A mean boy in my second grade class tormented me by following me home from Oak School No. 3 school every day.

“China Doll, China Doll,” he would chant in the universal singsong voice of taunting children.

I would arrive home crying and out of breath from trying to outrun him. My mother comforted me by opening up the encyclopedia Britannica to C for China to show me a picture of a little Chinese girl all dressed up in her Chinese finery, holding a colorful paper umbrella.

“See,” she said, “Look how beautiful these Chinese girls are. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

This might have been more comforting if I was Chinese. But I was actually Swedish-Italian and my looks tended way more towards the Italian.

Even then, I just wanted to belong. To fit in.

I had parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, but I didn’t feel like I belonged to a community or culture. My grandparents on both sides were trying to fully assimilate into the culture of Long Island. They didn’t have deep loyalties to Sweden or Italy, there was a reason their parents left those places. Hardship.

If a culture is partially defined by its food, then Long Island has its share of culture (pronounced cultcha). Nathan’s foot long hotdogs, Entenmann’s cookies, YooHoo’s, deli rice pudding, bologna on a Kaiser roll. Pizza, bagels and, of course, Chinese food. Long Island has a flavor, I’ll give it that.

I never felt that I belonged in New York, although now I wonder if it’s the only place where I will ever feel at home. I left when I graduated high school at 18 years old with a bold declaration.

“I’m never coming back to this place,” I said.

I went to college in Virginia, but I didn’t belong there either among the confederate flags, biscuits and gravy. Although, I did quite like the Southern boys with their sweet manners and soothing accents.

Post-college I found a temporary tribe, traveling around the country with friends to Grateful Dead shows. That is the closest I have ever come to feeling like I belonged somewhere. Although some people do, I couldn’t stay on perpetual tour with my Grateful Dead tribe.

I moved to Hawaii to find a tribe to which I could belong. I was looking for culture, tradition and deep ancient roots into which I could tap. I wanted to belong to the land and people of a place. I wanted to be woven into the fabric of a community.


I have native envy and I’m not the only one. In Hawaii, all the white people want desperately to belong there. I almost look like part of the Hawaii tribe with my long, dark hair and almond eyes. If only I could keep my mouth shut so my whiteness didn’t reveal itself through my speech

I almost look like part of the Hawaii tribe with my long, dark hair and almond eyes. If only I could keep my mouth shut so my whiteness didn’t reveal itself through my speech.

In an effort to fit in, white people in Hawaii frequently to try hide where they are from.

A local will ask in pidgin, “Where you from?”

“Kohala,” answers the white person.

A Kohala local knows you are not from Kohala. If you were from Kohala they would know your family, they would know who your first girlfriend was, they would know where you went to high school. The locals can hear in the inflection of your voice that you are not from Kohala. They can see by the way you look that you are not from Hawaii at all.

Exasperated, the local person will ask again, with a little more emphasis.

“No. Where you from?”

The white person will be flustered, acting like they didn’t understand the question in the first place.

“Oh! Where am I from…” Dissembling. “I came from California,” and then they quickly add, “But now I live here.”

Duh. They know you live here now. That wasn’t the point. The question was asked to trace your ancestry back to its roots. To see how you may be connected, to fit you in. There are so many connections in Hawaii among the islanders. Families are related by blood or marriage or friendship or school. Us haoles are not connected by any of those ties, we are floating alone in the middle of the ocean.

I used to try to hide where I was from. Now I just come right out with it.

“I’m from New York, of Italian heritage. I apologize in advance if I talk too fast or get too pushy.”

People say that Hawaii is a great multi-ethnic melting pot. Maybe some people melt into the pot, but not the white people. Let me break it down for you. There are three categories of people in Hawaii: Native Hawaiian (kanaka maoli, of native Hawaiian decent), other locals (predominantly brown skin people that came to Hawaii during the plantation era—Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Puerto Rican— to work in the sugar plantations), and white (haole).

I don’t care how many years you live in Hawaii, how many Hawaiians you know, how much hula you dance or Hawaiian you speak. You will always be an outsider. This is hard for us white people to take. We are used to being the dominant majority in a place. We are used to feeling superior, like we are loved and venerated, or at the very least accepted in society because we are white. White people in Hawaii are the ethnic minority. In Hawaii, white people are not celebrated for their wonderful contributions to society, we are a blight on the land. Look at what we brought. Colonialism. Development. Disease. Repressive Religion. Corporatism. We bring our pushy, haole ways of doing things.

Where I live in North Kohala, many Hawaiian and local people live in the plantation-era houses they grew up in or inherited from their families. The plantation houses are small, three bedroom, no closet space, fake wood panel walls on 15,000 square foot lots. When family or friends come over, the locals sit on folding chairs around plastic tables in the garage, “talking story,” drinking cheap beer. The white people, who come with their fortunes buy 5 – 1,000 acre estates and build elegant homes with state-of-the-art kitchens. They have friends over to drink cool chardonnay around the granite kitchen island. I can drink beer with the guys in the garage, but in truth, I prefer wine in a swankier atmosphere.

