by Stuart Ching
I surfed at Graveyards—a soft, hollow wave just beyond the Kuhio Beach breakwater. I’d paddle into a set, glide over the reef, and navigate the coral heads jutting from the water like tombstones. If I sped fast and far enough down the line, my momentum propelled me past the breakwater and around the pier, where the wave gathered into an inside section. Far from the enormous surf of O`ahu’s North Shore, the waves at Graveyards—even during the biggest summer swells—rarely topped the height of a man. Still, whenever I made that inside section, the bottom of the wave vanished, and in the space of my child’s imagination, I became the legendary tube-rider Gerry Lopez dropping into a fast-rolling barrel.
By the time I entered high school, I had already begun searching for a new break away from the crowds and bustle of the city. I was living in the original subdivision of Hawai`i Kai at the base of Koko Crater. In 1965, my parents had moved my brother and me from my grandparents’ home in the old, established neighborhood of Kapahulu (less than a mile from Waikiki) to the island’s then undeveloped east side. The road to Hawai`i Kai was gravel and dirt. There were agricultural and pig farms beyond our subdivision toward Kalama Valley. And in the evenings—before the construction of Koko Marina Shopping Center—commuters seeking a fast dinner stopped for take-out at the Magoo’s Pizza truck shining like a beacon in the gravel parking lot of Moanalua Bay.
The original neighborhood sprawled rapidly, and by the late 70s and early 80s, Hawai`i Kai had quadrupled in size, reaching inland into Hahaione and Kalama Valleys and, in the opposite direction, transforming the waterfront into the wealthy subdivision called Portlock. When the surf was up, I’d mount my Univega Cruiser, tuck my board under one arm, and pedal to the end of Portlock, where, beyond Henry J. Kaiser’s pink mansion, his sprawling multi-acre estate, and the entire neighborhood’s collective opulence, the gnarled shoreline bent abruptly into the sea. The waves surging upon the jagged point of this coastline formed a wedge into which surfers would launch themselves as though down a deep shaft. Around the point, the shoreline contoured into a cove where a narrow finger of rock that walloped more like a fist split waves in half over a reef. To take off from the point, glide through the cove, and then plane over the reef was always exhilarating. But during a big south swell, the ultimate ride awaited me at the fringes of the deep water. There, amid mixed shades of blue, I paddled into great walls of water—China Walls—that wrapped around the island and peeled off the coastline as far as one hundred yards into the sea.
I must have taken off on thousands of waves, but I remember them as a single ride beginning at dawn and stretching into the morning and the late afternoon into sunset.
Eventually, I left Hawai`i to pursue an education and a career, but the ocean continued to shape my imagination. I have these memories of living in the continental United States: Driving toward Yellowstone National Park, my partner, Jann, and I ascend the Big Horn Mountains of northern Wyoming. We drive above the tree line on a narrow highway amid patches of ice cap when we round a bend and the narrow road opens on an elevation that makes my stomach flutter. The horizon all around is land, but the open space seems a blue-green ocean.
Several years later, after we’ve been married for some time and Jann has completed her Ph.D., she begins her first professorship at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where the English Department publishes its prestigious literary journal, Prairie Schooner. The journal’s title imbues the great Midwestern plains and the pioneers who crossed them with the imagery of oceans. During our time in the Midwest, I perceive cities like Lincoln and Omaha as islands and the open spaces separating them as seas. During summers, I drift amid corn and wheat. During winters, the snow of the Great Plains locks me within oceans of ice.
I have a photo of my daughter Angelica and me entering the water at Ala Moana Beach Park just a few months after her adoption. In subsequent years, our adoptive children Jayson, Elika, and Esteban followed, but at the time, Angelica was our only child visiting Hawai`i to meet her extended family. Jann shot the frame during the late morning from an angle alongside Magic Island and looking out toward Kewalo Basin. In the photo, the tide is low. All around, the sea opens pristine postcard blue. Angelica and I are walking in ankle-deep water, our backs toward the camera. I’m holding her hand, learning to be a father.
In the late 1800’s, my great-grandfather, Ching Wai Yum, crossed this same ocean to Hawai`i. To the migrating Chinese like my great-grandfather, Hawai`i was Tan Heung Shan, the Fragrant Sandalwood Hills. A brief biographical sketch of my great-grandfather and his family, as well as a description of historical Punalu`u, where they first settled, are included in James H. Chun’s The Early Chinese in Punaluu, an historical record of some of Hawai`i’s earliest Chinese rice farmers.
