigrant laborers: Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Spanish—soothes me every time I hear it.

And there is nothing so comforting as someone who tongues your name with ease, who repeats the name as if it were their own, who holds you like a phantom limb.

Birthdays. Mother’s Day. Father’s Day. Thanksgiving. Christmas. On these days, I spoke with my grandmother, my grandfather, and Auntie Fannie—my mother called them up. They asked me how I was and told me to be good. In the background, echoing around them, I heard the place I wanted to be—car horns and highways rushing, staccato dovesong and fans blowing, blinds shuddering and radios droning. Their voices—music. The lilt of my grandfather’s howzit. The undulations in tone, like waves, as they talked story. My grandmother and Auntie Fannie sounded so much alike on the phone that sometimes I couldn’t tell one from the other. Even now, some photos give me pause—who is it? They were sisters, four years apart. Sisters who lived under the same roof, and then minutes away from each other, for their entire lives. Until my grandmother came to live with my parents, that is.

What I remember most about Auntie Fannie: her giggle. Her salt and pepper hair, elegantly curled with rollers. Her floral tunics from the sixties, brushed sheer with wear. The newspapers she kept, stacked up to the ceiling, filling corners, filling rooms. “In case I want to look at them again.” Cans and cans of Vienna sausage, enticing images of chopped links on blue labels. Her boxes of Ensure, prescribed by her doctor because she couldn’t keep the weight on. Her vast realm of local and world and family knowledge, gathered by keeping up with all kinds of news and everyone in our extended ‘ohana. Her cabinet of photos—a hutch five feet long transplanted from the houses in Maui, three shelves, sheltered by glass, coated with so many layers of paint that it became fixed to the wall—holding four or five generations’ worth of memories. And her devotion to Dole Street—the house she never left, if she could help it. So that someone was always watching it. Protecting it. Because before it was just the house, it was the house and Uncle Howard, and before the house and Uncle Howard, it was her parents. Because she was the caretaker, because she never married, because, because, doesn’t matter. It just was.

What I remember most about Auntie Fannie: her curiosity. Her impassioned storytelling. Her exasperation—especially for men who stole mangoes from the yard. “I wish they would just ask.” Her fearlessness. When we visited Oʻahu, for nearly twenty-five summers straight, my mother and I stayed with Auntie Fannie. No far-flung trips to Europe or Asia or even the East Coast. Only Oʻahu. Only Honolulu. Only Dole Street. And I would do anything to feel it again—coming home after a long flight, swapping our quiet countryside for the bustling edge of Mānoa, that first night when the street lamps glowed as we acclimated to the humidity like a new layer of skin and I ran as fast as I could up the stairs to evade the cockroaches, and why did I spend so much time reading in the bedroom, why didn’t I ask more questions, to Auntie Fannie, to my grandparents, why couldn’t I see the end, the thing I dreaded most, the thing I wouldn’t dare look at, why couldn’t we loop forever until we were so tangled up we became the body of a basket?

What I remember most about Auntie Fannie: her tears, as we backed out of the driveway in our tiny rental car, as we headed to the airport, back to our lives, back to the mainland, breaking the spell that bound us, the proximity of blood to blood.

My mother—the one who was born and raised in Hawai‘i, the one who lived at Dole Street, the one who grew up crabbing and eating saimin at midnight and shopping with her cousins at Woolworth’s and Liberty House and Shirokiya, the one who was a good Catholic schoolgirl, the one who made the choice to leave, the one who brought me back, the one who calls me often, the one who takes care, the one like a sister, the one who helps me remember, the one who shields me, even when she shouldn’t.

Did you know you can stream Hawaiian 105 online? I text my mother, attaching the link. I think I did, she texts back, But I never have. Listening to Hawaiian music on the radio often makes me think of Uncle Howard. He always liked to listen.

And Uncle Howard: the adult child with Down’s, low mumblings, sitting on the Adirondack chair in the carport waiting for the postman each morning, sitting in his army green duct-taped recliner listening to the warble of falsetto singers, the descending chords of an ukulele, the characteristic loosening of slack-key guitar, the chorus a balm, the guiding drums, the chants.

The things he loved: his collection of T-shirts, gifted by family and friends and neighbors. (His favorite: an aqua XL that met his knees, emblazoned with tropical fish, announcing Howard in bold lettering.) His photo albums, which he retrieved from a dresser for anyone who would look, even we who had seen them for years, pointing at himself in every photo, sounding out Howard so you knew it was him, and then pointing at his parents, Libert and Hannah, his demeanor changed. His stationery collection, his ballpoints and shuttle pens with a rainbow of colors, his marbled composition books and steno pads. (And he would point to the advertisements in the newspaper, for pens and notebooks, things he desired.) Because he himself was a writer of sorts, filling hundreds of books, transcribing the mystery of his mind as the same character over and over, a not-quite tilde with ends looped in, almost infinite, some tilting, some tight, but those spaces, so even, the pauses in between.

And sometimes out of nowhere his brow would furrow, and his eyes would tear, and he would grumble about frustrations unknown, punctuating the silence with finger-wags, rubbing the white-speckled stubble Auntie Fannie shaved, looking at you straight on, and you would nod, knowing.

Uncle Howard would speak to us in his way, but the most intelligible words were the names of his siblings—Bob, Fannie, Evelyn—and his own—Howard.

I have always been the one in the corner, too shy, watching and listening, waiting for eyes to fall off me. A stratus cloud, persisting. Deadening the light that tries to pass through. Drinking it instead. A drizzle, a blanket, a kiss.

Like the overcast skies of San Francisco that greet me, temperatures dipping as my mother and I disembark from the plane, the clothes once suffocating now not enough. The relief of one familiarity. The mourning for another.

A stack of pots stands like a tower of decapitated dolls in my San Francisco apartment. Though they only hold each other now, once they held living things. Alocasias and begonias, calatheas and crotons. My home jungle is thriving—there is green everywhere I can fit it—but I have never replaced a plant that has died. I can’t bear to see the same dry fronds and yellow leaves caving inwards again.

In the beginning there was Libert and Hannah, and they made fourteen children. Fourteen Chinese-Hawaiians who never quarreled. Fourteen Chongs who were always together. Who grew up in each other’s arms on the ‘āina of Maui and O‘ahu. Who looked so much alike—in the eyes, the nose, the skin that rivered as they aged. Agnes and Richard, Rose and Cecilia, Violet and Robert, Ronald and Charles, Ernest and Patrick, Kenneth and Howard, Evelyn and Fannie. Some I knew well, some I knew only by name, by faded photograph. Disappeared threads that deserve their own unending quilts.

A hum. A vibration. Maybe even a pulse.

I cling to small emblems of culture—recipes I find on the internet and cook, saucy-sweet gon lo mein as good as a restaurant’s, puckered pork wontons that burst with filling, gilded red envelopes for Chinese New Year, Hawaiian heritage bracelets, inherited kīhei pilis, stone seals and cinnabar paste—as if they are physical extensions of myself. Like Egyptian canopic jars. Like first class relics. But I remind myself that these tangible things are only a facet of the ritual.

No one showed me how to cook lau lau or pleat dumplings, how to dance hula, how to speak ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i. No matter. My family taught me to never waste food, to quiet when the neighbors pass the door, to be patient—to embrace the breeze that will come.