Little girl holds newspaper announcing statehood

When Hawaii became a state in 1959, our residents were relieved, excited, optimistic … and a little sheepish. We still were out here in the middle of the Pacific. Sure enough, we had been recognized as a tourist destination, but so had Tahiti and Bali. Most of our visitors referred to the mainland as “the states” as if we were pretenders. We were, it seemed, just “sort of” a state, not a full-fledged one.

Half a century later, presidential candidate Barack Obama’s citizenship was questioned during the campaign. After all, his father was Kenyan; Barack had been born way out in Hawaii and had attended schools in Jakarta until sixth grade when he returned to the islands.

In spite of ourselves, we Hawaii residents (Can’t call ourselves “Hawaiians” unless Hawaiian blood is pumped by our hearts) have felt a little like second-class Americans – proud of our islands and all they offer, but not quite fitting in with the contiguous states.

It would take something special for us to get over that hump.

The West Coast went through the same process. The “West” was part of history – the “Wild” West of pioneers, settlers, ranchers and gunfighters – but beyond the mountains lay an area the rest of the country cared little about although big cities had been established and Easterners were moving west.

In 1957, Walter O’Malley took the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and Horace Stoneham took the Giants from Upper Manhattan to San Francisco.

Virtually overnight, the West Coast was in the Big Leagues. The Bay Area and Southern California were recognized nationally as key players.

Half a century later, our islands began to creep into the hierarchy of national prominence.

No, we can’t be called “Big League.” Our professional sports remain restricted to surfing, a few pro golf tournaments and competitions such as the Iron Man Triathlon and the International Billfish Tournament.

But there have been strides.

Hawaii’s music now is being recognized and honored. Not so long ago, a laid-back Don Ho was our voice. Today, Israel Kamakawiwoole, posthumously, is leading the way, and our music is being heard and respected around the world.

Big-ticket international performers know they can fill our venues, including Aloha Stadium, with ardent and passionate fans.

Hawaii has become an international film center, hosting The Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF) and gaining worldwide respect as an ideal location for myriad projects. Long-running TV series find ways to locate here for episodes – often several episodes.

The Sony Open, the UH football team’s undefeated 2007 season, the NFL Pro Bowl and the Honolulu Marathon all have attracted top-of-the-mind attention from sports fans around the world.

Our islands are among the more appealing travel destinations globally. Our better hotels are authentically world-class. Our beaches and natural wonders are many and splendid.

Our cuisine has become as distinctive as New Orleans’s. Hawaii Regional Cuisine uses our islands’ fresh produce, meat and seafood to concoct wonderfully creative and toothsome dishes, imaginatively presented. Not only has Hawaii Regional Cuisine taken Island dining to a lofty international level, it’s also established Hawaii-grown products as being among the finest in the world.

Our physicians, scientists and teachers are amazing the world with discoveries, new techniques and, yes, cures. Honolulu has become an international business center and technology mecca.

New York would trade its skyline for our climate. Philadelphia would jettison its slogan if it had our aloha. San Francisco would give up its bridge for our neighbor islands. How many Chicagoans have ever seen a rainbow?

But until very recently it seemed that we still were reflecting a sense of being “way out here in the Pacific.” We hadn’t had confidence in who we are and where we stand. We continued to think we were insignificant members of the USA community.

Boy, has that ever changed!

One of our guys is going to be President of the United States. Another one, Sen. Daniel Inouye, will hold the nation’s purse strings as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. One of our athletes, Shane Victorino, is a key member of the world-champion Philadelphia Phillies and acknowledged as the best center fielder in his league. Another, Bryan Clay, is the Olympic decathlon champion.

We’re making news – positive news. We sense the rest of the world has noticed us and has acknowledged our contributions to its progress.

Suddenly, we can consider ourselves players. We can feel proud of who we are beyond the beaches.

We’re prouder than ever to show ourselves off to you. Hurry on down.

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