Interview: Naina Rao

Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia

Grew up in: Jakarta, Indonesia; also lived in Michigan and the D.C. area

Currently living in: Wyoming

Find her: WebsiteTwitter  

(Photo courtesy of Naina)

Editor’s note: This interview was done via email. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What got you interested in journalism? Tell me more about your journey.

I loved telling, sharing and listening to stories. I got really passionate about summarizing a Harry Potter book to my friends, or the list of my mom’s boyfriends when she went to high school. I knew that I loved talking and storytelling, so I saw journalism as a good way to turn that into a career.

Q: What prompted you to continue that journey in the U.S.? And what has your journalism journey been like so far in the U.S.? 

I grew up watching Hollywood movies and television. Most of my friends did, too. All the things and media I consumed was from the U.S. so it was kind of obvious that that would be where I wanna go to “chase my dreams.”

My journey hasn’t been easy. Exhausting, challenging and a constant struggle is a good way to put it. But now, I’ve reached a point in my life where I feel like all my hard work was worth it because I have a full-time job doing journalism.

Q: How do your thoughts/feelings about your heritage differ when you’re in Indonesia vs. in the U.S.? What are some similarities?

Mostly freedom. There’s less freedom for women in Indonesia compared to the U.S. Women can’t wear whatever they want to wear, have to act a certain way to be deemed as an acceptable woman (soft-spoken, well-mannered), subjected to western beauty standards like being light-skinned and super skinny is a favorable thing. I notice that in the U.S., you can be whoever you wanna be without anyone giving a shit. You get judged severely if you do that back in Indonesia.

Similarities are very little, honestly. I’m not sure what. I haven’t seen any similarities so far with both countries.

Q: What sort of stories did you grow up with? Did you hear a lot of stories about your family, past relatives? Did you grow up learning about Indonesian history and/or folklore?

I initially grew up with tales that were from Indonesian and Indian history. I never really got into western stories until elementary school. I think that’s when I decreased my exposure to Indonesian tales. A lot of stories consist of religion and superstitious themes around Indonesia. I only learned a lot about mythical stories, but no political ones.

Q: What were your expectations coming to the U.S.? What did the reality end up being? What sort of lessons have you learned so far being here?

I didn’t get an accurate picture of the U.S. because we were only exposed to Hollywood. Action movies and rom-coms. When I got here, it was harder than I thought ‘cause of the media I swallowed. Race is a big part of U.S. society, and it took me a while to find my identity as a biracial Asian immigrant.

So far, with the help of therapy, I’ve started to embrace who I am as a person. And that looks like staying empowered even though I work in a predominantly white space. And not being afraid to stand up for myself or for the right thing to do in a room filled with people I don’t feel comfortable in. The most important thing would be, I don’t need my parents’ validation or approval to do what I want and make myself happy.

Q: Have you been able to meet other people of Indonesian heritage while you’re in the U.S.? Have you been able to find a community for yourself, or has it been difficult?

Yes, I have met a few Indonesians, but there are not many of us here in the U.S. I think it’s always hard to find a community in the beginning. It usually starts with me having to accept and embrace the reality of being on my own. That’s when I usually attract a community that I become a part of, instead of forcing it.

Q: You’ve just moved out to Wyoming! Tell me more about any goals or expectations you have.

Definitely want to see a cowboy in person. And witness a rodeo, but not be in one. I had stereotypical assumptions about Wyoming, like how it’ll be racist and really white. Both of them are not false. But it’s better than I expected. Most folks aren’t afraid of a new face. As I learn more about Wyoming, I discover a lot about the American West and its history. That’s what fascinates me the most. The sociological, anthropological, intellectual aspect of how the American West became the “wild west.”

I’m also the first immigrant, woman of color and Asian host Wyoming Public Radio has ever had. And the whole state gets to listen to me every morning online or on the radio. That’s pretty amazing.

Q: What advice do you have for other people of Indonesian heritage who are interested in getting into journalism?

Don’t be afraid. Cry it out. And don’t listen to your parents when it comes to what your heart fiercely believes and loves. The industry sucks — at the same time, there are more woke, diverse folks getting into journalism, and our community is tight. The support system you’ll receive is amazing.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

I’m not sure. That I’m Indonesian? That’s what it means to me, I guess. I have the privilege to not second guess my identity and I’m aware of my history. For that, I’m grateful for my Indonesian heritage.