Author Archives: Katarina ODette

The Shaka Sign

Informant: To make the shaka sign, you put down your three middle fingers, kind of like a fist, and keep your pinky and thumb stuck straight out. People, for example, when they’re driving, and they want to yield to someone else, they’ll do it. You know, “you go ahead.” Or if you want to cut in front of someone. It’s polite, kinda of like a “hey, I’m gonna pass. Hope you don’t mind. Okay, thanks. Thanks!” It’s a friendly gesture. I forget exactly what it means…

Me: Do you remember learning it?

Informant: I never learned it. Everyone in Hawaii knows it. This is the shaka sign.

Me: Do you use it?

Informant: Not really, I mean, I don’t drive, but I see my parents use it a lot.

Me: Is it only for driving?

Informant: No, no. I mean, I really only see people use it when they’re driving, but it’s not originally meant for driving-purposes. It’s just a friendly “aloha” gesture.

Me: So, is it similar to a wave?

Informant: I mean, we’re not going to do this (demonstrating the shaka) at each other. We’re going to just wave. But it has a similar connotation.


Although my informant was not sure of the exact meaning of the shaka sign, it seems to be generally a gesture of pleasant acknowledgement. It was likely adopted for use in driving situations because of that connotation. As certain driving situations can get tense, particularly when asking a favor of another driver, using a hand gesture associated with a friendly welcome may serve to diffuse possible aggression. It is also a reminder of the shared culture between the drivers. The shaka sign identifies the performer as a native of Hawaii. If the other driver recognizes the shaka, it indicates that he is also a native. This helps to form a bond between the two, which in turn encourages them to treat each other respectfully and may make them more likely to grant driving favors to each other.

Giving a Lei

Informant: So a lei, you know what a lei is, right? It’s the flowery garland, necklace-shaped… normally. People in Hawaii, we use it whenever there’s a special occasion. So if you went to someone’s concert, a friend’s concert, after the concert, you’d be like “oh, congratulations” or something and you put the lei on them.

Me: So is it kind of like bringing a bouquet of flowers?

Informant: Yeah, yeah. Except, it’s a lei.

Me: Is there a certain way you have to present it? A procedure?

Informant: You just… everyone knows it’s a gesture of congratulations. “Good job.”

Me: And you don’t have to say anything particular when you put it on them?

Informant: Yeah, you say whatever you want.

Me: Can you get multiple leis?

Informant: Yeah. You would just accept the other one too.

Me: You have to accept every one?

Informant: Yeah… I mean, even if someone gave you a bouquet of flowers that you hated, or if you hated that person, you wouldn’t say “get that away from me!” It’s the same concept.

Me: Do people wear them on other parts of their body, or is it always the neck?

Informant: Typically, it’s the neck. There are head leis too. I had one for graduation.

Me: Are those also presented to you, or were they more planned?

Informant: That was planned. All the girls had them. The boys had slightly different ones. They were made out of tea leaves and kind of draped around them. Like a scarf. It hangs down. It’s interesting.

Me: Do you know why it’s such an entrenched tradition?

Informant: It’s Hawaii. (laughing) It’s a Hawaiian gesture of congratulations, or good job. Or you’re welcome. That’s why, if you go to the Honolulu airport, people are always running around with leis. “Oh, hello, I haven’t seen you in a long time” or something like that.

Me: So, it doesn’t just have to be a big celebration, like graduation.

Informant: Yeah, leis can be more casual. It’s not always a formal thing. I think, historically, natives presented them to foreigners who came to the island. As a gesture of, you know, welcome to our place. It has long-time-ago roots. We’ve kept that up.

Me: So you give them to acquaintances and friends and family members? It doesn’t matter how close you are?

Informant: No, yeah. You give it to everyone.

Me: And you don’t remember learning it?

Informant: No, just everyone in Hawaii… that’s what we do. That’s just the way things are done. I mean, we give bouquets of flowers too. But leis are very common.

Me: Are they interchangeable? Is one considered nicer, or more formal…?

Informant: No, no, they’re completely interchangeable. Oh, and obviously when people do hulu, they wear leis.

Me: Do they have to put them on? Is it part of the ritual to be presented with the lei, or see them put it on?

Informant: No, no, they come out with them on. It’s part of their ensemble.


Part of what my informant kept emphasizing was that leis and the presentation of leis is a very entrenched Hawaiian custom. The reasoning given for it is simply “because it’s Hawaii.” For people who live outside of Hawaii, one of the iconic stereotypes of the state is the lei. It is one of the first or (for those with especially limited knowledge of the state) only images that come to mind about Hawaii. Based on how my informant, who grew up in Hawaii and lived there for most of her life, describes it, natives to the state have a similar view. While she references historical reasons for the popularity of the lei as a congratulations or greeting, part of its prevalence seems to be due to the “Hawaiianess” of it. It has become such an established part of how the state is viewed that even natives cannot seem to conceive of a Hawaii without leis, as though that would make Hawaii less Hawaiian. It is not simply a way of congratulating or welcoming someone; it bonds that gesture to general Hawaiian culture. In placing the lei around the recipient’s neck, the presenter is demonstrating his awareness of the Hawaiian custom. By receiving it, the recipient acknowledges having that same awareness. In that way, they reaffirm (particularly if it is being used to welcome a traveler home) their status as a Hawaiian.

