• I marvel at how my Australian friends are so at ease in nature. (E+ / Getty Images)Source: E+ / Getty Images
I marvel at how my Australian friends are so at ease in nature.
By
Annie Hariharan

22 Jan 2019 - 6:00 AM  UPDATED 12 Jan 2021 - 3:08 PM

Every holiday season, I decline camping invitations from my Australian friends with a half-hearted excuse about middle class comfort. Yes, I can squat and take a dump, I’d say. But I also prefer a seating toilet with soap and indoor plumbing.

In truth, my need for comfort is a facade. What I don’t tell my friends is that I’m scared of the wilderness. Growing up in Malaysia, I was taught that jungles are filled with dangerous things like wild boars and snakes — fauna far more menacing than the cuddly marsupials that roam Melbourne's bushland.

Only the foolish would venture into the great unknown. At school, both teachers and parents agreed on that. It’s why all the girl scouts camping activities were done in the school compound. We never crossed any mountains or followed any streams — it was a skit show equivalent of the camping experiences we saw on American TV.

Camping in general just isn’t popular in South East Asia. This makes sense, especially when you consider the historical context, given the jungle is where people ran to during times of conflict.

The wilderness is the last refuge of the desperate, and not a holiday destination for those seeing 'solace'. My late grandparents migrated from India to Malaysia and would casually recount how they lived on the fringes of a jungle in the 1950s and saw disheveled young men emerge at night in search of food, or — somewhat unusually — to order my grandfather, who was a tailor, to mend their clothes.

Camping in general just isn’t popular in South East Asia. This makes sense, especially when you consider the historical context, given the jungle is where people ran to during times of conflict.

And it’s not just my grandparents who’ve had a bad nature-themed run. Most elderly people in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia would recount how life in the 1940s and 1950s involved back-breaking outdoor chores since electrical appliances were still decades away. They had cold bucket showers, washed clothes in the river and cooked over an open fire.

These are all standard camping activities today. Except back then, it was referred to as ‘hardship’. So in a sense, I may have internalised the idea that roughing it out in nature is a step backwards and my ancestors would roll in their grave if they knew I’d left my sturdy apartment (with an oven, water heater and washing machine) to set up a flimsy tent that could be blown away by a southerly gust.

In these times, I’m reminded of what Comedian Trevor Noah said, “What white people consider enjoyable on vacation are things that people of colour are trying to escape...for example, white people love camping. Do you know how hard I worked to never be without electricity and water?”

Most elderly people in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia would recount how life in the 1940s and 1950s involved back-breaking outdoor chores since electrical appliances were still decades away.

Immigrant experience is a funny thing. People move for a better life but they also want to show it and there are economic and social markers for this. For my grandparents, it was moving from a wooden house to a brick house (less of a fire hazard). For my parents, it was taking road trips (signs of car ownership) and staying in motels. For me, staying in a motel was the height of luxury because I could order in food, leave dishes outside and walk away the next day without making my beds. This was the kind of upward social mobilisation that I may have sought after, because it meant we were middle class enough to 'take a holiday' to relax as opposed to doing the bulk of the work.

My feelings for camping is also informed by the fact that I have no nostalgia attached to it. It never fit the bill of a nice holiday with friends or family because camping equipment and gear are surprisingly expensive (especially given that you're literally sleeping on the ground). If I ever have that sort of spare cash, I would rather put it towards a goose feather doona and Egyptian cotton sheets, which I can use daily without fear that a wild animal will gnaw on it. That's the kind of return of investment that makes sense to me.

I also marvel at how my Australian friends are so at ease in nature. It must come from trusting that their environment is safe and secure whether they’re in a residential area, seaside or bushland. In contrast, when you grow up in a country with people who take active steps to protect themselves against all kinds of chaos, you feel the safest when you’re at home, behind an iron gate, with three to four solid locks and access to phone reception.

I only just started accepting that Australian houses have low picket fences that barely keep out a cat, never mind a robber. However, sleeping outdoors, deliberately cutting away modern communication and surrendering yourself to your environment still sounds like the start of a horror movie to me.

These days, it doesn’t bother me much that I have a gap in these life experiences. Because like Trevor Noah — and my grandparents — I’ve worked very hard to make sure I have access to indoor plumbing. And that, is my own litmus test of 'making it' as an immigrant.

Annie Hariharan is a business consultant, pop culture nerd and occasional writer focusing on identity and feminism.

This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_


NITV presents a selection of dedicated programming, special events and news highlights with a focus on encouraging greater understanding of Indigenous Australian perspectives on 26 January. Join the conversation #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe.

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