Asian American advocate Chavi Khanna Koneru on belonging in the South
Chavi Khanna Koneru had to come back to North Carolina for it to feel like home.
And despite having spent most of her life in the Tar Heel State, it wasn't until her early 30s — when she co-founded North Carolina Asian Americans Together — that she began calling herself a “Southerner” and meaning it.
In 2016, she established NCAAT, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to empowering Asian Americans in the state through civic and political engagement. She currently serves as the group's executive director. NCAAT has advocated for a number of critical issues for AAPI communities, from concerns over potential census undercounts to language accessibility at the voting booth. Next month, the group plans to hold a series of citizenship clinics.
Khanna Koneru was born in Oakland, California, and moved to Durham, North Carolina, in 1989 at the age of 6. Today, more than 340,000 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders reside in North Carolina, and one-third of that population is Indian. But at the time of Khanna Koneru's move to Durham, there were about 52,000 people of Asian or Pacific Islander descent in the state, and only around 10,000 Indians, according to the 1990 census.
Throughout 2021, with the support of UNC-Chapel Hill's Southern Oral History Program, I conducted a series of oral history interviews centered around belonging, identity, and community formation with South Asian North Carolinians as part of an undergraduate thesis. In one of these interviews, conducted in October 2021, Khanna Koneru talked with me about the experiences of being a Brown person navigating a Black-white binary — a lens through which race and racism are often conceptualized in the United States — as well as the journey to feeling like North Carolina was where she belonged. She discussed "the American Dream tax" so often endured by immigrants, and why she wants to create the spaces for younger Asian Americans that never existed for her.
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
I was born in 1983 in Oakland, California, and I grew up in various parts of the Bay. In 1989, I moved to North Carolina because my dad is a professor and he got a job at Duke in the Asian and African Languages and Literature Department. So we moved to Durham, and I was 6, going on 7 at the time. My dad's a Hindi professor, essentially, and makes documentary films about India. So he would travel back to India quite a bit during the summers and other breaks. And I mention that also because I think it had a pretty significant impact on the way that I was raised because I probably had more exposure to India than most Indian kids born and raised in the U.S.
My dad came to the U.S. when he was 17, on a boat. He went to Harvard. I'll just take a second and tell you his story because it's so funny. He had a roommate who was going to the big city to take a test, and his roommate was like, “I don't want to go by myself, why don't you just come with me and take this test." So he went with him, and at the very end of the test, it said, “Write down the name of two American universities that you're interested in." So my dad wrote down the name of the only two universities he'd ever heard of, which were Harvard and Yale. And apparently it was like a college entrance exam, which he didn't know at that time. So he got a letter back from Yale saying, "We don't accept women at this time," because his name was foreign. They didn't know. And [he got] a letter back from Harvard saying, "You're in, just get here." So he left his family behind and got on a boat. Unlike a lot of my friend's parents, my dad had been here since he was 17, so he had a unique experience. My mom came over when she was married. And so all of her family still lived in India, whereas my dad's family mostly lived in the Bay. So we went back to India, usually for half the year, all summer vacations, all winter, spring. Any time we could get away, we went back. We're Punjabi, moved during the Partition and mostly grew up, my mom's family, in the area near Delhi, and my dad's family further out, like Bihar.
What has probably impacted my life in one of the more significant ways was moving to Durham from Richmond, California, which was incredibly diverse. I mean, not just diverse racially, but ethnically. And so I grew up in an environment where I never thought to ask what my race or ethnicity was. No one ever brought it up, and it just didn't seem important. … My family lived in a lower- to middle-class neighborhood in Richmond. And every year for Diwali, my parents would open the doors of our small apartment and just tell everyone in the neighborhood to bring a candle. I remember that the door had to be kept open because people were kind of crowded around. And my dad would read the story of the meaning of Diwali in English, and then my mom would hand out sweets and everyone had their little candle lit. And to me, that felt normal because, I'm, what, 5 years old, 6 years old? I'm like, "This is cool. This is great." And then coming here and very early on being asked, "Are you an Indian, like a dot or a feather Indian?" And I think those two things were in such stark contrast that I couldn't even understand what had happened. I was convinced we would move back because [I was thinking] why would anyone want to live here, right? [Laughs] The questions that I got were, I guess in retrospect, ignorance. But at the time, they just made me feel more and more different because I came from a place where I felt like I belonged, and then all of a sudden, I didn't in any space.
