A Chorus Of ‘I Have Come Home’

A Return, a Healing, and a Homegoing in August At Akiko’s

August at Akiko’s (2018) | courtesy of Hamakua Films

Where are you from?

It’s the dreaded question for any Asian American—or any person of color, really—and it often lands with a backhanded, othering wallop. I’ve toyed with different answers ranging from feigned ignorance (“What do you mean by that?”) to the truth (“Las Vegas,” which usually leads to “Where are you from originally?”) to outright confrontation (“Oh, you want to know why I look like this?).

Usually, I stick with my go-to answer: “Vegas, but my parents grew up in Hawaii.” It’s an answer that gets me through the song and dance of the conversation with minimal distress. Even that is a crude summation of circumstances, though, a lie to myself, that I am from a place in which I haven’t spent more than a total of two months’ time during my nearly 30 years of life. But, at the same time, Hawaii is the closest thing I can point to on a map as my roots. 

If you meet someone else from Hawaii out in the world, it’s normal to ask them about the last time they were “home,” and this used to bug me. My “home” is Las Vegas, and has been for two decades, but every time I return to Hawaii—my feet feel more solidly planted into the ground—my heartbeat slows just a notch and syncs to the islands’ rhythms, my senses heightened to appreciate the sights and sounds and smells. 

At times, I wish I could just vacation in Hawaii without a feeling of responsibility coming as a side dish. The selfish and lazy part of me is jealous of those who can experience the paradise of Hawaii without caring about the ramifications of their tourism, and without setting aside time to see as much family as possible. Although I love connecting with family (and rejecting the temptation to keep track of time when we are together), it’s also a complication in what could just be a relaxing time away. I try to remember all the customs as though they were second nature; I try to visit places that should feel poignant with nostalgia but instead are clouded in shaky childhood memory. Inside all these mental gymnastics, I cannot slip the feeling of putting on an act for my own internal audience, a feeling of appropriating a culture my dad would insist is my own despite my birth certificate showing I was born in rural Pennsylvania. 

To feel without an anchor point is not uncommon for Asian Americans. Some might argue it’s a central, shared trait, an ingrained and inherited symptom of our existence that each of us must unpack to find some sort of belonging. There is a beauty in the process of recalibrating and sinking into communities to which we have tangible access, a comfort in searching for those grooves of home, a satisfaction in the knowledge that a weight beared is not one to bear alone. Through that ongoing process, I can’t help but feel even more strongly that Hawaii is the home for which I yearn. Returning to the land, to the ocean around it, is so crucial to my makeup that an extended period away festers an unorganized jigsaw inside of me. That said, those pangs of overthinking lord over me in this peace as well. It’s hard not to feel like I am creating some headcanon to explain away a valid feeling of disorientation. There isn’t exactly a guidebook to which I can refer, but August at Akiko’s (2018) is the closest I’ve come.

In the first act of Christopher Makoto Yogi’s debut feature, the protagonist Alex (Alex Zhang Hungtai) drives to what was once his grandparents’ home on the Big Island of Hawaii only to find it demolished, a construction site having taken its place. A short investigation later, he learns his grandparents both died in the last two years without his or his mother’s knowledge. Grief—in combination with a now-directionless trip back home—leaves Alex, a musician, alone in a motel playing a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” that gives way to the wailing free jazz that decorates the film’s score. Alex stumbles upon a Buddhist bed & breakfast run by the spry and sharp Akiko (Akiko Masuda, as herself), who agrees to put the aimless Alex up in a room for an undetermined amount of time, and this is where the steady, beating heart of Yogi’s film is housed. 

An early cutaway shows a sign, an instruction to the bed-and-breakfast’s guests:

“as a guest, leave, no Trace, No Face. In fact, only leave a ‘presence,’ a feeling that for a moment you loved a place so deeply that both you and the place were transformed, and both became more beautiful, more natural and inseparably one.”

The duality for Alex exists in the demolishment of his family’s former home which now renders him a visitor on the island. However, instead of oscillating between these two realities for the rest of the film, Alex melts into the community’s rituals and rhythms. From early morning meditation before the sun breaks over the horizon to laborious community service, August at Akiko’s examines the ways in which Alex returns home. What was to be a vacation and a visit with family turns into a healing, a homecoming, and a reckoning. 

Not much context is given from Yogi’s script, though the film is not short of weight. Alex visits an old theater he visited as a child with his grandfather, and we can connect the dots from how that experience brought Alex to his career as a musician. “I haven’t been back since I was a little kid. My grandpa used to take me here,” Alex tells the woman working there, and here we learn his livelihood, the outlet through which we see him turn to over and over again, connects him with the grandfather he hadn’t even realized was gone. It’s not much, but it gives just enough detail to trace the emotional dots of the journey we are watching Alex go on. A handful of scenes show what we can presume is Yogi’s grandfather driving, and another reveals a car on the side of the road whose horn is blaring—likely the accident that took Alex’s grandfather’s life. But these are never confirmed. Instead, we see Alex in endless moments of staring. Out toward the ocean, into a dense rainforest, Zhang’s face is engraved with layers of enigmatic story bearing the weight of these unexplored mysteries, the various unanswered questions. 

