Elevating Asian Voices in the South

Story #17

Meet Anita Rao

As a managing editor for WUNC, the state’s largest public radio program, Anita Rao is no stranger to talking to people about their lives. But today, we’re sharing an intimate look into Rao’s life and identity, something she doesn’t often get the chance to do.

“I feel more comfortable in the position of an interviewer than an interviewee,” Rao admits.

Rao went to school at UNC-Chapel Hill and began working as a producer for the State of Things, a popular day-time radio show at WUNC after college. Then she began hosting the show more regularly and when the State of Things ended in 2020, she started her own show, Embodied, that talks about the “exploration of our brains and our bodies that touches down in taboo territory,” according to the website.

 

Here’s the rest of her story

Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up? What’s your racial identity?

I was born in northeast England to a British mother and Indian father. My parents met in England, and my dad grew up in the south of India and came to England to do his residency. My mom was a midwife and my dad was a resident. They met at the hospital. So my older sister and I were born there.

When I was 10 days old, my family moved to Hyderabad, where my dad grew up, in India. We lived there for about two and a half years. Then, when I was three years old, we moved to Iowa City, Iowa. There was a really strong Indian community there that we were really active in. I felt really lucky because Iowa is so white.

We were really lucky to be in a part of the state where there were a lot of Indian families. I got to know my cultural background and that was really important to my dad, especially being so far from India.

 

Tell me about your experience as a mixed-race person.

I was recently revisiting my college essay for my acceptance application, and I’m cringing hard thinking about it because at the time, I very much identified as half — half Indian, half white.

Going to college was actually a huge identity shock period for me.

I grew up feeling really Hindu and Indian; no one questioned that. But going to a campus and being on my own, away from my parents, looking racially ambiguous, I felt confused and insecure with how to connect with my Hindu experience and my Indianness.

I went to a Southeast Asian student mixer in my first year and I felt so awkward. There were a lot of Southeast Asian folks who knew each other really well. I think that was my first wake-up call moment of, I don’t know how I want to connect with my heritage at this point in my life.

I think a big part of what drew me to become a women’s study major at UNC was it gave me a new language for thinking about my identity. I realized that I don’t identify as half one or half that; I identify as mixed race or in between.

I also took Hindi for two semesters in college. That felt really good. I was intellectually connecting with parts of the culture that I was really interested in. I was learning how to write the script. That is kind of where I found what felt like a comfortable way to connect with my identity on campus.

 

How did you get into journalism and how does your identity impact your work?

I went to college thinking I really wanted to be a journalism major, but I didn’t love a lot of the journalism classes I was taking. I found myself much more connected to women’s history and classes about oral history and talking to people in a more long-form way.

I pulled away from traditional journalism in college and towards the end of my experience, I realized that being in a space of being an interviewer was where I wanted to be. At the time it felt like radio and podcasting was the area that was really thriving. I had an appetite for hearing people talk about their experience in their own words.

What draws me to interviewing is I feel like I make sense of the world really quickly, in real time. I like being able to see the world through how people are thinking and ride through that experience with them.

I’m a very curious person; I live in my brain rather than my body most of the time. I have a deep curiosity and being someone who is always thinking about identity and how I wanted to be perceived, I always have questions in my mind. Hearing how people make sense of that for themselves helps me keep perspective and broaden the perspective of my own experience.

 

There still aren’t a lot of Asians in the media. What does it mean to you to be a managing editor for such a large news organization in the state?

It’s funny because you don’t see yourself from the outside. I feel some level of urgency around being in that role. I don’t feel like a lot of news outlets in the state cover the diversity of Asian Americans in North Carolina. That’s something I really enjoy when we can touch on that.

I feel a lot of responsibility in the role. We’re in a really unique time where there is a lot more openness about talking about race and diversity. And that’s great, but I want to push our organization to hire more people who do the work in those communities to help them tell their own stories. We can develop partnerships with smaller outlets that are out there. So, I’m feeling responsible to push the station in that way.

 

Tell me about Embodied.

The show came from a confluence of factors at once. I was having conversations with friends about how we felt like the stories we were most interested in weren’t making the airwaves. You know,  the things we were talking about at dinner parties. Part of it was seeing a gap in the public radio space. There aren’t a lot of open conversations about sex or the body; there are conversations about health, but not as much from a personal narrative view.