… All of a sudden I was the only Brown person in my class. So it was Black kids and white kids. There was no one else. And that was a huge shock, especially at that age. I did not understand why there weren't other people that looked like me, especially when I was coming from somewhere where they were. And I remember having to go home and ask my parents, "What am I?" It just never occurred to me before that I was different in any way. My school probably had a handful of Indian kids and a handful of other Asians of different ethnicities. And at the time, it was like there were so few of us that people would assume that we were related, like, "Oh, I saw your cousin this morning." And it wasn't even that in a facetious or discriminatory way, they legitimately thought that we were related.
I went to a very small private school [Carolina Friends School for high school]. I had a graduating class of 40. There was one other Indian kid in my class who was half Indian, and I just remember everyone being like, "Oh, well, you guys should date, because, you know, this is obvious." Mind you, I was dating someone at the time — didn't seem to matter. And so I definitely got used to being the only Brown person in the room. Where I grew up, there wasn't as much of a Latinx presence either, not until much later in life. So going from there to UNC-Chapel Hill, where there were so many Indian kids, was very exciting.
Growing up, I feel like there was a lot of code switching going on. My family hung out with pretty much just Indians, and there would be Indian dinner parties all the time or some festival. And so I had this kind of group — I don't know even if you would call them friends, but a group of kids that I was always around because we would end up at dinner parties together. And so we had things in common. We got to know each other. And then there were my friends at school, who were obviously mostly white. High school, in particular, Friends School — I don't know how it is now, but at the time, it did not have much racial diversity, period. So I remember the handful of Black kids at our school, and my elementary and middle school definitely had more racial diversity. And so I think that was also kind of an interesting experience because I had more Black friends before I switched schools and then I felt even further removed from anyone that could understand living between two cultures, if that makes sense.
… I do remember moving here and kind of assuming that I was going to hang out with the Black kids. Most of the people that I was surrounded by in the Bay were people of color. And then I didn't fit in with them, and they didn't seem to want me to fit in with them. It was like, "You're more conservative —" and I mean, I think in my Indian traditional ways that I was forced to act in, right, like the cultural values, it didn't mesh with those folks. And then I was over here trying to hang out with the white kids, and I did not understand when I went to their house why everyone was wearing shoes in their house, or why their parents didn't care that we were watching some rated-R movie or something. There was so much that never made sense to me. And I'm not sure how much of it was I vocalized it or someone else vocalized it, but I very much internalized the feeling of not belonging anywhere specific.
And to complicate things further, because we did spend so much time in India and I have a set of cousins there, I would go to India and think, "OK, this is my time to belong. I'm fluent in Hindi. I am very culturally Indian." And yet all people talked about the entire time I'd be there is how Westernized I was, how Americanized I was, how I spoke Hindi with such an accent and I was like, "I don't see it. I am just like you, and you don't understand when I go back, they're going to be like, 'You're not like us.' Like, what the heck?" I just remember feeling so internally frustrated at the fact that there was no clarity around where I was supposed to belong. There was some of that in the sense that we have these rules that don't make sense to other people. And I'm sure they didn't make sense to the white kids, either. But what I realize now that I do appreciate is that the Black kids were more willing to name that, whereas some white kids were more passive aggressive about it … I think there was also — and again, not something I realized until I was older — there's a lot of anti-Blackness in our community, in our families, and I don't think it was like, “Oh, my family unit in particular," it was just the general attitude. One of my best friends in elementary school was a Black girl who lived not too far away, and we did spend the night at each other's houses. But I started to notice when I brought her to [family parties at Indian houses], there was a certain judgment and a certain unsaid, unspoken disapproval. When you're young, you're so focused on approval that I don't think I consciously made a decision that, "Oh, I'm going to go hang out with these people instead." But I do think that there's cultural pressure to be friends with a certain race of people and to not hang out with another race of people. And I hope that's OK to name that.