We also see Alex experience moments of simple joy. A day of manual labor finishes with a hearty plate of food and conversation reflecting on what it feels like giving back to a land from which much is harvested for those hundreds of miles away. He visits an Okinawan woman in her home featuring frames upon frames of history as she plays a sanshin, an instrument that links her back to her own family’s homeland. He plays with a young child keen on capturing a fruit fly to keep as a pet and sees the appeal of starting a family of his own. After spending much of the film stone-faced, Alex begins to open up. In a scene which takes place in a church, Alex reads a poem pushing the spotlight onto the intertwined and crucial nature of his—and anyone who can find their own link—to Hawaii.

“Penetrate the source and travel the pathways / embrace the territory and treasure the roads. / you would do well to respect this; / do not neglect it. / natural and wondrous, / it is not a matter of delusion or enlightenment / within causes and conditions, time and season, / it is serene and illuminating.”

As Alex’s stay lengthens, Akiko becomes a sort of vessel through which Alex heals and roots himself back home. Their relationship starts timidly. Akiko feels Alex out as he asks for a room without a real plan of how long he intends to stay. But, over time, through the different community works and relationship building she facilitates between Alex and the land as well as between Alex and other locals, their connection deepens. After spending some time with another family and playing with a young child, Alex and Akiko speak about her past and how she came to be who she is now. It’s as if Akiko is the proxy for both Alex’s grandparents and Hawaii. The more he pours himself back into the land and the people—whether it is cleaning a graveyard, participating in a Japanese cultural festival or playing music with the Okinawan woman—the more is poured back into him. Akiko cannot replace Alex’s grandparents, but she (and, thusly, Hawaii) is part of healing and reviving a dormant connection within him. 

A little less than an hour into the 75-minute film, Akiko leads Alex through a ritual asking for wisdom, one steeped in the nature surrounding them. Akiko’s chant comes from deep within her—a tone lower than her speaking voice and trembling from a submissive but powerful place—and it brings the grieving Alex to tears. Akiko ends this climactic moment of what is otherwise an incident-free film thanking their surroundings, seen and unseen:

“Mahalo ke Akua (translation: “Thanks be to God”) for the message that the trees will speak again, the rocks will speak again, the walls will speak again, the ocean will speak again, and there will be a chorus of ‘Welcome Home.’ A chorus of ‘I have come home.’ A chorus of ‘Aloha.’ We are together in one breath. In and out. In and out. Mahalo ke Akua for your child who has come home. For your child who has come home.

A year ago, I visited Hawaii for the first time in seven years. This marked the first time for me as an adult, and also the first visit with my partner, and so I felt the weight of nervous expectation and excitement. Naturally, I called upon my father, who graciously volunteered to visit Oahu at the same time to drive us around all the places I wanted to revisit, including Punchbowl Cemetery—the location of my mother’s tombstone—so this vacation had a boatload of emotional weight anchoring it. 

We also planned to surprise my grandmother, my father’s mom, whom I also hadn’t seen since my last visit home. As the saying goes in my family: “The mountain does not move to see you; you go to the mountain.” As I am the “baby” of my family, bringing my girlfriend was especially exciting, and the outright joy that played out on my grandma’s face that day remains unforgettable. We would visit her one more time during that half-week trip to Oahu, on our way to the airport before flying to see my sister in Maui; she flipped through a few photo albums with us, most of which contained pictures I was seeing for the first time. 

The final act of August at Akiko’s takes place in two locations. First, Akiko takes Alex to a crater that was once filled with molten lava. Thousands of years later, it is now a flattened, undisturbed landscape scattered with a handful of plants. It is vast yet confined, a small valley safe from the disruptive construction that had bowled over Alex’s grandparents’ home. Here, Yogi mirrors a shot seen earlier in the film when Alex went looking for the old house as the camera pans from Alex over to a single tree—but this time, the shot is accompanied by silence rather than the raging sounds of construction. Alex thanks Akiko for bringing him here—for showing him such peace—and you get the sense that he is not only talking about where they are in that moment, but also about where she has brought him emotionally. We follow Alex into the jungle he’d stared into earlier, and he enters a cave. The camera then frames Alex playing his saxophone in the mouth of the cave, and the shot fades into one of the old theater, where only Alex appears on stage, playing to two people in the audience. Two people we can assume are his grandparents. He has finally made his way home, where his family was waiting for him all along. 

That trip to Hawaii ended up being the last time I’d see my grandma, who passed away the next month. I am forever grateful for those few hours with her. Yogi has said August at Akiko’s invites its viewers to meditate with the film, to allow the mind to wander where it may as the film passes by. It is impossible to watch this movie and not think of the last time I saw my grandmother and all the small moments in which she has continued to live on since passing. For as little as I saw Hawaii, I saw her even less; however, knowing how life and land are intertwined in Hawaii, there is comfort in this continued living, in the thought of seeing her again through the rocks, the walls, the ocean. There is comfort in this anchor latching onto me and realigning my heart, cracked and chipped as it may be, further making Hawaii—making home—a place where I can return and become more beautiful, more naturally myself and more inseparably one with the islands. There is comfort in this place where I can always find a chorus of “Welcome home,” a chorus of “Aloha.”