Pria Gokhale, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, has lived and gone to school on three continents. She has been the editor of one book and has written and self-published another. She’s a community activist who believes in the power of representation. We met late in 2021 to talk about what it’s like to grow up the way she did — a third culture kid with family and a foothold in different parts of the world but also with a sense of rootlessness. We talked about the importance of being engaged in your community, and why representation matters. And of course, we talked about her book.
Pria wrote “Her Story is Our Story: A Children’s Book for Young Women of Colour” to broaden the scope of representation and to offer a more inclusive take on what heroism is. “Representation and being taught about cultural diversity are two different things,” says Pria as she explains the premise of the book and continues by pointing out that while they may have talked about cultural diversity in school, rarely was there inclusive representation in the materials they studied.
And you don’t need to look further than the author’s note in her book to understand where she is coming from; she writes: “When I was younger, I rarely saw a person who looked like me celebrated in my classroom, printed in my history book, or made into a statute. As a result, I mistakenly believed that most women of colour had simply not done anything notable.” This “fact” wasn’t something she thought a lot about until she came across the Brown History social media account, which she says opened her eyes to a whole different view on history and race. She realized that the idea of what is history-making depends on who you ask and where you are, and often it is the “big” things that get attention.
Pria wanted to present a different narrative. So, with her book, she set out to profile ten women who have changed the world in some way. “These women have all done admirable things. They come from community involvement and grassroots activism, which I think is really powerful. They may not have made it into mainstream history books but they did change the world,” she says.
Before she wrote her own book, Pria served as the editor for her friend Ali Sait’s book “Aya’s Home” which portrays life through the eyes of refugee youth in America and around the world. The idea for that book came when the two of them worked as volunteers in a tutoring program for refugee kids and saw first-hand what little there was in the way of educational materials on the experience of integrating.
Pria’s own story started in Texas where she was born to Indian parents who themselves had grown up outside of India, one in the US and one in Australia. When Pria was five, her family moved to London for her dad’s work, and six years later his job took them to Tokyo. Living and going to school in different parts of the world has brought a certain sense of rootlessness, but, Pria says, that rootlessness is probably also where her deep drive for community engagement comes from: “I never felt attached to a specific community and so engaging in different causes, and in my community wherever I am, has been a way to build belonging while also doing something I believe in.”
When talking more about what makes a community, Pria says that to her, it’s people rather than a place. She points out that the people she loves and values the most are not physically close to her — they are spread out across the world: her grandmother in Australia, her friend from Tokyo who now lives in Boston, another friend in Copenhagen, and so on.
Like many third culture kids, adaptability was something Pria had to learn early. The combination of moving about as a child and growing up in a largely expat community, where friends leaving was part of life, meant that change was constant. “It’s really hard when your best friend leaves. Knowing how to handle change is a big skill — how you move mentally from place to place is a superpower and something I value about myself,” she says.
It’s a superpower she has needed because when Pria’s family moved back to Austin in time for her to start high school, she was in for the biggest culture shock of all, even though the family was returning to the place where she was born and where they had lived for the first few years of her life.
Partly this was because high school in Austin was very homogenous; most of her fellow students were white and had lived in Texas their whole lives. Pria looked different and had different experiences which made her feel like an outsider. And, it didn’t help that the move meant a loss of autonomy as she went from being able to move around Tokyo independently using the city’s transportation system to relying on her mom for a ride wherever she needed to go.
While the transition back to the US was the most difficult in terms of culture shock, it was going to college in her hometown that presented the biggest challenge with making new friends. At high school, she had bonded with the other “out of place kids” but at UT Austin, it’s been tougher. “I have lots of individual friends, but not a friend group,” says Pria and continues “maybe it’s because this is not a very tight-knit community”.
For Pria, the return to Texas has put into focus the importance of diversity. She reflects that when you don’t see a lot of diversity, it can be hard to value it because you don’t know what you are missing.
When I ask Pria where she sees herself in the future, she’s not sure. She has fond memories of all the places she has lived but the people who defined her experiences in each one are not necessarily there anymore. She does know that she wants to spend some time with her grandmother in Australia to learn more about her Indian roots and Indian culture and traditions. The two are also planning a trip to India, a place where Pria has never been.
And as for what she would like to do, she is double-majoring in econ and liberal arts honors studies but she is not sure yet where those will take her, maybe law school one day. She could see writing more books; and she finds children’s education very interesting, which, she says, may have something to do with her own unique educational experience. “Searching for a different narrative, perhaps that’s an expat kid’s path,” she muses.
One thing is for sure — Pria wants to keep engaging in her local community and working for causes she believes in, wherever she is. She says: “I believe in investing in your community, and I especially believe in investing in other women of color.”
By: Felicia Shermis
The proceeds of Pria’s book go to GirlForward — a community of support dedicated to creating and enhancing opportunities for girls in Central Texas who have been displaced globally by conflict and persecution.