According to Chun, up until 1907, Punalu`u was a secluded, fertile wetland rife with rich soil and fed by freshwater arteries from mountain streams. Before Hawai`i’s era of rail, Punalu`u’s main form of transportation other than steam was horse and carriage. In two stretches of shoreline, the beach itself became the road. Two rice mills were Punalu`u’s most prominent landmarks. And amid this setting, my great-grandfather and his family likely cultivated rice on a small farm.
While the details of my ancestral migration are not clear, The Early Chinese in Punaluu indicates that after farming for several years in Hawai`i, Ching Wai Yum returned with his family to southern China. Later, my grandfather, or gung gung, Hong Sing Ching, must have completed a second migration back to the islands. Family lore accounts for the rest of Gung Gung’s life. He found employment painting the airstrips at Hickam Air Force Base. He married my grandmother, or popo, Ethel Yuk Hin Ching, and the couple purchased a home in Kapahulu, a mile inland from Waikiki Beach so that Gung Gung, a fisherman, could live near the ocean.
Bordered by Diamond Head Crater, the historic Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and the Ala Wai Canal, Waikiki was an undeveloped swamp back then. Adjacent to Waikiki was Gung Gung and Popo’s two-story home, their island version of the American Dream. A black wrought-iron fence covered with pakalana vines bordered the lot. A ponderous mango tree filled the backyard. And a banana patch and two steel slop cans crowded the front steps. In the garage was Gung Gung’s assorted fishing gear. Racked along the rafters were his long poles, and mounted on the garage wall were the giant fish hook and the homemade lead weights that he used to cast for ulua, or giant trevally.
My grandfather passed his love for the ocean to his son, my father, Wilbert Ching. When Dad was a boy, he would enter a hole (long since sealed beneath the Honolulu Zoo), wade through the watery darkness of an underground tunnel, and exit at the Kuhio Beach Jetty. During an era before the regular use of sunscreen, his skin burned, then blackened, then peeled beneath the blistering tropical sun. Like other kids of his era, he frequented the Waikiki Natatorium, the salt-water pool that legendary Hawaiian surfer and Olympian Duke Kahanamoku had made famous. Overlooking the Natatorium was a high and narrow tower from which my dad and all the other local kids would perch and then leap: my father clenching a leaf between his teeth and plunging wildly downward, his feet smacking the surface, and the water ripping every part of his body except where the leaf flapped up into his nostrils.
That boy became a man, had two sons, and went off to war. When he returned to Hawai`i, he cultivated his affection for the ocean through fatherhood. On weekends, along the Ala Wai Canal, Dad, Stanton, and I baited round nets with fish heads and pulled up crabs. On other weekends and during summer camping trips to Punalu`u, Dad took us spear-fishing. During those shared adventures, I discerned flounders on the sandy floor, probed the narrow spaces beneath coral heads for octopi, and glided sleekly over moray eels and spindly sea urchins peppering tables of reef. I basked in the warm top layer of the ocean’s surface and absorbed sudden bursts of cold streaming upward. At the reef’s edge where the seafloor falls, I explored underwater caves amid uhu, hinalea, manini, papio, and kala turning in watery ballet. And while ascending for air, I searched the deep water opening before me like a universe.
One summer during a sub-minus tide, Dad, Stan, and I drove to Kualoa Beach Park and walked all the way out to Chinaman’s Hat. In knee-deep water, we crossed the long sand bar. We hiked the small island’s perimeter, explored its tidal pools, and climbed to its low summit. Then we retreated across the sand bar before the tide rose and erased the only way back that my father had shown us.
Sixteen years ago, Jann and I fled the icy winter storms of the Great Plains, hoping to resettle in Hawai`i. Up to that time, I had considered myself an interloper in the continental U.S. Home was always elsewhere; surely one day I would return to Hawai`i. But during our employment search, we quickly realized that our planned homecoming was improbable. We moved to southern California instead. Then two life-changing events occurred. We started a family, and I rediscovered the ocean.
For several years, I could not imagine swimming in the Los Angeles Basin. Black residues that smelled of petroleum splotched the sand from Venice to Redondo Beach. To my island sensibility, the water appeared a murky green, sometimes brown. I read about surfers contracting meningitis, staph, gastroenteritis, respiratory and nasal infections, diarrhea, and infectious hepatitis. I also learned that during and shortly after severe rainfall, the entire network of storm drains—the plumbing of coastal cities—emptied into the ocean. Surf spots with names like Shit Pipe validated my fears.
Then one day my oldest child, Angelica, asked me on our morning drive to her middle school, “Dad, can you teach me to surf?”
