What are you? I check the “other” box


Mixed Race and Checking the Box


What are you?

I am deep in the middle of writing down my stories. I’m using Old Friend Far Away by Natalie Goldberg and the content of her book is enough to keep you writing for a year straight, I swear. I have decided (since it’s a library book) to just pen the prompts that she provides (hundreds of them) into a blank journal and work on them as I have time.

One of the themes that keeps sneaking back to me as I perform her “just write for 10 minutes” suggestion is my mixed heritage. My mulatto status. My half-breed moniker and the box that I used to wish desperately that I could check due to the simple fact that my father is black and my mother is white.

As time goes on, those monochromatic boxes have expanded. Girls like me used to just be relegated to choosing white, black or other. It wasn’t that long ago!

Then came the wave of Native American boxes being added … then the inclusion of the Hispanic box. Now there is the “other” box and ahem … drum roll, I am even seeing “mixed race” or bi-racial as a box.

Because I was not schooled traditionally, I probably only have 14% of the typical issues that others might be able to share who were born in the late 1970s and raised in the very non-diverse 1980s in the middle of America. I admit that I was sheltered from much of the pain that others have felt, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion on what it means to be unsure of where you belong — from an early age.

Smith Siblings

I grew up in a very small town in Nebraska. Actually, I grew up in the country, 30 minutes outside of a very small town in Nebraska. We were there because my father worked for Union Pacific and as I remember it, there were a lot of Hispanics also working for the railroad, but not very many families that looked like ours. I have four siblings, three of us are biologically related and there is one sibling (adopted as a very young babe) that none of us can imagine a childhood and life without. I can still remember the whispers at Hinky Dinky in the checkout lane while buying groceries, “where do you think that one came from?” (referring to the black kiddo holding hands with his very white mama) or the mean kids at the public pool who called us all names because we weren’t pale skinned like them. There were assumptions made about our ability to succeed at sports, and even surprise uttered when my mother corrected a nosy nelly who had the gall to state that there must have been an affair inside of the marriage for there to be different colored babies. Growing up, it was ok for one of my brothers to use the “N” word and not the other.

Smith Babies

White girls are jealous of the “body” that is ever present in my my curls. I don’t suffer from a greasy scalp and have never known “limp hair” or the syndrome of “it just fell flat!” They purse their lips and buy “booty lifters”, neither of which I need, because both of those things came with my bod, as do my semi-high cheekbones and year-round tan that looks like an expensive bronzer. The black chicks have been known to dis me (yes, that’s a term and yes it’s happened to me as an active verb) for the fact that I can comb through my “good hair” and had light skin and great cheekbones. My nose is not one that was handed down from my dad’s side of the family and my skin doesn’t tend to get too terribly ashy.

Smith Siblings


Smith Daughters

I cannot be easily identified as belonging to any one race or nationality at first glance.

I get the question “so, what are you?”, (what they mean is “what race are you” but no one is dumb enough to put it THAT way). Which box do I check when it comes to my race?  When I tell them what my nationality is (German, Danish, African American and some Native American Indian), most people say “I would have had NO idea!” When we lived in India, I had several experiences where I was asked if I was Punjabi and in Spanish-speaking areas, especially when in Florida, I have to consistently say “no habla espanol!” I am asked this question FREQUENTLY.

Just yesterday, one of the hotel staff, after several curious smiles and long stares looked at me, cocked his head a bit and said “Hey, so what are you?”  Oh, yes he did.  I just graciously smiled and said “Do you mean, what nationalities make up my background?”  I used to get annoyed and frustrated and tell people who asked “I am a girl, what do you think I am?” but have realized as I have matured (a bit) that ignorance isn’t always rude or intentional, it’s just a product of unawareness. Usually, I try to hold onto the conversation a little bit by explaining that so few of us anymore can identify with just ONE race, or just ONE nationality. The world is better with a melding of backgrounds and richer for it.

Here’s where the post gets a little messy.

