“West Virginia” is never what people are looking for when they ask where my family is from.  

The first week of January, my dad and I drove five hours from our house in North Carolina to visit his hometown of Charleston, West Virginia, for a family friend’s memorial service. We drove the same route we’d taken many times during my childhood, up through Greensboro, stopping in Wytheville and Beckley.

I was not born in Charleston and did not grow up there. But I feel a connection to the city, and the Appalachian region where my family lived for more than 30 years.

I identify as South Asian and Southern American, two identities that have been difficult to reconcile. 

The idea of Asian-Americanness and Southernness seen as opposing identities is expressed by scholars Jigna Desai and Khyati Y. Joshi in Discrepancies in Dixie: Asian Americans and the South. “The figure of the Asian American is perceived to be discrepant in and antithetical to the U.S. South,” they write. “Within the American imaginary, the Asian American as perpetual foreigner and alien is always seen as a recent immigrant, and therefore associated with contemporary times, while the South is perceived as an anachronistic and isolated region; this renders the two—the Asian American and the South—allegedly mutually exclusive and incongruous.”

My family’s story, and those of many others, directly disprove this notion.

Photo: Pejawar and Nirmala Rao

I grew up in the Triangle, a hotspot for Asian-Americans in the South, living down the street from my grandparents. I was raised on stories about their decades in Charleston, where they were surrounded by a small community of South Asians who became their found family. 

My grandparents, Pejawar Murali Dhar Rao and Nirmala Rao – whom I call “Ajja” and “Doma” – immigrated to New London, Connecticut in the late ‘60s from Madras, India, so Ajja could complete surgical training. In 1969, Ajja had to decide where to complete his residency. A former classmate from Madras encouraged Ajja to join him in Charleston. 

My great-grandfather sent them discouraging cables from India: “It’s not a very rich state,” he wrote. “Don’t go there.”

But my grandparents, uprooted from their family and home, desired living near familiar people. “I need to go,” Ajja responded to my great-grandfather. “But I know someone I can lean on if I don’t do well.”

When Ajja started his residency at Charleston General Hospital, there were only three other South Asian families living in the area. 

“We were family,” Doma always says about her friends from Charleston. They took care of each other. When my dad was born, Ajja was chief resident at the hospital and could not take shifts off. Doma spent the night at her friend’s house until she went into labor. The friend, whom Doma is still in touch with, drove her to the hospital in the morning and held her hand as she delivered the baby. 

Even now, this community is connected. My grandparents call their friends every night, visit every few months and travel together. 

“Because of the distance from the family, you didn’t have FaceTime, video calls, cell phones. If you called India it was long-distance, so we only called every few months, every year, maybe,” my dad said. “So the Indians going through the same experience, we became very closely knit, and those became our closest family members.”  

Photo: Pejawar and Nirmala Rao

It is this sense of family that permeated our most recent visit to Charleston. When we paused our drive in Princeton, West Virginia, my dad glanced at a man walking towards us, and after a second look, shouted his name.  He was someone my dad had grown up playing tennis with in Charleston, en route to a family ski trip.

Theirs was the first of many reunions. My dad spent the rest of our drive making calls. Instead of going to our hotel, we made visits to see my dad’s childhood best friends and their families, who were aunts and uncles to my dad. We drove past my dad’s elementary school, the home he grew up in, the tennis center where he spent his formative years, his favorite bookstore. 

My dad could not stop reflecting about how much the people and places he loved had changed. He called my grandparents, who reminded him that, like the rest of the South, Charleston had been changing for a long time. 

From the 1970s when my family moved to Charleston onward, the South Asian population grew. West Virginia’s Asian-American Pacific Islander population, which the state didn’t count in 1970, was about 5,000 in 1980. (Today, that number is about 14,000). 

My grandparents came to America on a tourist visa and were one of many families who gained citizenship from the 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration Act, which allowed thousands of doctors, engineers and other professionals to immigrate to the U.S. during the ‘70s and ‘80s. The 1965 act is often credited with kicking off large-scale immigration from Asia to the U.S., although Asian people have existed in America long before the mid-20th century, coming over 150 years ago as laborers who mined, farmed and built railroads

Southern states since the 1980s have been home to rapidly increasing Asian populations due to changes in the Southern economy, which have shifted migration patterns towards the South, according to Desai and Joshi. 

This has influenced the region, including how Asian-American religious communities have formed and developed – Buddhist and Hindu temples, gurdwaras, mosques, and Korean churches.

“Often, Asian American religious communities have had to establish and maintain themselves in this hostile terrain by creating and fortifying clearly demarcated ethno religious spaces, by exposing and guarding against the normative influence of Christianity, and by slowly adapting social and political structures to accommodate religious diversity and difference through legal, cultural, and media activism,” Desai and Joshi write. 

Every Sunday, when most people went to church, my grandparents met at their friends’ houses to conduct pujas – Hindu worship ceremonies – and share food.

Occasionally, they would drive more than three hours to the closest Hindu temple in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My grandmother says the drive was worth it to expose her two sons to more Indian culture. Eventually, the community worked together to raise money and build the India Center, a space where they held religious and cultural events, and rented out to locals to increase knowledge of Indian traditions.  

The India Center, where our family friend’s memorial was held, was my dad and I’s final destination in Charleston. This “uncle” had been one of my grandparents’ first friends in Charleston. 

I joined my dad on the trip because I wanted to pay my respects. But more than that, I knew it might be the only chance I had to witness a glimpse of the Charleston childhood my dad always refers to as “the best days of his life.” 

I was right. More than 100 people attended the service, eager to pay homage to someone who had been a pillar in their community. Amid hugs, handshakes and some tears, my dad kept turning to me and repeating, “I’m home. I’m home.” 

I felt reassured that “West Virginia” is the right answer for people asking where we’re from. 

Sonia A. Rao is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying journalism, history and Hindi-Urdu. She has written about education for The Tampa Bay Times, Dallas Morning News, Scalawag Magazine, Hechinger Report and other outlets.

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