[ … Growing up, I probably responded to the “model minority" stereotype] in a different way than most people from the South Asian community or the Indian community do. I was so adamant about not being put in that box that I probably — I mean, I hate to say this, but there is a point at which I stopped caring about school because I got so sick of the expectations, and not so much from my parents. Yes, obviously, there's expectations. But from the teachers, when they would say things like, "Oh, I thought you would do better on this math test than you did." I mean, I've never been good at math, like this is why I majored in journalism and I went to law school. That is where my skills have always been. I have always loved reading and writing, and there was no appreciation for that. Especially at that age, in that generation, there was no appreciation because I was supposed to be good at math and science, and I wasn't. And I just wasn't that interested in it. But because I wasn't, it felt like I was letting people down. And so it felt like it's better to just not even try because, clearly, I'm disappointing everyone as it is. And I think when I decided to go to law school, my parents were like, "OK, if you really want to, I mean, it's not med school." But I feel like I got to where I was by just having confidence eventually in what my interests were and what I thought I was good at. Because societally, and I think just especially in the South — because I do have family in California, I am very aware of what their experiences were compared to mine — I feel like we're a good decade behind them, still. But because of that, it just felt like there was such a belief in that “model minority" myth that I wasn't going to escape it. I think [we’re behind] in terms of our level of understanding of identity and race and the interplay of all of these things, and the intersectionality of so many different issues. I think we're in a better place than ever before. I don't think we're where they are in Northern California.
[ ... In college,] I was definitely excited about the prospect of there being more people that looked like me. When I started going to school that first semester [in 2001], I gravitated towards the people I would normally be friends with. And then as my world started to expand a little bit and, you know what happens as you're a freshman, you're like, "Wow, there's a whole different world out there." I remember very distinctly that I was sitting at the bus stop waiting for the bus to come by, and there was an Indian guy standing there and he was like, "Are you Indian?" And I'm like, "Yes." He's like, “What kind?" I just didn't know what that question meant. So I was like, “I don't know," gave some sort of answer like, "I'm just Indian" or something.
I immediately called my parents. I was like, "What kind of Indian am I?" And my mom was like, "What do you mean 'What kind of Indian are you?' You're Indian." [Laughs] It was a very confusing conversation for her as well. And then, you know, it was like, "Well, we're Punjabi, but we don't go to the gurdwara [Sikh temple]." You know, when did I finally figure that out? I don't know. Probably some time in my 20s. [Laughs] It takes a long time to sort through all that, especially because there aren't forums for this kind of conversation, which is why I think this project is so wonderful — because so many of us grow up thinking we are alone in feeling this way and that our experiences are unique in an isolating way. And you know, yes, our experiences are unique, but it's nice to know, for you to affirm that, "Yeah, I feel that way sometimes, too." I spent most of my life not knowing that other people felt this way.
I just went headfirst into that world [in college]. I was on the board of Sangam [UNC’s South Asian Student Association] for several years. It's like all of a sudden all of my friends were Indian, like that was it. That was my world. I figured out that I was Punjabi and that I was still a minority in terms of the South Asian community in the area … [My family is] Hindu Punjabi. My grandmother's family was Sikh and went to the gurdwara. So there's a portion of my family that is turban-wearing, very religious. But I fell in this in-between place. I mean, particularly in North Carolina and the South in general, the majority South Asian population is Gujarati. I didn't even know what that meant. I realize now there's differences in terms of where they originated and the fact that some people speak Hindi, but their native language is something else. But as a kid, I was like, "I don't understand, this is how I thought all Indian people were." And that's also part of the lack of belonging here, is that the Punjabi kids, for the most part, all went to the gurdwara together and the Gujarati kids were in TGA [Triangle Gujarati Association] together. And there wasn't really a space for those of us who are like me, and at least, I didn't even know how to connect with people like that.