I do not identify with any one culture, or heritage that makes up my bloodline. I don’t have a series of time-honored traditions that represent the nationalities that make up my genealogy. I also don’t know where I fit in on the spectrum of issues that STILL divide a nation, a people group, a community when it comes to color and racism. My understanding of racism while growing up, and the issues I had to deal with because of the pigment of my skin revolved solely around the reality that my family was a mixed set of shades. The first life change that affected my interaction with racism happened when my parents divorced in the mid-80s. The next major shift happened when I left home at the ripe old age of 16 and was no longer seen together with the rest of my family. The older I get, strangely, the moments trickle away into a very quiet whisper that are only triggered by stories that happen to other people. I married an Italian man and my children all have olive-colored skin and we all *match* each other. We still get inquiries about the family’s background, since we tend to blend in most any place we have lived, but weirdly, people seem to be most enamored by my husband’s Sicilian background.

I DO cringe when people describe others using their skin color and get incredibly frustrated when black people holler about racism and white people continue to claim ignorance. I’m consistently saddened that we are still having discussions about equality and minorities and segregation and lack of diversity.

My honest reality is that it is difficult for me to feel I have a voice when it comes to discussing all of those really important things. 

There was a hashtag awhile back that had some air time on Twitter. While I watched tweet after tweet roll down my feed, I was extremely conflicted. I felt that if I were to jump on the bandwagon of a group of women calling for equality between white and black women, that I would literally … be in the middle.

How am I to know what it’s like to be a BLACK woman. How am I to know what it’s like to be a WHITE woman? I check the “other” box. 

I bring all of this up to bring a little light into the discussion about cultural awareness and sensitivity as it relates to racism. Obviously the situation is one of complexity and confusion, otherwise we humans would have already figured out a way to live our lives without it. It’s not just about black people and white people. It’s about not being able to understand those who are different than you are. It’s about being defensive when you feel your normal is being challenged.

It’s about feeling uncomfortable when you don’t agree that someone else is your equal.

It’s also quite simply about refusing to listen.

If we would spend more than the 5 seconds that it takes to “tick the box” we might find that we get to know our neighbor, or actually befriend the grocery store clerk regardless of her hajib. The hooded boy who shuffles past your driveway every day after school might need a summer job cutting the lawn that you’re too busy for. That grumpy old man who uses inappropriate slurs for that hooded boy might just be a product of a generation that uses the excuse that they didn’t know any better.

I have been talking with a couple of people about their upcoming relocation to a place in the world where very few people are going to look like them. I am reminded of the very important need for cultural awareness and racial sensitivity when it comes to moving overseas, or anytime you find yourself in a situation where others don’t look like you (or act like you, or eat what you eat, etc.).

What would happen – seriously – if we quit relegating everyone to a pre-disposed set of boundaries based on the way they looked? What if we didn’t have to check boxes or label ourselves?

So, what are you?




I wouldn’t wish Chikungunya on my worst enemy

As much as I wish this wasn’t the case, chikungunya is in the news AGAIN this week as a disease that has found its way to the United States. When I first drafted this post, (May of 2014) I had typed “making its way to the United States” and now it’s here, just a few months later.

I have my own personal story with this nasty mosquito-borne disease and if telling my tale means just a few people will spray themselves down when going outside, it will be worth telling.

The word chikungunya is thought to derive from a description in the Makonde language (Tanzania), meaning “that which bends up” and describes the often contorted position that you find your limbs when afflicted with chikungunya. It was first discovered, named and discussed in 1955 following an outbreak in Tanzania. Chikungunya is spread when an infected mosquito bites a healthy person. A mosquito can also become infected with the disease when biting someone who already has the disease and spread it that way.

If you can believe it, chikungunya was one of more than a dozen agents the United States researched as potential biological weapons before the nation suspended its biological weapons program (source: Wikipedia).

The incubation period of chikungunya is between one day to just over one week. Symptoms will vary from patient to patient, but I’ll tell you MY story.

On night in 2010, I went to bed with an extreme headache. It was like one that I had never experienced before. I don’t remember how I slept that night, but when I woke up, I was completely drenched and had a fever of 104.5. I don’t remember that morning at all, but Shanti and Sushila (our cook and housekeeper) recounted the happenings later to me. I was absolutely incoherent, unconsolable and not able to speak due to the very high fever. They were able to get the littles ready for school and thankfully, Kushal (our driver) could take them to school and their morning was basically uninterrupted.

