As Charlene Buckles explains it, it’s a conversation that unfolds with a new friend, a coworker, or even with someone in a checkout line at the grocery. The other person will ask where she’s from, and she will tell them she’s from Kentucky, where she was raised and has lived for more than 20 years.
Which usually elicits the follow-up question: No, where are you really from?
“I’m personally still trying to process how I feel when I get that question asked,” says the Filipina-Kentuckian. “It really puts an othering to the person that’s getting asked the question.”
Buckles says Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) like her face that conversation often during their lives. Some people ask out of a genuine curiosity, but others can attach racial or discriminatory overtones to the question.
That shared experience of AAPI Kentuckians is at the heart of a new podcast called Where Ya’ll Really From? that’s hosted by Buckles, an activist and fundraiser for the ACLU of Kentucky, along with Lexington chef and restaurateur Dan Wu.
The idea of a podcast came from immigration attorney and state Rep. Nima Kulkarni (D-Louisville) and Berea restauranteur Mae Suramek who appeared on KET earlier this year to discuss the sharp increase in violence against AAPI individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now Kulkarni and Suramek are co-producers of the podcast along with Buckles and Wu, who say they want to provide a way for AAPI Kentuckians to share their stories and feel less isolated.
“First and foremost, it’s for us,” says Wu, who immigrated to the United States from China with his parents when he was eight years old. “It’s for the folks that haven’t heard their own voices, much less people’s voices that sound like theirs that have similar experiences.”
Although she’s been busy adjusting to life with a new baby, Buckles says she felt compelled to join the podcast effort after the shootings of six women of Asian descent at Atlanta area massage parlors in March of 2021. She says about 1.9 percent of Kentuckians are of Asian or Pacific Island heritage. Many of them live in small communities where they may among the few if not the only AAPI people in town.
“I felt like I needed to do something to organize or to do this podcast where we could really connect all the AAPI Kentuckians and say you’re not alone,” says Buckles. “We’re having the same experiences and this is our Kentucky too.”
‘Universal Stories’ from Across the Commonwealth
The podcast launches on Sept. 21 with guest Neeli Bendapudi, a native of India who has been the president of the University of Louisville since 2018. Wu says he was interested in featuring an Asian-American woman in a position of power after reading a New York Times article about how Asian Americans are underrepresented in upper management jobs. He contends so-called “model minorities” have prescribed careers in which they are allowed to excel, such as medicine, engineering, and academics. But he says AAPI people often aren’t seen has having the social skills required for leadership and management positions.
“We never get to that the top rung where we’re making decisions and being the gatekeeper and setting the tone of what the institution is all about,” says Wu.
Not only is Bendapudi the first woman and the first person of color to lead U of L, but she arrived during a period of great turmoil. The university’s former president, athletic director, and men’s basketball coach had been forced out amid various allegations of misconduct.
“You’re not coming in when the ship is smooth sailing, you’re coming in to right the ship, and so your opportunity… to succeed is much harder,” says Wu. “She recognized that… and so she’s coming into it clear eyed and knowing what she’s up against.”
Even if the situation may appear to be a recipe for potential failure, Buckles says Bendapudi wants to open the door for another woman and/or person of color to follow in her footsteps. Buckles says that’s a revolutionary concept that has inspired her to think about the pathways she can provide.
“If I think about let’s bring as many people with me as possible, then they can’t say no to us, they can’t close the door on us,” says Buckles.
Eleven more episodes will follow in the first season of Where Ya’ll Really From? as Wu and Buckles speak with AAPI individuals from across the commonwealth. The duo say they feature many everyday stories of people working hard in their communities, like Angelika Weaver, who is a domestic violence victims’ advocate for the City of Williamsburg, population 5.260.
“They are really universal stories,” says Buckles. “I think that once you humanize a concept, people will come together and cheer you on.”
Although he hasn’t snagged the interview yet, Wu says his dream guests are 2021 Olympic gold medal fencer Lee Kiefer, who is of Filipina-American descent, and her Taiwanese-American husband Gerek Meindhart, who won bronze medals in fencing in the 2016 and 2021 Olympics. Both are medical students at the University of Kentucky.
But not everyone they approached agreed to be interviewed. Buckles says there was one LGBTQ person had not come out to their family yet, and several undocumented immigrants didn’t want to share their stories. She says she understands the reluctance people can have about going public.
“I also have a very big fear of being very open about my experience… I’m nervous of family members who might not accept me,” says Buckles. “But I think it’s an important time, it’s an important moment right now and that movement has to happen.”