It took me all the way to senior year [of college] to realize that I was kind of doing the same thing that I had with the friends, the kids of my parents' friends. I was hanging out with these people because they looked like me, rather than because we had a lot in common. And I don't know how many other people go through that experience or come to the realization. But I think it was rational to want to just be around people like you when you had spent the majority of your life being othered and not fitting in and feeling just like you didn't quite belong.
I think it was rational to want to just be around people like you when you had spent the majority of your life being othered and not fitting in and feeling just like you didn't quite belong.
By the time I met a whole bunch of Indian people, they had figured out their identity for the most part, or thought so, or they had figured it out enough in terms of like, “Here's who I want to be, I want to hang out with Indian kids or I don’t." … There was a very distinct difference between the Indians who hung out with Indians and the Indians who didn't. The part I never quite understood and probably what helped me take that step back was that there was a lot of self-segregation that was going on within the Indian community, and it wasn't even just, "OK, we want to hang out with just other Indians." It was also exclusionary. It was, "Oh, that person's South Indian, so — " and I mean, I remember people saying that, I didn't even know there was a “good kind of Indian" and a “bad kind of Indian," right? There's not. And, not to go completely off topic, but then that has to do with colorism and white supremacy and all that kind of stuff. But at the time, not knowing any of that, what I will say is because of where I was born, because I had the opportunity to go to a place like Friends School, no matter what else was happening, I continued to have the good fortune of wanting to be inclusive because that is what I had gotten in those spaces. And so the idea of leaving someone out because you didn't like the color of their skin — no one said it in those terms, but "Hi, racism." Like, that is not cool. And I remember trying to sort through all those different values and being like, "I don't understand."
I still identify as Indian American, but I think what that means to me is different. I think almost like it is one word to me, whereas growing up it felt like I had to choose between being Indian or being American.
I still identify as Indian American, but I think what that means to me is different. I think almost like it is one word to me, whereas growing up it felt like I had to choose between being Indian or being American. I use my full name most of the time, and it's because Khanna was my maiden last name, it is what I feel like connects me to my Punjabi roots, which are a big part of who I am. And Koneru is my married last name. My husband's family is South Indian, they're Telugu from the Hyderabad region. And I also value the cross-cultural, cross — well, not ethnic so much, but, you know, there's definitely distinctions in the way that he grew up and I grew up. And it's also because of the additional discrimination that came from North Indians towards South Indians. But I'm very intentional about using both because I do think that they're both important parts of my identity. I met [my husband] in D.C. after law school; he's also a lawyer. We met pretty randomly. I know people don't meet like that these days anymore, but we actually did. And as things got more serious, I remember calling my mom once, and, as Indian kids, you don't really even tell your parents you're dating someone because, first of all, taboo. Second of all, when are you marrying them? But I do remember calling her and saying, "Is it OK that I'm considering a serious future with someone who's South Indian?" And she was like, "Yeah, that's an absurd question." But I didn't know. Right? I'd never talked to my parents about their level of discrimination on that so I was like, "OK."
[ … In college,] I remember somebody using the term "Brown town" to describe Indian people. And at first, I was appalled, I was like, "Is this OK? Even if we're calling ourselves this, is this an appropriate thing?" And then it just became OK. And I think kind of reclaiming that term gives me power. I use that term a lot more because that is who I am, and I like to make the distinction of being Brown in North Carolina, which is, as you mentioned before, talking about the fact that everything is very Black and white and doesn't include the stories or the experiences of Brown people. So I do try to say that very explicitly. The “Asian American" identity — I wouldn't say that I grew up thinking that, you know, the Chinese kids in my class were having the same experience that I was. But particularly after moving to D.C., what really brought me to this is that in law school, I focused on voting rights law, and my third year of law school, my 3L year, I was accepted into this externship program with the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division in D.C. I was in the voting section, Obama was up for election. And at the time — this is before the Voting Rights Act was gutted — the Department of Justice would send folks all over the country for Election Day to be federal observers. I was sent to Bergen County, New Jersey, and there happened to be a large Korean population in the precinct that I was working in. And one of the things we were there to monitor was language access and making sure that they were given the option to bring someone into the booths with them and all this.