The next thing that I can recall was “coming to” at about 2:00 pm that same day. Shanti had called our doctor to make a house call as my fever wasn’t coming down and I was completely unresponsive to them and refusing to eat or drink. He was only able to administer a fever reducer (which didn’t work at all, and the fever continued between 103-104 into the next afternoon. Over the next two days, my friend Pam and others, including our staff, were amazing and helped out with the kids, bedtimes, school, etc.

Soon after the fever ended, the rash developed. All over my hands, arms, feet and legs. They were small reddish-orange bumps that were so prevalent, they touched each other and literally seemed to be everywhere. At the same time, the arthritic issues began. If I have ever felt I could understand what it felt like to age, this was such a time. It took quite a long time in the morning to get out of bed. Waiting first for my hands and elbows to unhinge and loosen before I could pull back the sheets. Even longer before I could bend my knees to swing them over so my feet could touch the floor.

The headaches and joint pain continued for months after I first got sick. In the weeks and months following my bout with chikungunya, I kept getting sick and falling ill it seemed at the drop of a hat. I felt continuously run down, exhausted and like I had a constant fever (I could only describe it as feeling hot on the inside, as very rarely did I ever actually have a fever). I had a healthy appetite, thank goodness, but every 3-4 days, I would get sick enough that I would end up in bed. I began to recognize the pattern and would schedule down days after any big events or situations where I was required to be “on.”

Soon after, I had my first mammogram, unrelated but at the insistence of my friend Lynden. Laying on the table following the mammogram, I was being examined when the doctor’s assistant asked what I was sick with. I looked at her surprised and said “nothing, why?”

Apparently my lymph nodes in my underarms were reminiscent of something more serious and she insisted that I have a full set of lab work done immediately. Fast forward to the phone call from the lab, “do you have the Epstein Barr virus” the man on the other end of the phone asked as I stood in Fun City (the Indian version of Chuck E Cheese) struggling to hear him. “No, why?”

It turns out that Epstein Barr virus is the same thing as mono, which I had experienced when I was about 14, from one of my lovely fellow soccer teammates’ water bottles. Apparently, the virus lays dormant after you’ve contracted it, and in situations where your immune system is challenged (such as having chikungunya), it flares up again.

My levels were way above normal, and it was put on a regiment of vitamins to help boost my immunity, which I was unable to tolerate. Each time I would take my daily dose, I would not be able to keep any of them down and spent the next six months struggling.

Because I was not getting better and felt that our current location was not allowing me to fully heal and rest, we moved to Singapore with the hopes that I could start to recover, however not until this past year have I realized that I don’t feel that “inside fever” anymore and I don’t feel so run down anymore with many months in between episodes of getting sick.

What can you do? 

 Katie from Wellness Mama has many natural remedies if you don’t want to deal with chemicals. You can also explore deet-free sprays that contain oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, which is a known plant-based ingredient recommended as a repellant by the Centers of Disease Control. Consider also citronella candles or these cool natural incense sticks.

I doubt the United States will take up the practice of mosquito fogging like they do in India and Singapore, but if you want to read about that practice, I shared about it here.

Cover up, spray yourself down and light those citronellas!




Conscious Magazine and Savouring Simplicity

I’m hiding out a bit from this blog while I wait for the blog redesign to be finished, and while we get settled into the new digs.

But it doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing! I shared my thoughts on creating a community, the simple way, with Elizabeth at Savouring Simplicity. It was also time to discuss moving beyond hashtag activism and instead look to our youth with the amazing people at Conscious Magazine.


Creating Community with Elizabeth Bradley



Moving beyond Hashtag Activism with Conscious Magazine



What have you been up to? We have just a few more days before we can call the new place in Virginia officially ours and I’m getting a bit impatient! What plans do you have for the weekend? We’re going to explore a bit … whatever you do, have a great one!



