Why Immigrants Are the Original Environmentalists


Many years ago, I made a commitment to live more authentically. In doing the self-reflection work that came along with this life shift, I realized that I’d been experiencing a lot of discomfort about several aspects of my identity growing up. One of the things that I worked hard to mask as an adult was the fact that I grew up in an immigrant household where money was tight, especially when I was younger. I felt shy, embarrassed, and reluctant to talk about this—and in particular about my parents’ frugality, fearing others’ judgments.

But as part of living more authentically, I knew it was important to be true to my roots and be proud of who I was—including talking about what it was like growing up in an immigrant household. When I started to actually do it, I had an interesting, eye-opening (and actually quite funny) “aha moment” (as my one-day bestie Oprah would say) about how I was raised: I’m an environmentalist not just because I care about the earth, but also because of my parents’ frugality. When I had this realization, my parents’ tendency to scrimp, save, reduce, and reuse became a point of pride (and humor) instead of something to be embarrassed of.

I’m not sure that my parents’ efforts to reuse things, save things, and cut down on waste when I was growing up were intended to save the environment. They were focused on saving money so that we, their kids, would have a good lifestyle. But in doing so, they were actually raging environmentalists—they just didn’t know it! And this is the story of many immigrant households. Because these efforts are so deeply entrenched in many immigrants’ ways of life, in my opinion, immigrants are the original environmentalists.

How We “Reduced” and “Reused” Growing Up

Environmentalism gained momentum during my childhood in the 70s, but it was really in the 80s that the slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” came into popularity. I have to say, though immigrant households may not have won the prize for “recycle” back then, we definitely won the prize for “reduce” and “reuse”—and my family was no exception.

We reused a ton in the kitchen—for example, we’d reuse tinfoil (as in, wipe it down and use it again) and we’d wash out Ziploc-type bags (Ziploc was always more expensive, so we often bought the no-name brand). But my personal favorite was the reusing of sour cream containers as Tupperware (and I say this sarcastically, because I actually hated it—think bright yellow curry stains on the inside of the containers!). Bonus points here—this is also a case of “reducing,” because they skipped buying real Tupperware.

When it came to the bathroom, instead of taking showers we would take what’s called a “bucket bath” or “balti bath” in Punjabi. Essentially this meant that we would get a bucket of water and a plastic scoop, and would wash ourselves one scoop of water at a time until the bucket was empty. I remember the first time I babysat for a White family in the neighborhood, and the mom instructed me to fill the whole bathtub with water. I looked at her stunned and said, incredulously, “You fill the WHOLE tub with water?!”

Clothing was another area where we reused a lot. I remember one particular blue t-shirt from childhood featuring a hologram image of trucks (yahhh to breaking gender norms in the Bhasin household in the 70s!) that was passed down from me to my sister, and then to my brother who is seven years younger than me. We also repurposed clothing. When they frayed at the bottom, my father’s jeans would become jean shorts, and I would then use the leftover jean material to (believe it or not) sew pencil cases for my siblings and friends, along with matching bows and scrunchies for my hair. (Don’t even laugh, because bows and scrunchies are back in style, yo!)

I also remember my parents’ efforts to cut down on electricity. Our heating was often only turned on for the three hours we were awake and at home in the evening, and we’d use heavy Punjabi-style blankets to keep warm at night. To be honest, the first time I moved out and could control my own heat I had it jacked up as high as possible—but in a lot of areas, my parents’ spirit stuck. To this day I’m very aware of cutting down on waste, and reusing things when possible, more so than a lot of my peers.

Embracing My Immigrant Upbringing

I could go on forever about my parents’ environmentally friendly habits when I was growing up, but for many years, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable sharing any of it. Now, in embracing this aspect of my past, I’m actually quite proud of it. Celebrating my immigrant upbringing is important to embracing my own authenticity—and so now I take every chance I can get to throw props to my parents, the “original environmentalists,” for teaching me these habits.

I also proudly note that my parents are now raging self-admitted environmentalists—especially my dad, who makes every effort not only to reduce and reuse, but especially to recycle.