2021 Winning Student Talks Indian-American Identity This year's high school winner in the NPR Student Podcast Challenge tackles the complexities of her Indian-American identity.

'Be Proud Of Where You Come From': An Indian-American Teen's Winning Podcast

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This year thousands of students put their audio skills to the test, entering NPR's third annual Student Podcast Challenge. On Morning Edition, we told you about the seventh graders who won the middle school prize for celebrating the unsung heroes on their school's maintenance staff. Now we have the winner of the high school prize. The winner is a 16-year-old who lives in Chicago and made her podcast all on her own in a closet. Here's NPR's Cory Turner.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Kriti Sarav spends a lot of time in a narrow storage closet.

KRITI SARAV: We got really lucky because when we moved into this house, they had this, like, desk here. And I think it was an office - little office closet before. But I like it for podcasting.

TURNER: There's a small desk with a mic, headphones and a bright red wooden chair. One item, though, stands out. It's carved of wood, about the size of a basketball.

SARAV: It's, like, a mini-temple kind of thing.

TURNER: Inside it once sat a small figure of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha, which now sits in their kitchen. I mention this because Kriti's winning podcast is all about her life growing up Indian American. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAV: My honey brown skin contrasted greatly with the peachy whites and olives of my friends. My parents called me raja or beta, not munchkin or cutie pie. When I opened up my lunchbox, I had a thermos full of dal and rice and chapati and roti, not mac and cheese or PB&J.

TURNER: Kriti says the older she got, the more insecure she became about her Indian heritage, especially when her grandmother would visit Chicago from India wearing a sari and a traditional red bindi on her forehead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAV: I hated the way other kids would look at my grandma and me when we went shopping. I hated the way they would ask if her bindi was a mole. I would say no, but deep down I wanted to rip that bindi off her head and just cut off her long, thick, dark, braided hair and put on a nice dress with a blue cardigan on her.

TURNER: Kriti says she worried about seeming different because the world was constantly telling her she was different. She remembers being 9, when out of the blue, a classmate told her...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAV: Hey, Kriti; your skin is the color of poop.

TURNER: People also mocked her name or just didn't bother to learn it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAV: Creedy (ph). Or, like, someone said Kiriti (ph) or Chrissy (ph). Like, there's no S. Like, I got an award, and they said my name was Chrissy Sarva (ph), and that's not my name.

TURNER: Kriti told me as a kid, she started to believe all these messages telling her implicitly or explicitly, you're weird. You're poop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAV: I hate my name. I want to change my name. I'd be like, to my mom, let me just go by Kiki (ph) or things like that.

TURNER: Over time, though, she realized she'd become her own worst bully. And so she made this podcast to declare enough is enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAV: It really doesn't matter what you - or anyone else, for that matter - says to me. What matters are the words that I whisper day in and day out to myself.

TURNER: And so sitting on the floor outside her podcasting closet, Kriti whispered these words into my microphone to share them with all the other kids out there who have felt this kind of isolation and pain.

SARAV: I am strong. I am powerful. You have such an amazing, vibrant culture and should just be proud of you are. Be proud of where you come from. Try to say this to yourself.

TURNER: As we were getting ready to leave, Kriti told us what a big NPR fan she is. And so it seemed only fitting, since this is her story, to let her have the last word.

SARAV: From Chicago, this is NPR. What do I say?

TURNER: Ooh, I know. Hold on. So signing off, I'm Cory Turner.

SARAV: And I'm Kriti Sarav, NPR News, Chicago.

TURNER: Oh, that was awesome.

SARAV: That was so cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "3WW")

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