My Immigrant Story: Loneliness and Empowerment at the American Campground
The author moved to the United States at eight years old and took her first camping trip soon after. The outdoors became an escape from the stressors of being a new American and a reminder that enjoying nature can be a privilege in itself.
We spoke to Ambreen Tariq earlier this year about diversity in the outdoors and her Instagram account, @brownpeoplecamping. While readers’ responses were overwhelmingly positive, we also saw lots of comments from those who were offended at the idea that not everyone might feel welcome in the outdoors. With those responses and the current political climate on her mind, Tariq wrote this.
I remember blue lights lining the runway as we touched down in our new homeland. I was almost eight years old when we moved from India to Minnesota. It was a cold January night, and I saw snow for the first time, piled high at the sides of the runway, more gray than white. It was disappointing, but I held out hope for a better experience that would match my imagination of a beautiful, snowy America.
We came to this country, like many others before us, looking for a better life. We arrived with a few suitcases in hand and not much in our pockets, eager to cash the blank checks of our immigrant imaginations. For my parents, it was the bold promise of limitless opportunities for their two daughters. My vision of America, on the other hand, was a mosaic of Hollywood movies: a land of golden-haired people, shiny cars, and cowboys.
It’s not easy to start from scratch in this country. My parents worked long days. I remember learning the term “graveyard shift” and worrying they would see ghosts as they worked through the night. But somehow they always came home smiling, never having seen ghosts but always sharing some new American facts—like what Halloween was, and how we can get free books at a place called the public library, and that there are tasty things called frozen pizzas that we can make ourselves once we learn how to use the oven.
One day, my father came home and told us about how people in Minnesota go camping, and that there were free, clean, beautiful parks for us to enjoy, too. My parents pieced together just enough information and money to take our first steps into the outdoors, buying a tent and a few sleeping bags for our new adventure.
Many immigrants face significant challenges financially, socially, and psychologically. So trying something new, costly, and wholly unfamiliar (like camping) isn’t usually a priority.
We did it our own way: eating kabob and roti at the campsite, telling jokes in our own language and laughing loudly. We didn’t know much about the outdoors culture, and we certainly didn’t look like the other families on the campground, but we took in stride the discomfort of being minorities in yet another American space. In doing so, I developed a profound and sentimental love for the outdoors.
This coincided with a time in my life when I was struggling with adjusting to a new culture and country. I was struggling with being able to identify with my peers at school, where my Indian accent, the color of my skin, the way I wore my hair, the food I ate, and the country I came from were all subjects for teasing. Everything was new, including the way the world viewed me. At the age of eight, I had become a minority, and I didn’t know how to feel about that.
We were outsiders in the outdoors, too. I remember watching our neighboring campers being friendly with each other, sharing laughter and food. I used to wish we could seamlessly integrate into their culture; have the confidence to walk over, say hello, and make small talk in that jovial midwestern way. But we kept to ourselves, and so did they. Looking around the campground, it always felt like I was peering through the window of someone else’s home, someone who had a big, loving family to which I wasn’t related.
Still, when we went camping, my family could push aside the weight of our daily lives and enjoy the simplicity of learning how to build a fire or looking out for the spiders that found their way into our tent. I associated the golden memories of those camping trips with escaping the realities of schoolyard bullying and the feelings of being an outsider in an overwhelming new life.
For many immigrants, transitioning into a new life in this country is financially, socially, and psychologically challenging. So trying something new, costly, and wholly unfamiliar (like camping) isn’t usually a priority. That’s why I feel privileged to have experienced the joy of the outdoors at a young age. My family could both afford to buy the minimum gear needed and take the time for these trips, and we were lucky enough to avoid having bad experiences out there that would have prevented us from returning. That was a blessing.
My positive exposure to the outdoors at an early age motivated me to make it a part of my adult life. But as I’ve pursued bigger and more exciting backpacking and camping experiences, it has often come with a price tag that includes airline tickets, rental cars, equipment for camping and hiking, and the ability to use paid leave. But most expensive of all: the privilege to see the outdoors as a positive lifestyle option for myself.
I think that for many minority identities getting into the outdoor lifestyle for the first time, it takes courage to choose discomfort. It’s challenging both physically, because it involves learning new activities and skills, and socially, because it’s easy to feel like an outsider when you don’t see others like yourself on the trails or even represented in the imagery of the outdoor industry. Even now, when my husband and I are camping or hiking, I look around and see a similar lack of diversity in the outdoors community as I did when I was a child. I want so badly for more people of color, immigrants, and other communities that are underrepresented in the outdoors to experience its beauty and benefits.
That’s why in August of 2016, I launched @brownpeoplecamping on Instagram—a digital project through which I share photos and stories about my experiences as a South Asian American, Muslim female immigrant who loves the outdoors. I hope that by being honest about my experiences as a minority in the outdoors, I can encourage others who identify with me to push past their hesitations and get outside more.
Immigrants are true adventurers: choosing to leave behind the things that made them confident and comfortable, choosing to be humbled in a land and often in a language that are wholly foreign. They work hard, struggle, and persevere because they love the possibilities of empowerment that this country represents, and they want to help make it better, too. I want to let other immigrant families know that America’s public lands are our lands. Include them in your adventures, enjoy them for their benefits, grow to love them, and then help us protect them for future generations.