And I think just being there that day and advocating for them in that way helped me realize that this was very much my experiences. It's hard for me to describe it any better than that, but it was just like sometimes it takes a moment in time for that connection to happen, and that was the moment for me. Going forward, I had started to look at this as, "OK, my community is broader than just Punjabi, North Indians or South Asians or —" you know, "this is like a pan-Asian community." I think the idea of it being a political identity really came from coming back to the area, seeing the growth in population. And honestly, just strategically knowing that if I were to just band together with all the Indians and say, "OK, we're going to vote this way," you're not going to have that political power. And what's really important, beyond the political power, is having voice and having representation. I do think that we have enough similarities as an overall community, but I don't go around using "Asian American" as my primary identity. Sometimes I'll say South Asian, but even within South Asians, there are such varied experiences, and so I mostly will say Indian American.
And what's really important, beyond the political power, is having voice and having representation.
I definitely grew up with the perception as well [that the term “Asian American" applied more to East Asians]. And even now, I have to often correct people when they're like, "Oh, you're working with NCAAT, pan-Asian, right? But how many Asians do you have?" And I'm like, "OK." [Laughs] What I will say, though, is that a term that I have struggled with is "Desi." So "Desi" [comes from the Sanskrit word “Desh" and] means “from the homeland, from the motherland." And when people who are also Brown and South Asian, whether they're from India or Pakistan or somewhere else in the diaspora, say Desi, that's perfectly fine with me. I feel like that's appropriate. When I started doing the work with NCAAT, there was some pressure put on me to start using the term “AAPIDA, Asian American Pacific Islander Desi Americans." And we actually had a conversation, we did a workshop at UNC-Chapel Hill, this was probably 2017, 2018, with a group of students who felt very strongly about using that "Desi American" part of it because the term "Asian American and Pacific Islander" didn't make them feel represented. But I had such a problem with someone from outside my community referring to me in that way that I just never got comfortable with it. But I do think it's interesting, because I think there's a lot of people in the progressive work who do feel strongly about using "Desi Americans" so that people feel included who otherwise wouldn't feel included by the term "Asian American."
… I don't know about my parents so much — they definitely don't associate with the term "Asian American" — but I do think it will be very different for my kids. Truthfully, I don't know what it's going to look like, but I will say that I have been very intentional about wanting them to be in spaces where there's a lot of diversity. They're in preschools where there are other Brown kids, and there's definitely someone in their class that looks like them. And I think that's a really important part of feeling that belonging. They were born in North Carolina. They're going to be Southern. [Laughs] That's unavoidable. And it's also, like, I've come a long way because I didn't even used to claim this place. And now I'm going to have two kids who are like, "This is my birth place." This is crazy. [Laughs].
… I would say that since I've formed this organization, I have used [“Southerner" to describe myself] and meant it. Prior to, not only would I not say that I grew up in the South, I tried to not claim this place as much as possible because I didn't feel like any of the identifying characteristics of being Southern, or any of the positive attributes associated with the South, I didn't feel like any of that applied to me. I felt like I was just stuck here, but that, again, I didn't belong. And it took me moving to D.C., being in a different environment, to realize how Southern I actually was and that it wasn't a negative thing. I remember going back to the Bay every year and my friends saying, "Oh my gosh, you're developing a Southern accent." And I went home that day and started practicing my "hellas" and all that. I'm like, “I got to stick to this California thing." I literally told people until college that I was from California because I couldn't claim this place and I didn't feel like it could claim me. But I do now.
