Fatima Khazi is having a hard time at school — she's in a new country, in a new city, her classmates make fun of how she speaks, they wrinkle their noses at the way her food smells, and on top of all that, she isn't doing well in her classes. But Fatima is thrilled to escape for the weekend and go camping with her family.
Ambreen Tariq's new children's book, Fatima's Great Outdoors is a story about an Indian immigrant family's first time exploring the outdoors, and it's as much a story about curiosity and adventure as it is about trying to assimilate as an immigrant in this country. Tariq says Fatima's story is her own story. "Every moment in that book is real. Every snippet, every story."
Tariq's family moved from India to Minnesota during harsh winter months when she was just eight years old, and transitioning to a new life in a new country was challenging. She says she had a desire to fit in and be like everybody else. "I think this is a very universal immigrant feeling ... And that really is Fatima's experience." While Fatima's family might have sung Mohammad Rafi's Hindi songs on the car ride to the campground, and eaten samosas along the way, Fatima makes her father promise that they will eat bacon for breakfast, "just like the other American families." Tariq recalls begging her own parents to get beef bacon from the Halal butcher for their family camping trips growing up. "And yes, it was just a small thing when it comes to bacon ... But for Fatima it's a very big deal. It's a moment where she feels like she's doing it. She is actually camping like everybody else and enjoying it."
Tariq says that while nature is central to cultures throughout the world, "America has its own unique way of doing it. It's very categorized." According to the National Park Service's most recent 10-year survey, 77 percent of those who visited the country's 419 national parks were white. A lack of diversity in outdoor spaces is one of the reasons Tariq was compelled to write this book and start an online community called "Brown People Camping."
She says there are many complex reasons that America's outdoor spaces are primarily occupied by white people, like financial barriers to acquiring gear and outdoor know-how. "But there's also a very deep and dark history in this country around feeling confident and safe being in remote places." She cited the fact that many national parks sit on stolen Native American land, or that Black people have historically faced violence in the woods. And for immigrants, she says, imagery like "Confederate flags and other things that happen in remote places" may signal that people of color aren't safe or welcome in such places. "All of those reasons aside, this book is about saying, get out there, find your joy, find your safe space, build your community and do it the way you love it, because the outdoors is for everyone."
Tariq says she hopes more children of all backgrounds get the chance to experience the outdoors as she did. "For me and for Fatima what happens in that shining little moment when they enter that campground, it is just about them being curious and having fun." She says for children like herself who didn't have a privileged upbringing, that exposure can be especially formative. "When we went camping, we used to rent bikes, we would ride around the campground, we would meet strangers, we would meet other little kids and become sudden friends. We would go swimming in the lake. That's not what our life was like when we were latchkey kids, came home, let ourselves in, made dinner for ourselves. You know, 'don't ever open the door. Don't talk to a stranger.'"
While having parents with multiple jobs meant growing up quickly, in many ways, camping was just the opposite for Tariq. She hopes Fatima's Great Outdoors encourages more families to engage with nature in a meaningful way. "Other immigrant kids, other kids in general, especially city kids, could benefit from [nature] so much because it opens up another part of your mind and heart. It allows you to be curious. And a type of confidence that's not really allowed on a daily basis. And that changes someone."
This story was edited for radio by Patrick Jarenwattananon and adapted for the Web by Jonaki Mehta and Petra Mayer.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
So when I was growing up, I camped with my family a lot. I mean, frankly, for my family, camping was just a lot more affordable than booking ourselves into hotels during family trips. So we would all pile into the Chang family's 1986 Dodge Ram van. And we saw a lot of America that way. Well, a lot of these memories got stirred up when I was reading Ambreen Tariq's new children's book, "Fatima's Great Outdoors." It's about a young girl having a hard time at school in a new city, a new country. And she's thrilled to venture out on a camping trip with her family for the weekend. It's a story about curiosity, exploration, and at its core, it's a story about the immigrant experience in America. Ambreen Tariq joins us now.
AMBREEN TARIQ: Hi, Ailsa. It's so great to join you today.
CHANG: It's so good to have you. So I understand that you and your own family immigrated here from India when you were young. Did all of you used to go camping growing up as well?
TARIQ: Yeah. So we moved to the United States when I was almost 8 years old from India, landing in Minnesota, of all places. So we were brand-new to this country. And that includes outdoor recreation in the way that it's, you know, enjoyed in the United States. Certainly people enjoy the outdoors all over the world in different ways, but America has its own unique way of doing it. And...
CHANG: Yeah, totally.
TARIQ: It's very categorized.
CHANG: Why do you think in this country camping or spending time outdoors, it still seems in many ways culturally like a thing that mostly white people do?
