Culture on the Volcano

The secret life of this Tiger Mother...Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoo in Hilo, Hawaii, notes that the name of Namaste the white Bengal tiger is a Sanskrit word that translates to "Aloha." So does a trip to the country's only rainforest zoo count as a science or cultural expedition? | Photograph courtesy of Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Sometimes I find myself categorizing our lives into “School,” “Sports,” “Music,” “Science,” “Arts,” and “Culture.” I want to make sure that we are living balanced lives, that I am exposing the children to a little of everything, so that they will grow up to be well-rounded, like the old Renaissance ideal.

It is refreshing to be reminded that life is not always so easily categorized.

Yesterday, we went up to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to check out the latest on the new eruptions. I usually think of a trip to the volcano as a “science” or “nature” expedition, but as always with our family, even this turns into a cultural experience.

Our first stop is the Kilauea Visitor Center. We eavesdrop as park rangers tell a family of tourists how to get to Kalapana to see the lava drop into the sea, sternly warning them that they must bring one flashlight per person and that they must wear hiking shoes. When I cut in to double check a detail about the road – “Instead of cutting down to go to that restaurant, you just keep going straight, ya?” “You mean the old Verna’s?” The ranger IDs me as local, then lowers her voice, “We always tell visitors to wear shoes, but your kids know how to walk on lava in slippahs, right?”

So there is even a cultural difference shading how we encounter the natural world, literally, through the thinner softer soles of our slippahs.

Next we go to the steam vents, where the kids love to stand in the steam billowing out from cracks in the earth, singing silly songs and telling jokes. “Normal people” probably talk about how it feels like being in a sauna or steam bath or even in the bathroom after a shower. However, my kids call it the xiao long bao place and shout as they always do, “I’m a xiao long bao!” and think about what it feels like to be a steamed little dragon bun sitting in a steamer, about to become somebody’s dim sum breakfast.

(Is this really a story about culture? Or a story about food?!)

This reminds me of Fourth of July, when the children and I sit on the black sand beach at Hilo Bay, waiting for night to fall so the fireworks can begin, watching the clouds move through the sky and calling out the different shapes. The children see a train, a dog, a crab, a crocodile, Barney riding a pterodactyl and carrying a flame thrower, a fire-breathing gecko with forked tongue, a camel wearing a flower lei, a Chinese water dragon flying through the heavens, a phoenix spreading its wings, a Japanese Buddhist temple, dragon boat races, the mighty Monkey King. I am so impressed by the expanse of their imaginations, the range of cultures and cultural references from which they can draw, the liveliness of what they are able to see, the internal richness all this reveals.

Even though I suppose that watching clouds would properly be considered a “nature activity.

An earlier version of this essay was originally published at

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is a contributor for New America Media Ethnoblog,,, and She team-teaches Asian Pacific American History and the Law at the University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She also teaches writing and is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her Web site at, her blogs at and, and she can be reached at


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