“It’s not always going to be easy,” says Matt Beall, principal broker of Hawaii Life, the real estate agency featured in the eponymous HGTV show. “Safe to say, there’s some nuance and some value structures that go on with moving to Hawaii.”
For someone moving from the mainland, Beall notes, “it can be hard to drop ship into an entirely new value structure and have it make sense, especially in small communities where nearly everybody knows everybody, and many are multigenerational families that have known each other for generations.” In particular, he points out that individualistic mainland Americans may need to adjust to the more relationship-centered cultures of native Hawaiians and the Chinese, Japanese and Filipino communities that have immigrated there for hundreds of years.
To help the growing number of buyers from outside of Hawaii, Hawaii Life is “building a curriculum … to identify these distinctions,” Beall says. “It makes things a little bit easier, and can be simple as, ‘When your neighbor brings over banana bread in Tupperware, you return it with something in it,’ or, ‘If you catch a big fish, be sure the people on your street get some.’”
Patricia Ravarra, who moved from Oakland with her husband to the Big Island of Hawaii a year ago to build their retirement home, says they visited annually for 13 years before buying land in rural Honokaa in 2017. A student of the Academy of Hawaiian Arts hula halau (school) in Oakland for many years, she now shares advice on several Facebook groups to those considering a move to the islands.
“The big tip that I try to offer is to encourage people to learn as much about the history of Hawaii as possible. Don’t come here without the knowledge of the effect of the United States on the history of Hawaii,” Ravarra says. “The interactions of the kingdom of Hawaii and the United States of America are still a problem for a lot of people who live here.”
She noted that most Americans don’t know or understand the hostilities that have arisen from that history. “There’s an ongoing resentment of having the kingdom illegally overthrown by the United States (in 1893), and few people who want to move here have any idea of that. They’re like, ‘What?’”
She also recommends that newcomers to Hawaii “pay attention to how people behave with one another,” including smiling more. “People are friendlier to one another and it helps to be open to it,” Ravarra says. “If you have your basic Bay Area city face, people will avoid you and you’ll wonder why you are not making any friends.”
Another critical social skill may already be familiar to those Californians with Asian or Pacific Islander backgrounds. Ravarra, who is Black, says she and her husband first learned “deference” from his Japanese American community in Alameda. “To wait to ask a question, to step back instead of step forward, to be willing to wait politely and quietly and not be demanding … that’s not typical mainland behavior for the most part,” she explains.
Another key trait to develop is patience, according to Ravarra. “That whole thing about being a rush? You have to leave that behind. You can’t be in a rush here,” she says.
Bay Area buyers in particular are drawn to Hawaii Island, a.k.a. the Big Island, where many have vacationed for years on the leeward side’s Kona and Kohala coasts. But that familiarity with Hawaii as a playground doesn’t ensure an easy transition to full-time residency.
“Many people come here with the idea of perpetual ‘mai tai sunset,’ then the honeymoon period is over and the island of Hawaii decides whether you are worthy of living here,” says Greg Colden, who moved to Kona with his husband from Oakland 16 years ago. “It is not a matter of coming here with a suitcase of money or a suitcase of rags, hoping that life will be perfect from the day you step onto the tarmac at the airport. There is a kuleana (responsibility) to give back to the island, to the people who call this home.”
Colden and his spouse, Marty Corrigan, created Kona Natural Soap Company, turning a former quarry into a sustainable coffee and cacao farm. They’re supporters of the Hawaii Island Humane Society, while their business has a kuleana to embody the “aloha spirit,” according to Corrigan, which means “to be kind and to talk with people, to discuss things and not talk ill of people.” It also means supporting the island economy: “We work with a lot of people locally, we hire local woodworkers and make sure they’re using local wood,” Corrigan says.
The influx of West Coast buyers has put pressure on an already low inventory of homes on Hawaii Island, but the financial impact is not necessarily the great concern to kama‘aina — Native Hawaiians, others born in the islands and long-term residents.
“The home price points they’re purchasing are waaay more than most locals can afford,” notes Vicky Kometani, who lives in North Kohala with her husband, who grew up there. “Of course, these sales drive all real estate prices up, and that is not so good for local families seeking a new home, (but) this is not a new problem.”
Instead, she finds it “sad” that people escaping problems such COVID-19 and wildfires on the mainland “more than likely have little interest in becoming a real part of our communities. There will be exceptions, of course, but history indicates otherwise.”
Since living in Hawaii is so much different than visiting it, she adds, “Time will tell if these moves last. My hope is that whoever is moving here, particularly to North Kohala, will take their time to meet people, listen to people, and be patient with ‘island style.’”