Part of it was a challenge to myself to talk about something that I found to be very interesting, but was going to be a little provocative. And this is changing in real time in positive ways. But there are still few young, millennial-sounding voices on traditional public radio, which means when you hear them, you get some pushback.

At this time of my career, I don’t get that much pushback, but I did in the beginning; people didn’t take me seriously. But I feel like I’ve felt very supported by the station, and it’s been reaffirming hearing that people are excited that we’re talking about these topics.

 

What are some essential things about your culture that you wish more people knew or understood?

Just the amount of regional diversity that there is. A lot of the “Indian” food that people are familiar with is north Indian food. There’s so much diversity within the country. Having a parent who’s from South India has helped me see that. Like butter chicken, we don’t eat that. This food doesn’t represent the food I ate growing up. That’s the biggest thing. The country is so diverse and there’s so much regional diversity that’s not necessarily well translated to how we consume pieces of it here.

I also think there’s also a lot of people who are trying to modernize. One of the biggest journeys has been finding ways to celebrate and appreciate Hinduism and Indian culture that I care abou,t while letting go of the parts that don’t fit. For example, for our wedding, we’re being intentional about who the officiant is and we redesigned the ceremony to be more gender inclusive, to match the values of today.

What I want people to know about Hinduism especially, is there is a lot of interesting innovation and introspection and thought leaders who are changing the culture to really resonate with younger folks with changing values. I don’t see a ton of representation of that.

 

Let’s talk about that. How do you feel about representation of your culture here?

In the past five years, representation has blown up. I think it’s because a lot of creators who are our age are in positions of power so there are more immigrant kids being represented.

A lot of it is very exciting. I try to take a moment to appreciate before I critique.

There’s also this level of emotional, hard to describe, deep emotion that I can’t articulate. Like the finale of Never Have I Ever was so tearful and so emotional. When you see a version of a family that’s similar to yours or a type of masculinity that’s similar to your father, you can’t describe why it’s so healing and powerful.

Overall it’s been very powerful and healing, but I think the mixed sensations I feel are more around Indian American culture in the yoga world. That is where I feel like representation is often missing the mark, like the use of the language or the way gods are talked about or the way statues are displayed. I feel more uncomfortable about that.

 

Favorite Asian meal?

My mom is an incredible Indian cook because she taught herself, so her cooking is my favorite. My favorite Indian food is lamb biryani which is seasoned ground lamb in a mixed rice with veggies combo.

Favorite Asian snack?

For snacks, it would have to be papadam, which is the Indian version of chips. I just get them from my parents.

Favorite Asian media/TV show/movie?

Never Have I Ever I will hold up as really enjoying; I’m watching season 3 right now

I’m really excited to watch RRR. It’s a movie set in a region of India where my dad is from. And then Everything Everywhere All At Once — so many kids of immigrants can relate to on so many levels. It was a tears in the movie theater into my mask situation.

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Story Collaborators
Sandra Katharine Davidson

Sandra Katharine Davidson

Photography

Sandra Katharine Davidson, is an artist and creative director from North Carolina who makes work about art, relationships, gender, and the human spirit.

Her work is rooted in a strong sense of place: for a decade now, I’ve produced multimedia stories about life and culture in North Carolina.

She currently collaborating with Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Cynthia Hill. When not doing that, she writes about and taking portraits that explore beauty, creativity, pop culture, and the natural world.

Sayaka Matsuoka

Sayaka Matsuoka

Managing Editor, Triad City Beat & Freelance Journalist

Sayaka Matsuoka (she/her) is a journalist who grew up at the intersection of her Japanese heritage and the suburban south. She is the managing editor for Triad City Beat, a weekly newspaper covering the Triad in NC, and is also the Diversity Chair for the Association for Alternative Newsmedia, a national organization of more than 100 news media in North America.
 
Using her cultural background, she focuses on issues surrounding race and identity, immigrant food culture, activist art, and cultural exchange.
Dave Soper, Maunaleo Ventures

Dave Soper, Maunaleo Ventures

Media Production

Dave is a builder, fixer, and protector of digital things. He has worked for small businesses and Fortune 200 companies across multiple industries, including financial services, manufacturing, and defense.

Dave was born in the District of Columbia but considers the Districts of North Kohala and Hamakua his spirit home [once from the District, always from a District]. Dave does not do social media or answer the phone very often, so if you want to reach him, you will probably need to go analog. Brah,  dasswhyhard!

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