On Seizures and Fighting Fear

Everyone says that the best way to start fighting fear is to learn about the thing that you most fear. Chris Brogan talks quite a bit about it in his book, The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth and these are some pretty amazing quotes as well: 


Face your Fears

The concept about learning more about that which you fear made absolutely NO sense to me. At least, it didn’t until our dog started having seizures. We adopted him, literally from the street, when he was just a baby (about 8 weeks old) and he quickly became a beloved member of our family. Not one that most would choose, even his breed name meant “lowest of the low”, but he was truly loyal, energetic and adored by everyone who met him.

The first time I got a phone call, I was instantly in a state of panic. He was at the enrichment class we call doggy daycare and one of the staff told me as I drove that she wasn’t sure what happened, but he apparently had a seizure, and it was long enough that she had to physically lay with him on the floor until it stopped, a very long two minutes later. 

I am not sure whether he had any previously or how many more he had since then – out of my presence – but the first one I witnessed was horrifying.

I stood – absolutely as stiff as a board as I watched his legs twitch and his eyes go glassy. I was literally frozen in fear and had no idea what to do or how to help. My feet felt glued to the floor and my arms felt heavier than I would think possible. When he collapsed on the floor and his entire body convulsed, I suddenly snapped to attention and went to work. I asked my middle little for a towel. Also for water and then I think, I asked for my phone to try and time the duration of the seizure. I laid on top of him – my entire body over his – to keep his head from hitting the tile floor. When it was over, I burst into tears. 

After seeing one, I put a lot of energy in finding out more about seizures. We learned that crazy, erratic behavior out of the blue can sometimes be the prelude to a seizure. Seizures aren’t always full blown affairs. Sometimes they only result in twitching. I was significantly fearful about SA’s rapidly declining health because I didn’t know what was happening. We spent visit after visit with the vet clinic trying to figure out his issues, including multiple sets of blood being drawn, x-rays and a lot of medication. 

It got to the point of seriousness where his behavior snowballed into something that I was no longer comfortable quietly and apathetically going along with not knowing. We made the decision to go full board and finally exhaust all options for educating ourselves and scheduled a MRI, where we quickly learned that a very large and very aggressive set of tumors had completely invaded his brain and nasal cavity and showed no signs of stopping.

We then were left with the very heart-breaking realization that our only choice was to let him go in peace as there was nothing the doctors could do. We are still missing him every moment, but we have some amazing memories of our time with him, just shy of four years. I’ll talk more about him and the value that pets can add to a family in future posts, but let’s keep going on this concept of facing your fears by educating yourself.

I firmly believe that this is an equation that is solid and non-negotiable in life, not just when dealing with medical issues with your pets. When you know nothing about <insert your thing>, it is super easy to be deathly afraid of it, walk in fear and tiptoe around it. When you know more about <insert your thing>, it becomes easier to handle the reality of that fear. You regain control, simply by doing some research or filling your daily existence with knowledge.

How do you actively tame that fear though, and learn more about the <insert your thing>?

First, name your fear.

In this case, it was the unknown future medical diagnosis. It was also the scary situation of watching the suffering of a being who couldn’t speak about his pain. The process of naming your fear may not be an easy process, and I would strongly suggest you brain dump and spend some honest time with yourself writing it all down. Feel free to download the free .pdf at the end of this post. 

Second, identify the trigger points.

The next action step should be to talk yourself through 3-4 things that are bothering you the most about the fear. Whichever one(s) has the biggest emotional response from you will be the focus.

Third, brainstorm where you can cut the wire.

Identify 2-3 things you can do to change your reality about that situation. Look at each of those things you’ve identified and think in terms of cutting the wire to diffuse a bomb. Maybe you are worried that you will go broke if you say no to a client? Cut the wire by researching options for other income generators.  If you are fearful of making a decision to move house, cut the wire by committing to educate yourself about the cost of living in three potential neighborhoods.

Fourth and finally, tell someone about your fear. 

That sounds scary, I know, but the more you talk about your fear, the less it becomes scary. Simple! Commit to yourself to share this discovery with a loved one, a trusted friend, or an accountability partner.


If you’re feeling extra brave, share in the comments! I’d love to help support you through your fierce fear-fighting process!!