TARIQ: Yeah. One is because of financial barriers, the gear that it takes to get out there is expensive, the knowledge it takes to get out there, but also there's a very deep and dark history in this country around feeling confident and safe being in remote places. Native and Indigenous communities have a different relationship to this since their land was taken away from them. African American communities have a very dark history in remote places where there was violence and bad things happened to Black people in the woods. And for immigrants, there's a lot of symbolism about the Confederate flag and other things that happen in remote places where you just - you're not sure if you're safe out there. And so all of those reasons aside, this book is about saying, get out there, find your joy, find your safe space and do it the way you love it because the outdoors is for everyone.
CHANG: Yeah. Well, I was wondering when I was flipping through this beautifully illustrated book - you know, you hit all these cultural notes in Fatima's story - the samosas her mom packed, singing Bollywood songs in Hindi on the way to the campgrounds. Were those actual moments in your childhood camping trips, too?
TARIQ: Absolutely. Every moment in that book is real, every snippet, every story. It may have happened in a slightly different order, but this story is my story.
CHANG: I love that. Well, let's talk about that story because, you know, this experience of camping with your immigrant family, it really resonated with me. Like, there was this one moment where Fatima says her dad promised them bacon for breakfast to be, quote, "just like the other American families" who also went camping. And I remember a feeling very similar to that. Like, when I would watch other white kids at the campgrounds popping Jiffy Pop over their campfires, I would stare down at my soup noodles and think, gosh, am I actually camping? Because they look like they're camping in a more real way. And then my parents, like, started popping popcorn after that. Can you talk about, you know, the promise that your dad might have made to you about bacon for breakfast?
TARIQ: Yeah. You know, a lot of outdoor activity is so much - whether you're immigrant or not, I feel like a lot of people fall into that I need to do what everybody else is doing to be truly outdoors, which isn't true. And that's really what my book tries to communicate, which is you can do you. You can enjoy the outdoors in your own way, through your own cultural activities and still have a joyful connection with nature. But when I was a child, I was looking around - and I think this is a very universal immigrant feeling - you just want to blend in. You want to look like everybody else. You want to do what everybody else is doing.
TARIQ: And that really is Fatima's experience throughout her journey. And so this was a really big deal for me growing up. And I begged my parents to get bacon. I was like all the other white people do it. They do it for breakfast. You know, it's going to smell great when we get up. And so we went to the butcher. We went to the halal butcher and got beef bacon. And yes, it was just a small thing when it comes to bacon. It may not be a big deal to other people, but for Fatima, it's a very big deal. It's a moment where she feels like she is doing it. She is actually camping like everybody else and she's enjoying it.
CHANG: Yeah. Well, let's talk a little more about Fatima's life at school, where she doesn't feel like everybody else. Like, she gets made fun of because of her accent or what she brings to eat for lunch. Can you talk about that? Like, what do you want kids who read your book to learn about the immigrant experience?
TARIQ: Yeah. So one of the topics I really wanted to sort of hit home was the model minority myth - right? - which is Asians, East Asians, South Asians, people just assume that they excel in school, that there is something inherent about them that makes them do well in math and science and all of this, which absolutely was not my experience. So one of the things I try and explore to Fatima was how the difficulty she was facing were not only social but also academic. So not only is she being bullied for the way that she looks, the way that she speaks, for the food that she eats, but she's also going through a lot of difficulties at home because she's not excelling in school in the way that her parents expect her to. So there's just so much that's bombarding her and her mind just keeps turning to I don't want to stick out anymore. I don't want to be a minority. I just want to look like everybody else. Whereas as adults, we want to push the message of find empowerment in your differences, which is what we want, which is what this book is all about. And it's me rewriting my childhood and allowing myself to find empowerment in my differences.
CHANG: What do you think when it comes to the outdoors - what do you think kids, especially brown kids like Fatima, like you, like myself, what do you think we learned or can learn from spending time outdoors?
TARIQ: So for me and for Fatima and Appa (ph) for that shining little moment when they enter that campground, they are children once again. It is just about them being curious and having fun. When we went camping, that's literally what it was. We used to rent bikes. We would meet strangers. We would meet other little kids and become sudden friends. We would go swimming in the lake. Like, that's not what our life was like when we were latchkey kids - came home, let ourselves in, made dinner for ourselves, don't ever open the door, don't talk to a stranger. Like, it was just this complete opposite. And I think other brown kids, other immigrant kids, other kids in general, especially other city kids, could benefit from this so much because it opens up another part of your mind and heart in a type of confidence that's not really allowed on a daily basis. And that changes someone.
CHANG: Ambreen Tariq, author of the children's book "Fatima's Great Outdoors," thank you so much for being with us today.
TARIQ: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.