In the Hawaiian language, kana hanai is loosely translated as “my adopted child or children, my foster child”. In Hawaiian culture, the word “hanai” (Hah NIE) has a deeper, more complex meaning.
It is the taking in of a youth, who needs some parenting, some nurturance and love that is different than the love and nurturance of biological parents. The hanai child becomes part of the family, not only physically, but emotionally. That child is treated as one of the family’s children, loved and nurtured, and cared for as one of their own. You become an “extra” parent, the additional aunt or uncle. There’s a lot of aloha, of unconditional, unlimited love and concern.
When I was growing up, hanai children could be found occasionally at our dinner table, or spending a month in the summer. My mother spoke lovingly of her aunt, and her ninth year of life, living with her aunt, and seeing the world in a different way, soaking up her aunt and uncle’s love and concern. That year got my mom through some tough times, and gave her new strength, and a new lease on childhood.
In our house, there was always an extra chair, and room at the table for another face, and, if we had dessert, we all shared. None of us kids dared to complain. Having another kid at the table was nothing new, and mom would always be a little happier than usual as she was cooking dinner. Conversation around the table was always lively, and included them, making them feel welcome, a part of family.
My wife and I carried on that tradition after we got married, and took it farther. We lived in town and my stepson’s friends were usually in the yard, or playing music in the house. When it was dinner time, we set the table with another plate or two, and shared our food, and conversation. There was always laughter, and some good stories.
And, sometimes, when we would plan a family outing, a picnic or a hike, that other kid who seemed to be in the house a lot usually came along.
A few years after my stepson went off to college, my wife came home from school one day with a sad story, telling me about one of her students who needed a place to live.
Another son, she said, a hanai child, needing to be coming home.
The spare bedroom became his room, and I found an old dresser for $10, and sanded it down, and put on a couple of coats of paint. Our dinner table was now set for three, and we had teenage music and laughter and mood swings in our house again. We had a front row seat in watching this newest man child grow up and find his passions.
And, soon, his friends would come by, and manage to stay for dinner, and breakfast in the morning. When they were busy having fun downstairs, and watching a movie or playing games, or listening to music, I’d knock on the door with a plate of cookies fresh out of the oven, and a jug of milk.
There were looks of amazement, and big grins as the plate of cookies and the milk quickly disappeared.
We’d take some of those kids to the beach, along with our dog, and pack extra food in the picnic basket.
One summer, one of the boys had pretty much moved in, and I was wondering if I needed to remodel the storage room into a place for him to sleep. One afternoon, his mother called. The guy had been sleeping on our couch, and the end of the kitchen table was his regular place at dinner.
“Is Joe there?” she asked.
Indeed, he is. And it took you over a week to realize you hadn’t heard from him?
Oh, mom, you’ve missed a week of his laughter, of his giggling when he plays fetch with the dog down on the beach, a week of his jokes at the dinner table.
No wonder he’s about moved in here. We’ve been keeping track of him, making sure he has a few meals every day, and a place to sleep. His laundry gets washed and he’s taken on a chore or two to do around here. It’s all part of being in the spirit of hanai.
One time, we took one of the boys to the big city with us, on our annual August back to school shopping trip. I’d had to make a quick trip down the road about forty miles one night, to help him get his back to school money from his dad, before his dad headed off to the tavern with that cash in his wallet.
There was real fear in the eyes of this hanai child, fear that the money would be drunk up before we got there that night. On the way back home, he fell asleep in the back seat of the car, worn out from a day of worrying.
When we hit the big stores in the city, my newest hanai child grinned as he was buying his school supplies, and cried a bit, when I had him pick out a new school back pack, and put it in my cart.
“For you,” I said. “You need a new one for school, you know.”
He looked away, leaning on the shoulder of our foster son, tears welling up in his eyes.
Kids grow up and they move away. And, I never feel really bad when I wave at them as they head off. It is time for them to go, their wings are strong and they are ready to fly. We’ve done a good job, being good parents to each one of the kana hanai who have come into our lives.
We still have our kana hanai. Most of the newer guys live not too far away, living behind prison bars. They stumbled and fell when they were kids, and are working on reinventing themselves, learning to become adults. There are a lot of reasons for that, but they’re still just kids, young men wanting to test their wings, wanting to be part of normal. We go see them often, and celebrate their birthdays, and listen to their stories, and ask how they are doing in school, how they are making their way through their lives.
We pay attention to them, we care about them, and we listen to them. We show up, and we come to visit when we say we are coming. And, a lot of that is foreign to them, and they don’t know quite what to make of it. Just like a lot of the other hanai kids I’ve had in my life, kids just wanting to be normal.
When they get out of prison, they come to our house and eat dinner with us, and play games and go to the beach. Just like all the other hanai children in our lives, we put their pictures on the fireplace mantel, and talk about them with our friends.
We go visit them and spoil them a bit, as they share their challenges and their successes with us.
A few years ago, we spent some time in Hawaii, talking with families and some parents of kana hanai. We shared our stories, and our love for our adopted ones, lost kids we opened the door to, and invited in for some family time, providing a refuge from the world, and a place to laugh and be themselves.
In Hawaii, those who have hanai children have a special place in the community. They have a special place in the village, a place of honor and respect. They are seen as the special glue that keeps their culture healthy and their children strong. Kana hanai families are a big part of the fabric of the community, and a savior of youth who could become lost, and even thrown away.
My village isn’t in Hawaii, but we have a lot of kana hanai, and a lot of parents of their beloved hanai. And, together, we are raising a stronger village, rich in kids, and rich in the spirit of aloha and kana hanai.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.