I know what it feels like to be the new girl in school. Now, I am the new white girl in a small local community, and a whole state, in which I am not that welcome. I understand why we white people are not that welcome. We upset the social order, and we are just plain annoying.

Some haoles, mostly men, try to fit in by attempting to speak pidgin like the locals. They put on this fake pidgin accent that sounds ridiculous.

“Howzit goin’, brah? You like go fish?”

The locals may speak pidgin, but they understand your excellent American English just fine. What they don’t understand is your very bad pidgin or why you are trying to speak it.

For the most part, the feeling of not being welcome by the locals is ever-present, but very subtle. The people that really make you feel overtly not welcome are the other white people. No one in Hawaii is better at measuring your haole-ness and making you feel inadequate than other haoles.

For the most part, the feeling of not being welcome by the locals is ever-present, but very subtle. The people that really make you feel overtly not welcome are the other white people. No one in Hawaii is better at measuring your haole-ness and making you feel inadequate than other haoles.

Comparing how long you have been in Hawaii with other haoles is a never-ending pissing contest.

Other white people eye you up and down, seeing if they can detect your haole-ness by your skin tone (red like a lobster from the sun), geeky shoes (anything other than slippers), or bathing suit (anything other than a local surf brand.)

“How long have you been here?” says judgmental white person.

“25 years,” I say. “How about you?”

“5 years.”

They demure. You have put in more time. It’s a pecking order, like prison.

The other night I ran into Josh at a party. Josh used to live on the land that I just bought and I often picked his brain about the place and its inner workings.

“I am surprised at how hot it is down on Ho‘ea, and the way that the wind whips through,” I said.

Josh was standing with a woman who had only been in town a short time.

“Oh, you must be new here, you’ll get used to the wind,” she said, flipping her blonde hair back with her hand.

Then she launched into a monologue about the wind and rain designed to make me feel inexperienced and insecure about not being as smart, local and assimilated as she was.

I was gearing up for the pissing contest. Do you know who I am? How long I have been here? 25 years, blah, blah, blah. But I couldn’t muster the energy. I just kissed Josh on the cheek and let it go.

Time also holds water with the locals. White people in Hawaii like to sweep into a place and try to make immediate change, usually quite loudly. White people in community meetings, where they are new and in the minority, will almost always dominate the conversation.

“Why are things being done like this? This is ridiculous. Why reinvent the wheel? This is how we do it on the mainland.”

Then they proceed to harangue everyone until they get their way. Often a white person will sweep in, make a big fuss in their community about an issue, and then they will leave.

If you have been around for a while (ten years minimum), you have given the locals a chance to observe you in action (and they have been quietly watching.) You have demonstrated that you are likely not going anywhere. Perhaps you have demonstrated that you can be mildly opinionated and minimally annoying. At which point they see you are serious about being a part of the community.

It’s hard for me to fully embrace the communication rhythms of Hawaii. I am from New York. I am direct. I ask for what I want. I pride myself on being a clear communicator.

The local style is less direct, more of a dance than a race to the finish. You have to listen between the lines to understand what is being said. You have to be quiet to be heard.

Almost every time I open my mouth, I make a cultural blunder. I was at a community meeting with a group of Hawaiians. The meeting was in my community, but I had never met any of the people at that meeting. It was my turn to speak.

“Are you guys from Kohala?” I said.

As soon the question came out of my mouth, I realized the mistake. My face burned red with embarrassment as one by one, the Hawaiians told me of their genealogy. They sure were from Kohala—many, many generations back. They didn’t live in town now, but they were from here. Me? I live in Kohala, but I am from New York. I’m an outsider trying to fit in. I am wishing I were something I’m not.

I have lived in Hawaii now for twenty-five years. I have lived in Hawaii for longer than I lived in my birthplace of New York. Hawaii is my home, but it has turned out that I don’t really belong there either. I work in Hawaii, I live in Hawaii, my son was born in Hawaii and I will likely die in Hawaii. Still, I don’t belong in Hawaii.

One Hawaiian colleague said to me recently, “Well, we need the white people like you to help us write things down in good English. Write the grants like you do. That is the role you play.”

After being here for so long, I think that I am tolerated. I am not fully embraced, but the locals put up with me because I have useful skills to contribute.

Buddhist psychologist and author Tara Brach says that wanting to belong is a basic human instinct. She says that people lived in tribes for thousands of years and that being a part of a tribe is how we know who we are. It is how we stay safe.

I have no tribe. I am a lone woman wolf.


My mother tries to grasp on to her own sense of belonging by making a big deal about being Italian. Or more accurately, Italian-American. My whole life, her first question whenever I met a man was, “Is he Italian?”
My mother tries to grasp on to her own sense of belonging by making a big deal about being Italian. Or more accurately, Italian-American. My whole life, her first question whenever I met a man was, “Is he Italian?”

