By Vaidehi Pidaparti, Tisch Active Citizen Summer Fellow
Working at Eagle Eye Institute this summer, I was welcomed into a caring community of people that have an unshakable belief that nature is truly for everyone. Being part of an environmental organization dedicated to diversity led me to reflect deeply about what place the environment has in my cultural background. While I was lucky to have a nature-loving mother who took me to national parks, the seashore and the mountains, speaking with other Indian-Americans I realized that these nature experiences were not common for people who share my heritage. In fact, some family friends have wondered, “Why do you go hiking? That’s only for white people!” In speaking with a Korean-American friend who is an avid outdoorsman, I discovered that his family has made similar comments – they do not view nature as something to explore. It never occurred to me before this summer that different ethnic groups perceive nature differently. This notion led me to consider how Indians and Indian-Americans, at the very least, interpret their relationship with the natural world.
On the one hand, the very concept of camping and hiking are foreign to Indians. My mother claims that unlike people in the West, Indians simply do not put nature into a recreational category. She attributes this to the fact that India has never had a tradition of protecting parcels of land for use as national parks or conservation. There is a definite dichotomy between how cities and villages maintain natural beauty in India, and pollution of land, water and air is increasingly common. In fact, many religious ceremonies are responsible, in part, for this pollution. On the other hand, Indian culture is founded upon principles of environmental stewardship and a feeling of kinship toward all living things. Many of the main schools of Hinduism, India’s most predominant religion, maintain an adherence to the practice of vegetarianism as a form of non-violence toward other living creatures. I was raised vegetarian for this reason, and I will continue to adhere to this tradition for the rest of my life. In addition to this belief system, an extensive knowledge of how different plants and spices can help maintain or rectify health is a mainstay in many Indian families including my own. A tailored diet is as much a part of my family’s medicine cabinet as a bottle of Advil.
I am not yet sure how to wrap my head around these contradictions – I am just at the beginning of this personal and cultural exploration. At the same time, I can see pathways towards creating a unified culture of environmentalism. I have realized that my respect and love for nature came, in large part, from the fact that I was raised a vegetarian. When I was a young child, the religious principle of not harming other animals made sense to me. My vegetarianism was a foundation in which I developed a more concrete set of environmental beliefs. Similarly, the fact that my grandmother and mother viewed food as a vital part of maintaining health led me to become a med student who believes society needs to return to basic nutrition as a means of controlling disease. I realize because of the way I was raised, with Indian traditions, I am a more environmentally-conscious person. I have a sense of responsibility to protect nature for the health and enjoyment of current and future generations. I have come to realize that the connections that people of color have to nature are not nonexistent, as people sometimes assume, but are simply different. Given my own experience, I feel as though making links between people’s cultural traditions and nature is vital in providing environmental programming to youth of color. I think characterizing people’s cultural relationships will help develop, perhaps, a more universal culture of environmental stewardship. And I for one am inspired now to try.