Getting Paid to Whitewash History
I soon learned that paying my rent by writing for Hawaii’s tourists meant each story had to be carefully finessed to minimize any controversy or potentially depressing details. According to the history we produced, nothing bad had ever really happened in Hawaii—except possibly for Pearl Harbor, though we even tiptoed around that; after all, in 2010, 1.2 million Japanese tourists spent nearly two billion dollars in Hawaii. The standard tourist narrative downplays or disregards disease epidemics, violence against native Hawaiians, and movements for native sovereignty. Because who wants to be reminded they’re taking a holiday on illegally annexed land?
The Believer has a terrific story about Eddie Aikau, a Hawaiian lifeguard and surfer who spent much of his short life celebrating Hawaii’s native identity, and educating others about its complicated—and often violent—history of how it became part of the United States. Aikau’s story is wonderful, but I was also interested in the first few paragraphs of the story, where the writer, Nicole Pasulka, discusses a job she had writing audio tours for a tourism company, and was told to avoid writing anything “too controversial.”
Pasulka describes the experience as creating a “Polynesian Disneyland” for tourists who are happy to come and spend a lot of money during vacations, honeymoons, and getaways where getting away probably means not wanting to be greeted by the idea that the only reason the Hawaii of today exists is because of Western exploitation.
And this is what we do sometimes to pay the rent, is it not? Unless you’ve been fortunate enough to work at jobs you absolutely love and believe in, we have taken jobs at various times in our lives simply because we wanted a paycheck, and were asked to represent the places we worked in the best possible light. We take jobs at clothing stores we hate, or tell diners how wonderful dishes are, even if we don’t actually believe that to be true. I had a very brief stint as a travel destination writer, visiting a few cities and extolling their virtues, even if I actually didn’t enjoy myself very much.
“Focus on the positives,” my editor said. “Other people may enjoy what you didn’t.”
True, but also, not very authentic. I didn’t stick around for very long.