“No,” I said.
“Why?” she said.
“The water’s dirty,” I said.
“Why?” she said.
“The pollutants can make you ill,” I said.
“Interesting,” she said.
Eventually, she and I drove to Main Street in Huntington Beach and purchased two used shortboards. The salesperson, a long-time southern California surfer, suggested the relatively clean water in Orange County.
The next weekend I motored Angelica into the surf at Bolsa Chica State Beach Park. Our first time in the chilly southern California water, we were clad in full wetsuits. Angelica was twelve, a year older than I had been when I had started surfing. Just sixty-five pounds, she was too light to duck dive her surfboard beneath the approaching waves. Wearing fins, I flattened myself into a swim, kicked, grabbed the nose of her board, and tugged her out.
“Over?” Angelica said.
“Over!” I said, pulling her past a small swell.
“Under?” she said.
“Under!” I said, grabbing both rails and sinking her board. Angelica held on as the white water rumbled over us.
Midway between the line-up and the shoreline, I stopped, turned her board, aimed her toward the beach, and waited.
“Is it round?” Angelica said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Is it steep?” she said, gripping the rails and peeking over her shoulder.
“Trust me,” I said. We were in waist-high surf, but for Angelica, the wave must have seemed enormous. I grabbed the tail of her board and, with the wave already upon us, launched her toward shore. At first, I watched the white-water tumbling away, and then Angelica appeared teetering like a child taking her first steps, walking on the sea.
This past summer, all four of my children surfed there, oblivious to the cold, their bodies gloved by and branded in neoprene: Rip Curl, O’Neill, Quiksilver, and Billabong. I marveled at the three younger ones adapting to the ocean’s temperament, throttling the water, hollering, and hooting. They busted through the white-water like miniature pontoons. They face-planted on waves breaking too steeply. They somersaulted beneath the whip and tumble of white-water. Eventually, Elika steadied herself on her knees. Esteban stood and then cartwheeled into the water, attempting an aerial that he’d seen on the Internet. Refusing to be outdone, Jayson popped to his feet, crouched, struck the classic surfer pose, and glided all the way to shore.
Nowadays during the week when I work at home, I awake at four AM, write for two hours, prepare breakfast for the children, and take them to school. Then, before returning to my computer, I drive to Bolsa Chica State Beach Park to surf. The parking lot is always empty, the lifeguard towers vacant, and the sand unpopulated. The nearest surfers sharing the morning waves might be twenty to thirty yards away. Sometimes a lone fisherman casts his line from shore. My motivations have changed since youth. I imagine that the other surfers, the fisherman, and I have arrived at this personal solitude for similar reasons—to affirm, perhaps subconsciously, an individual connection to a design much larger than oneself. During the lulls between sets, the Earth becomes palpable, a dolphin breaking the surface before swimming beneath me, the air bending under a pelican gliding inches above water. Perhaps there’s a shift in the current, a subtle change in wind direction, the movement of sandbar, matter, and energy giving way to and becoming new forms, and patterns, and flows that reach across the Earth and then vanish.
The anthropologist James Clifford once said that we are all “dwelling-in-travel.” We are on the move even as we imagine the certainty of our lives, our feet firmly grounded in the bedrock of an imagined presence. Perhaps that’s why Bruce Brown‘s iconic movie, The Endless Summer, has captivated audiences for years. During the longboard era, two surfers traverse the globe, chasing the season of summer and its perfect wave. Their journey becomes the archetypal pattern that is, at once, one life and all lives: origin, departure, return. Birth, maturation, death. One season ends all too quickly as another begins.
I know the time will come when I can no longer surf. Sometimes I glimpse its arrival at the end of the day while tracing the old-timers riding long boards and eclipsing the sun like kings. Sometimes I sense its approach while watching my children paddling away from me into the line-up, their days and bodies lengthening. At such moments, I think of my father and his father, the oceans we have crossed, and our shared stewardship of the sea. I am an ocean away from my first childhood home break. Across Kalakaua Avenue, just off the Kuhio Beach jetty before that spacious azure, the next generation of tanned local kids will always be surfing. But when I watch my own children paddling into the sets, I realize that I have never really left. I wonder: How eternal the moment when the water rushing beneath our feet and the place we call home are the same.
Stuart Ching is an associate professor of English at Loyola Marymount University, where he teaches courses in writing, literature, and rhetoric. His essays and stories have appeared in numerous publications, among these, The Best of Honolulu Fiction, Growing Up Local, A Voice for Earth: American Writers Respond to the Earth Charter, and The Subject is Story.