Dorm Raid

“Dorm raid happened once a year at Idyllwild Arts Academy. The dorms are all locked at 10 pm every night. If you’re caught outside, you could be expelled. But there’s one night a year where we do dorm raid. The prefects (essentially the resident advisors for each hallway of dorm rooms at Idyllwild) determine the day and covertly spread it around. All the students come together at 10 pm. When the dorm parent (professor who lives in residence) locks the door, the prefects alert us and we just run out of the dorms and call people at the exact same minute. Sirens go off all over campus. You head into the fields and the woods, wherever. The professors chase after the students and have fun with it. If you get tracked down by a dorm parent, you technically have to go back to the dorm, but you don’t really have to. You just have to be back by 1:30 am. That happened around the end of the year, fourth quarter. Just when everyone is getting ready to tear out their hair. It was such a great way to unite us. You bond a lot. Fix friendships that might have gotten strained by all the stress. Having that night to do what you want to do when you’re studying and stressed out is such a release. It really helps you get your focus back the next day to do the work you need to do.”


Dorm Raid is a way of giving the students a break in a stressful time of the year. For one night, the normal rules about curfew and student-teacher interactions are ignored. The students are permitted to break the rules without fear of punishment. Not only does this help to bond the students together, as they avoid a common “enemy” while they run around the campus, but it also bonds them with the teachers. At that point of the year, when the teachers are assigning a lot of work, students most likely do not feel very happy toward them. Having a night where the teachers allow them to break the rules and even engage with them playfully by pretending to chase the students down, gives the students a more positive experience with the teachers. This lets them bond with and forgive the teachers, and later approach work assigned by those teachers more favorably.

“Ach, du liebe Zeit!”

Original German: Ach, du liebe Zeit!

Transliterate: Oh, you dear time!

Translation: Oh my gosh!

(Translation provided by informant)


“It was a phrase I learned from my mother, who was born in Stuttgart. It is a Schwebian phrase, often a reaction to a surprise or frustration, loosely translating to ‘I can’t believe this is happening.'”


My informant, though she has lived in America for over thirty years, was born in Germany and spent her childhood in a German immigrant neighborhood in Canada. She now speaks primarily in English unless talking on the phone with her German family, but she still uses this phrase rather than an American equivalent. Part of the reason could be that she spoke German as a child more than she spoke English and so uses German phrases by instinct in the spur of the moment. However, she also feels greatly separated from German traditions because of the distance between herself and her family. The use of a German expression in a moment of stress may provide some comfort by creating that link to her “Germanness” and reminding her of her heritage through the use of a German phrase that was commonly spoken by her mother.

Viel Glück–German Birthday Song

Viel Glück–German Birthday Song

Original German: Viel Glück und viel Segen, auf all’ Deinen Wegen, Gesundheit und Wohlstand, sei auch mit dabei.

Transliterate: Much good fortune and many blessings on all your pathways, good health and prosperity included as well.

Translation: Good fortune and blessings, on all your life’s travels, good heath and prosperity, shall also accompany you.

(Translation provided by informant)


“I don’t remember ever learning the song. We’ve just always sung it for birthdays in our family. My parents sang it with us when I was growing up and, obviously, I do it now with you. When there are English speakers around, family and friends, then we sing the English version too. But we don’t not sing the German version. I’ve never been to a German birthday where this wasn’t sung. It’s done as a round, and we just keep singing until someone decides to stop. You let everyone the others know that the line they are singing will be the last line by singing it slower until everyone matches your speed. You finish by holding out the last note.”


My informant was born in Germany, but moved to Canada when she was two months old. I believe this change in location is a large reason the song has remained part of their birthday tradition. Her father and mother, separated from their native Germany, wanted to hold onto and pass on German traditions and language to their kids. By teaching them German birthday songs, my informant’s parents taught them German traditions even before they were old enough to understand them. Because it is a short song and, as a round, designed to be repeated until the participants decide they no longer want to sing it, it is very easy to teach. This makes it ideal to pass on to children. In general, it helps to form a bond among German immigrants. My informant grew up in a neighborhood of German immigrants and, even if they did not know each other very well, having the ability to wish someone with a similar cultural background a happy birthday by referencing that shared culture (in this case, through song) helped to bond them together. It is also interesting that, in the case of a non-German speaker being present, the family will still sing the German songs, but add in the American birthday song. While the non-German guest may feel alienated by not knowing the German songs, the family makes a special effort to make them feel included again with the American happy birthday song.