I was waiting for the bus when my friend Jacki waved me over. We talked for a bit, me afraid I’d missed the bus; she sweeping the sidewalk, keeping busy on a slow day at work. I was thinking of going home defeated by Hawaii’s bus system. She said it wouldn’t be a defeat. Who knows what the day will bring? Perhaps I’ll go home and write the next great story.
We got to talking about writing. She suggested I take the bus around the island and write about all the interesting characters I bump into–like that one crazy guy who walks around with a baby doll and a blanket. I said that to do so and make it interesting I’d have to interview him, get inside his head and see what makes him tick. She said no, just watch him and write about it.
I bid her adieu and started walking home when I caught the bus bouncing up the road in the distance. I hadn’t missed it; it was just really late. I hopped on and went about my day uneventfully.
The ride back was far more interesting. Across the isle sat a mother with a baby on her lap and her adolescent daughter to her right. In front of her two middle school girls fidgeted with their phones. Somehow they got to talking with the mother. Turns out mom is from Alaska and the two girls, Hawaiians, have an uncle moving there. They talked about that and they talked about the ocean. Mom was a surfer but she was always afraid of sharks. “I swam with ten sharks today. Black tip and white tip,” the smaller of the two middle school girls told her nonchalantly.
“You did?” the mom asked.
The girl told her where she went to school, that it was after school, and that her and her sister and some friends decided to go swimming. They were jumping off a pylon where a tiger shark lived, just underneath. At some point they were surrounded by sharks because it’s whale season and sharks are following the whales. But it’s no big deal because she isn’t afraid of sharks. At all. The mother said she would have been scared out of her mind but the girl said, “We use them for guidance.”
“Oh, I see. Like a spiritual thing?” the mother asked.
“Yes. The shark is our guardian. They were there to protect us,” the girl said. She went on to tell the woman that not long ago her sister was playing in the ocean and some sharks began circling her. But they didn’t harm her because “They’re there for us.” She intimated that sharks would never hurt her or her family because they’re not afraid and they have a different relationship with them than most people. She wasn’t bragging, just explaining.
And I’ve heard this before. Numerous times in different ways–but never from a child. Hawaiians have a completely different relationship with sharks than those of us who grew up watching “Jaws.” Relationship with, not view of. A social anthropologist would say that Hawaiians hold different beliefs about sharks–but to leave it at that is to deny the relationship. The relationship informs the beliefs, not the other way around. And this is one of the blind spots of the Western mind, a holdover from colonization. Colonization demands that belief or prejudice comes first to justify what comes second. You don’t “conquer” equals. You make them primitives or barbarians or savages in your mind. You make them animals and you make animals less than that.
When we erect hierarchies of being like that and place ourselves at the top, we look down to judge, don’t we? All looking becomes a top-down view even with the best intentions. Because we don’t see equals we cannot take Hawaiians at their word that they have such a relationship with sharks–unless there’s some scientific way to verify that sharks pick up on and respond to the lack of fear in the human by way of heart beat or magnetic resonance, scent, whatever material process it is. Until we have that, we cannot fathom that such stories are anything more than stories. And with that, we turn the “real” story into one of cold biochemistry.
But here’s the thing: I challenge any meat eater to spend time with fish. Or chicken. Or cows. Or any of the animals you eat. Spend a lot of time with them, getting to know them, playing with them–not just feeding them but communing with them in whatever way you can, like a friend. Do that for a while and then tell me that you don’t feel it necessary to thank them when you eat their kind. You have to because they’re no longer just “food.” Yes, even fish are sensitive, emotive beings when you’re eyeball to eyeball. It’s not because you’re feeding them or providing them protection from big fish. It’s because they like you. They see you as an equal. And you know something? You’ll see them as an equal, too. Not that we think alike or act alike, necessarily, but there is something exactly the same in all living things–in all things, period–and that something is how we connect. That connection leads to thankfulness and this is the beginning of the natural order of things.
Again, you don’t have to take my word for that. Go be with nature and see for yourself. That’s science. It’s also how things are regardless of science.
I haven’t encountered any sharks yet. I may never. I know plenty of people who have lived here their entire lives and never encountered one. But if I do, I will not be scared. I will be understanding no matter what its reaction is to me in that moment. Something tells me it won’t attack me simply because I’m not Hawaiian. That special trait is ours and ours alone.
Now, where’s that crazy guy with the baby doll? And what makes him crazier than people communing with sharks? Or people who don’t believe that’s possible? Or the guy listening to strangers on a bus?