To honor Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in Indy, we're discussing the meaning of Asian heritage in the Circle City with key local leaders. We chatted with Rupal Thanawala, President of the Asian American Alliance, about her experiences in Indy as we celebrate this May.
How did you begin your role at the Asian American Alliance?
In 2008 a friend of mine invited me to one of the Asian American Alliance events and shortly thereafter he invited me to join the board. I was already involved in a number of organizations in multiple capacities throughout the community, so when I was introduced to the Asian American Alliance I thought, “Wow this is the only one organization that is fulfilling the gap in the Asian community of Indiana. They are showing the Asian Americans how to celebrate their heritage and immerse themselves in American culture.” I was intrigued by their unique programs and dedicated board members to make an impact in the community.
What is the mission of the Asian American Alliance?
The mission of the Asian American Alliance is to empower Asian Americans to lead and serve in both business and the community. We want to ensure we are setting people up for success and engaging them in the local community. There are more than 150 Asian American organizations in Indy and they all have a different focus. There are student-led organizations, cultural focused organizations, arts organizations, business organizations and religious organizations. We are the ones sitting at the center of all this as we work to bring everyone together. Our members make the best of the two cultures. Our focus is to engage all of them to serve and lead in the local community with the goal of building bridges between American culture and our Asian heritage to ensure everyone feels at home in Indy.
Why did you choose to make Indy and Indiana your home?
I read "India" in "Indiana" and there is a lot in common (except the weather). I found the community to be very family-friendly and welcoming like the one I grew up in. My parents involved us in service projects very early on and I wanted to keep up the tradition with my family. When I moved here I could immediately get involved with so many organizations along with my children. I love our spirit of community-giving and volunteerism. Everything turned out to be so easy here. They could learn so much more from community service as volunteering is in the DNA of Indianapolis.
I want my kids to be good human beings with deep values so as to grow into servant leaders. I thought this is the closest to my culture where I can raise my children to be compassionate civic leaders and I wanted to make sure my children got to experience just that. Besides, the city has some of the best parks, museums, sporting events and schools. As a working parent, easy commute and accessibility were most important to us.
How can an Indy visitor engage with Asian heritage, or get involved with the Asian American Alliance?
The Hindu Temple of Central Indiana is one of those beautiful pieces of architecture. One can learn about the history of the world's oldest religion and enjoy the sheer beauty and art. They have organized tours over the weekends. I would also recommend the International Marketplace is home to a variety of International cuisines. You can get authentic Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese and a wide range of ethnic food. I always direct them there. Lastly, visitors can engage with us by joining as members so we can inform them about upcoming events to stay engaged.
How does the Asian American Alliance uplift Asian heritage in Indianapolis?
Every year we host the free Asian Fest at the Indiana State Museum (pictured). This is typically a gathering of 2,000-3,000 people that provides an opportunity to learn about the different cultures, taste the diverse food offerings, enjoy live entertainment and explore booths from partner organizations throughout the city. For this year’s event, we want to focus on COVID and how Asians are helping the community. While we’ve run into some roadblocks for pulling this off, I am still determined to make this event happen this year even if it is a digital experience with educational sessions. We have events such as “Seat at the Table” where we highlight Asian leaders and speakers who can influence the growth of our organization.
We also host a multitude of events with corporations. Upcoming events include collaborations with One America, Infosys, Rotary Club and RTV6. The three topics we will discuss include Asian American History, Model Minority Myth and Asian Americans of Indiana and how the Asian American Alliance fits into the picture. Check out www.aaalliance.org for information on how to attend upcoming events.
Do you have any favorite Asian restaurants or local businesses you frequent?
I’m sure I’m going to hurt a few feelings here but my favorite Indian restaurant is my own kitchen! I love to cook and share with my friends. I buy all my groceries from Saraga International Grocery and Patel Brothers and we buy a lot of their quick and easy meals for our sons when they crave Indian food. My family loves spicy Thai cuisine and we always enjoy Siam Square in the Fountain Square neighborhood. I enjoy wearing my Indian outfits and jewelry that I get from Sai’s Boutique on Lafayette Road and they’re actually opening up a new location on Michigan and 86th Street.
Where would you take Asian visitors to experience Indy?
We get a lot of visitors from India! I have been living here for 23 years now and this is my home and I am proud of this place. I like to take visitors on a tour of downtown Indianapolis because there are so many good places and so much history. One of my favorite places to take people is Monument Circle just to sit on the stairs and relax. Another must-visit is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum because everyone who comes to visit me says “we have to see the cars!”