I think when I came back to North Carolina, I had this appreciation for the way I had grown up — like, Southern hospitality is real and there are some things that I do appreciate about the culture here. But there's also some things I don't, which is that kind of passive aggressive way that we move through things. And in terms of forming this organization, a lot of it is about being able to say these things that I've spent my entire life not being able to say — and not just me, but creating that space for so many other people, especially for younger people. That's probably what's really meant the most in terms of NCAAT, is being able to see people connect with other people their age when they're at that really stressful time of life in middle school or high school or the beginning of college. And having those conversations like, "Hey, I don't feel like I belong." "Oh, I don't either." "Maybe we belong in this other little group." [Laughs]
… I was very hesitant about coming back here. I knew things had changed, but I wasn't sure how much. And so we made a deal that we would give it a year. And then if I hated it, we would consider D.C. or Chicago. I was certain I was going to hate it, so I was just planning for the next move. But I came back, and that's when it was like, "Oh wow, there's so many more Asian Americans. There's so many more Indian Americans." And also just that it felt like there was more space for conversations that I wouldn't even have thought about having before, if that makes sense. The climate had changed, something had changed about this area, and I don't even know if it was a conscious decision after that. It was just things sort of fell into place and it was like, "OK, this is home." And that was probably the first time in my entire life that I felt like there was a place I would call home, which is very strange to say."
Things sort of fell into place and it was like, "OK, this is home." And that was probably the first time in my entire life that I felt like there was a place I would call home, which is very strange to say.
[NCAAT was founded in 2016] but it was an effort we started in 2014. I did come back and move to Raleigh, and it was more progressive in terms of the Indian and South Asian population in general. I mean, you could actually use the term "South Asian" because there's so many different types of people. The Nepali community had grown; obviously, I was aware of the Telugu community because of my husband, and that had grown. And I think all those things made me feel like it was a more inclusive space. And beyond that, just racial diversity in general [had increased]. I mean, seeing that the Latinx community, which is really the other Brown community, right, had also grown so much. And I felt more of a kinship there than I did with the Black community in the sense that we were all newer immigrants and we were all facing kind of the same barriers and the same identity crises a little bit. So those were all things that felt different. Politically, because I grew up in such a bubble — my dad's bubble was Berkeley, and then it was Chapel Hill — I didn't actually realize how diverse political views in the South Asian community were. And I started to get a sense of that more when I was in D.C. I was coming across a lot more Brown people who were very conservative. Who knows, maybe that diversity existed before, but I just wasn't as aware of it.
And my dad had a lot of [pauses] — he had his own experiences. When he was at Harvard, he had a full scholarship, but he still had to work to make any extra money. And so he dealt with a lot of discrimination that in some ways — have you seen the Hasan Minhaj thing about the American tax? That's how I see it, is that both my parents felt like there was basically things you had to put up with as part of being an immigrant in America, and that they didn't feel like the country owed them anything. And so that impacted how I grew up because I also felt like it didn't owe me anything. This is a very random example, but I remember distinctly back in the day when I was younger and we had to do the Pledge of Allegiance in class. And you had to put your hand on your heart and all this stuff. And I remember as long as someone wasn't watching me, I never did it because I felt like this wasn't meant for me, which I know is a crazy thing to say because we're all American and all that. But I didn't feel like these protections, these laws we're talking about — none of it really applied to me. And I'm like, "What God are we talking about? I'm sure you're not talking about my God."
… I work in the progressive movement. Even in these spaces, there's things like, "Oh, your people don't like to get in trouble with the police." You know, what I got the most growing up, which I got so used to that it started to not even faze me was, "You speak English really well." Like, constantly. And there was a time in life where I started to use that to my advantage because I was like, "You know, well, if people aren't expecting me to speak English really well, then if I don't want to answer a question, I'm just going to pretend I don't know what they're saying." It wasn't OK then. And it's not OK now. But I think now I have the confidence to just answer the question, saying, "Hey, this is an inappropriate question." And [there were] many other instances like that, and they probably weren't even that impactful after a while because I just took it for granted that this was part of, again, the American tax I had to pay of growing up in this country.