I was always confused about why that mattered. I am not even sure that I am a cultural Italian. My great grandparents were from Italy. My grandmother was of Italian decent, but was born in England and spoke with a British accent. She did make a mean marinara sauce, mostly to please grandpa. I think she would have preferred roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. We ate the occasional cannoli and drank cheap Chianti, but that was about it. The only Italian words that were spoken in our house were mama mia when my mother was frustrated and manga manga when she was trying to get me to eat.

My boyfriend Jim and I went to Italy to seek out my people in Napoli and Sicilia. I was hoping that I would feel a sense of belonging, especially in Sicily. I thought that maybe my pull towards Hawaii was due to some kind of island gene that I inherited from my Sicilian ancestors.

I felt nothing. No connection. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t look like them. I was nothing but an American tourist. Ugh.

An Asian woman front desk clerk at one of the hotels was speaking to a guest in front of us in fluent Italian. When it was our turn, I was fascinated.

“Where are you from?” I asked, “You speak such good Italian.”

She gave me a withering look that indicated that I was a complete American idiot for asking.

“Italy. I am from Italy. I am Italian,” she said in English with the quintessential Italian accent, “I was born and raised here.”

Italians, like Americans, come in all packages. As an Italian-American, I romanticized Italy, thinking everyone would look “Italian.”

Some Hawaiians can chant their genealogy back seventy generations. I know who my grandparents and great grandparents were, but I could not trace my family back further than that. I could not even pinpoint where my great grandparents were from in Italy.

Since my mother was Italian and my father Swedish, I always thought of myself as 50/50, half Italian and half Swedish.

I decided to go deeper and investigate my ancestry through genetic testing. Jim decided to do the genetic testing, too.

Jim (Who is Italian-American, which makes my mother unreasonably happy) loves Italian food. He loves to eat it and he loves to cook it. I know it is very un-Italian of me, but I prefer a low-carb and low-gluten diet. I am probably the only person in recorded history that has traveled to Italy and, much to Jim’s annoyance, successfully avoided eating pasta. Jim especially favors the Northern Italian cooking style of Mario Batali. Mario is Jim’s food hero. Jim eats in his restaurants whenever he can and has all of his cookbooks. Jim has taught himself to cook amazing Italian pasta dishes with Mario Batali’s cookbooks. When Jim cooks for me, I fussily push the pasta around my bowl, picking out the kale and sausage. Or I binge eat the whole bowl of pasta and my stomach bloats out like I am nine months pregnant, and I spend the rest of the night farting and complaining about how bloated I am.

Jim and I both got an email at the same time that our genetic testing results were in. Side by side on the couch, we whipped out our laptops and eagerly opened our email. A big box with a gold star pops up in the side bar of my results.

YOU are related to Mario Batali through your maternal line.

Jim’s face fell. He could not believe that I was related to Mario Batali and he was not. He was actually mad about it. I tried to make him feel better by assuring him that it was better that we were not both related to Mario, as then we would be related.

Despite my intolerance to wheat pasta, it turns out that technically (on my mother’s side) I am predominantly Italian (17%), but this only slightly edges out the French and German (15%) and Scandinavian (11%). I was so disappointed. I wanted so desperately to prove a connection to the cultures that I naturally gravitate towards—Hawaiian or East Indian. All was not lost, though, I had .2% East Asian and Native American.

This information was not satisfying to me in any way. I still didn’t feel an increased sense of knowing who I was or where I belonged.

I did a second DNA swab and sent it to the National Geographic Genographic project, which tracks migration patterns across the globe.

Now I know where I am from dating back 150,000 years, from the beginning of known time. Like most of humanity, I am from East Africa. My maternal ancestor, original “mother of us all” is Mitochondrial Eve. My father is Scientific Adam.

I am African. As my ancestors traveled out of Africa and made their way to Northern Europe, I became many things.

This I like. Being linked from the beginning of time to all human beings on earth makes me feel connected. I feel less separate knowing that my ancestors were black, white and everything in between.

My genetic history accounts for all the human beings on earth that contributed to the making of my body, but what of the soul? How can I reconcile this with my belief that my soul has had many incarnations, that I am re-born in a different body in each lifetime?

My genetic history can’t account for my past lives. Perhaps that while my genetic ancestors were stomping grapes in Italy, my Hindu-born soul was on the meditation cushion in a temple in India. My black-African genetic ancestors were dancing in the hot, dusty African soil, while my soul was standing in the muddy waters tending taro in Hawaii.

I feel like a part of everything, but like I belong nowhere. I don’t belong in Virginia, Colorado, New York, Italy, Hawaii, California—any of the places that I have lived. There is nowhere that I can truly call home and feel like a part of the people of that land.

My Guru, Paramahansa Yogananda says, “Peel back the skin and what do you have? We are all the same.”

We are all the same. My sense of belonging has to come from deep inside myself, below my skin. Occasionally, when I’m meditating or chanting, I get a feeling of belonging and it doesn’t matter where I am or what I look like.

Then I stand up off the meditation cushion—eat a New York bagel with lox, brush my long dark hair, do a little African dance—and step outside into the bright Hawaiian sun. Looking up, I squint from the glare, maybe looking a little Chinese.

Share this Post