December 5, 2023

Jo Mai Asian Culture

Embrace Artistry Here

What Cultural Traditions Are Important to You?

4 min read

What are some cultural traditions that you participate in? These may include practices related to religion, holidays, food, dance, clothing, language, music, crafts and pastimes, or anything else important to your cultural background.

For example, perhaps you give out red envelopes for Lunar New Year, fast for Ramadan or eat hot dogs every Fourth of July. Maybe you dance bachata, watch Bollywood movies or speak Creole at home.

What is one custom that you participate in that feels especially meaningful to you?

In “Preserving Hula, the Heartbeat of Hawaii,” Miya Lee writes about the tradition of hula and what it means to Native Hawaiians:

HILO, Hawaii — The airy Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium in Hilo, Hawaii, was silent except for bird song and the low, steady chanting of Mapuana de Silva as she sprinkled a mixture of turmeric and saltwater along the perimeter of a square stage. Ms. de Silva, a kumu hula (master hula teacher), was conducting a ceremony called pikai, before her students began their 50-minute hula practice.

“We’re known as traditionalists,” Ms. de Silva, 74, said, whose dancers practiced in shirts with the word “boring” on them. Her students performed a seated hula kahiko (ancient hula). The emphasis of their presentation wasn’t movement, but the oli (chant) and mele (song) that they were performing.

Later that night, they would compete against 23 other hula schools in the 60th Merrie Monarch Festival.

The annual post-Easter festival honors King David Kalakaua, known as the “Merrie Monarch” for his enjoyment of the arts. When he assumed the throne in 1871, Native Hawaiian culture had been severely restricted by Christian missionaries, and the Native Hawaiian population had been decimated by Western disease. King Kalakaua is credited with reviving many ancient Hawaiian practices, most notably, hula, which he called “the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.”

Today, the Merrie Monarch Festival includes a parade and a traditional Hawaiian craft fair. However, it is best known for its hula competition, which draws some of the best hula schools, or “halau hula,” in the United States. They compete in two categories: hula kahiko, which refers to hula that predates Western contact, and hula ‘auana, which encompasses hula that has developed post-contact.

Ms. Lee describes the importance of this practice to Hawaiian culture:

In the imagination of many mainland Americans, hula may mean coconut bras and cellophane skirts. It may conjure visions of a figurine jiggling her hips on a car dashboard or smiling serenely as she is used as a bottle opener.

But hula is an ancient and often sacred dance, indigenous to Hawaii.

Each performance is built around the narration of a particular song or chant, many of which have been passed down for generations.

Pre-Western contact, Native Hawaiians did not have a written language. Instead, they documented their world — their history, mythology, religion, scientific knowledge and more — through a rich oral tradition.

Hula, Ms. de Silva said, “is the presentation, the visual and audio presentation, of our stories, our history.”

And one young woman shares what it means to carry on the tradition:

Taizha Hughes-Kaluhiokalani, 27, who won the festival’s soloist competition in 2019, started dancing hula when she was 8. “As a hula dancer, as a true ‘olapa is what we would call it, you become a channel, you become a vessel for the mele that you’re bringing to life,” she said. “It’s so important to know who you are because of the people that came before you, because once you forget, not just those people but the places, the mo‘olelo, the stories, become lost.”

Students, read the entire article and then tell us:

  • What is one cultural tradition you participate in that is important to you, and that you hope future generations will continue to practice?

  • In what ways do you participate in this custom? Is it something you do on your own or with your family? Are there wider community rituals or events dedicated to it, such as the Merrie Monarch Festival?

  • Do you know the history of this tradition? How did it become a part of your culture? What is the story or the lore, if any, behind it? Why do you practice it?

  • Whether you do it on your own or with your family or community, what does it mean to you to participate in this tradition?

  • Why is it important to your culture to keep this tradition going? What would it mean if it were lost?

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.

Find more Student Opinion questions here. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate these prompts into your classroom.


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