Thing is, as a child of an immigrant, you get told so much how grateful you should be, how much your parents sacrificed to give you these opportunities, how everything you do in life should be paying back those debts, right? And so you don't have time to think about those other things because you're just like, "I am carrying the weight of the world here. And OK, I get it. No one sees me as someone who belongs, and I don't need to because I'm just here. I'm lucky to be here."
… I was a freshman in college [when 9/11 happened]. Obviously, it was big and dramatic and surreal. But it wasn't until I went home that weekend [that I realized the other impacts], because I lived on campus and all the conversations I was having were more around the political impact or just emotional impact for people, but not so much race. I went home that weekend and, like a true Indian family, we went out to get Taco Bell. And as I mentioned, my mom wore traditional Indian clothing until I was in college. And now that I'm saying this, I remember now why that changed is because we went to Taco Bell. My mom went inside to order, like she usually did. And there were two guys there that started yelling inappropriate things about being a terrorist and "Get out of my country" and all that stuff. And [they] literally chased my mom out of the place, and we got in the car and left and did not talk about it for a very long time because we were all so traumatized. The next day, my mom went out and bought some American flags and put one on her car and one in front of the house. And I remember feeling angry, like we shouldn't have to prove our patriotism, especially given my earlier story about not really connecting to the flag. And then she started exploring wearing Westernized clothes for the first time because she noticed that any time she went out in traditional Indian clothes, she would get harassed … And I think the way my mom processes things is like when she's ready to talk about it, she's just ready to talk to anyone about it. And she wasn't like, "Oh, I was traumatized by this." Those are not words that Indian moms use — I don't know about yours — but mine certainly does not. But it was like being able to talk about it made us all feel closer. Because even as a family, it was like, "OK, we are all sharing in this experience and this trauma and this fear." And then I think over time, more and more people started talking about it, and I remember some comedy sketches about it, and literally before that, I was like, "Oh, I didn't know that other people had this experience." I just didn't stop to think about it.
… It was a really tough period that has impacted my entire family in a very significant way for a long time. And then things got better, until 2016. The morning after the election results in 2016, my sister, at the time, lived in West Cary, bordering Raleigh. And she came out of her house that morning and one of her neighbors started yelling at her. I will not repeat it because there were some very inappropriate languages there, but essentially calling her a terrorist and saying, "See, now it's clear you can go back home" and all this stuff in 2016. And my sister is six years younger than me, and so it's just wild to me that we went all the way back to where we were in 2001 … My younger sister, like I said, was born here in 1989. And she always felt like a North Carolinian. She always felt Southern. So I do think that a lot of my experience was maybe jaded by being in a different environment, because I think if you don't know anything else, you might feel like you belong a little bit more. But I think that had I not had those experiences, it wouldn't have led me to the point of wanting to take the risk of starting an organization like this. And I mean, I would never, ever have imagined that it would turn into what it has now. But I wouldn't even have gone down this path if I hadn't had to sort through all of that identity stuff for myself, and wanting to make space for other people so they don't have to do it all alone.
I think that had I not had those experiences, it wouldn't have led me to the point of wanting to take the risk of starting an organization like this. And I mean, I would never, ever have imagined that it would turn into what it has now.
I'm a North Carolinian. The proud part, I have to think about. But I do feel, yes, with running this organization I'm lucky, because the way that the organization has grown gives me the opportunity to have a voice. And I am proud of being able to highlight the things that our community has contributed to this state. So yeah, I guess I am proud, but I would like more people across the country and the state in general to understand what a big part of North Carolina and the growth of the state our pan-Asian community has been.
Maydha Devarajan is the 2023 Julian Bond Fellow at Facing South. She previously worked as a reporter for the Chatham News + Record and as a metro reporting intern at the Raleigh News & Observer. Maydha has also served as a research intern with UNC-Chapel Hill's Southern Oral History Program and the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.