It’s amazing to think that football, “The Sopranos,” a puddle of genes, and a couple dozen potlucks shaped who I am today.

I’m what is called a “mixed plate” in Hawaiian pidgin – a person of mixed ancestry. In the same way a “mixed plate” is an assortment of tasty foods, I’m a mixture of ethnicities: Japanese, Filipino, Caucasian, and Native Hawaiian.

Although I was born on Maui, living in the Utah snow with my extended family shaped the way I view my culture more than all of my time spent in the islands. Every Sunday the entire family would descend on my aunt’s house for dinner. With mounds of rice covering the countertop, it was a massive potluck for a massive family. After dinner, the adults would settle around the T.V. to watch H.B.O. and all of the kids ran downstairs to roughhouse.

As a collective, we cousins were rowdy and excitable. All are dark-skinned, athletic, and seemed to be in every way more Hawaiian than me. My aunties, uncles, and cousins would tease me about my awkward manner and reluctance to see the sun. I was clumsy, quiet, and stumpy; the jokes were abundant. Teasing is about as native as poi and poke, and everything they said and did was in good humor. But while it was harmless ribbing from my aunts and uncles and childish taunts from my cousins, it really did affect me. I was the white sheep in a dark flock. I started spending less time downstairs with my cousins and more time in the kitchen with a book between the pans of buttered rolls.

When I was thirteen, my family moved to O’ahu; I was beyond excited to be there. I was determined to become Hawaiian. I remember my father trying to teach me Hawaiian pronunciation using street names, like Kapiolani Highway or Kalakaua Avenue. He would spell the words out, and I would recite what I thought was the proper pronunciation.

“P-I-P-E-L-I-N-E,” he spelled out deliberately.

Hesitantly, I replied, “Pee-peh-lee-neh?”

And in the thickest pidgin my Ohio-born father could muster, he said triumphantly, “No! Pipeline, stupid!” Upon seeing my mortified expression, he told me that my grandfather had conducted the same ruse on him when he had first moved to Hawaii.

I had wanted to rediscover myself. I had wanted to find the Hawaiian in me that seemed so hard to reach; and that the new me would blossom like a tropical flower. This was my chance to be someone new, to reinvent myself. Of course, things don’t always work the way we want them to. Bumbling through the hula couldn’t change my natural attraction for the ground, and ridiculous amounts of sunlight only burned my fair skin. I felt like I was absolutely unable to be Hawaiian, and it frustrated me.

After five years of Hawaiian training – in the cool, controlled, air-conditioned meeting space of a Mormon church in Kona – I was reunited with my family. I had dreaded it for weeks. And at first, it appeared that nothing had changed. My cousins were still tall, handsome, and athletic. My uncles were somber in their coats and ties. My aunty was wearing her denim Sunday dress, the same she had worn at every potluck. But it became apparent to me that something had changed, because after I hugged my first relative and kissed her cheek, she said “Lauren, you’re so grown up. You look beautiful.” That was the exact moment things fell into place.

Life, in all its weird ways of working, changed me. It seemed that with each butchered street name, with each aloe soaked sunburn, with each fall, I came closer to what I had wanted. I began to realize that being Hawaiian has nothing to do with how well you could speak, or how well you could dance. It’s not about being dark skinned or athletic. It’s not about how other people define you. Being Hawaiian is just like everything else – it’s about how you feel about yourself. I am proud now to be a “mixed plate” because life itself is a “mixed plate”: filled to the brim with people and places and experiences. To compartmentalize it is to destroy its value – it’s the jumbled-ness of it all that makes it special.