One of the initial and biggest culture shock for someone visiting a western country from the third world is walking into a toilet cubicle and seeing a roll of toilet paper.
On the first morning of my first trip to the United States, in 2017, I texted my brother from the bathroom.
“First world question: is it safe to flush toilet paper?”
I had my reasons, too. For in many parts of the world, places that are still undeveloped after more than fifty years of developing, the toilet system can’t even handle a healthy person’s plump and fibrous roll of waste. It takes more than a few flushes to make sure everything is indeed flushed off and not as disgusting for the next person.
That’s why I was terrified of flushing a wad of toilet paper and messing up the four-star hotel’s drainage system. And so, a wave of relief swept over me as the response came in the affirmative.
Later that morning, my colleague pulled me aside to discuss, in hushed voices and rolling eyes, the great toilet paper incident and how bizarre it is to have so much bog roll but not knowing how to use it. We couldn’t figure out how first worlders could feel comfortable with a backside that potentially harboured dried waste.
Growing up in Asia, my colleague and I were both used to washing ourselves with water. As toddlers, we were potty trained, which not only helps strengthen thigh and waist muscles for later in life but also makes it so much easier to wash ourselves after we finish our business. Even to this day, countless Indian homes have potty-style bathrooms that are highly effective in preventing the spread of germs introduced by western commodes.
However, even when Asian countries adopted the modern and more convenient commode system, they still retained the washing habit by installing hand showers in the bathroom. Hand showers that required some additional plumbing, but made a lot of sense nevertheless. Resembling a sprinkler garden hose, it’s fitted into the wall next to the toilet, making it easy for the loo-goer to squish, splash, and then return it to its stand and walk away clean.
I’ve visited the US a couple times afterwards, and since migrating to Australia last year, I’ve become far more accustomed to the idea of using toilet paper multiple times every day.
All that said, when coronavirus came into the picture, just as the bushfires were settling down, we went from one unprecedented incident to another one. From donating supplies to people evacuating fire zones, we’ve gone to physically assaulting each other for a roll of toilet paper. This paper crisis and the disastrous fight for bog roll has taken over the internet with memes, devastating videos, graphic images of empty supermarket shelves, and suggestions to use yellow pages instead of toilet paper.
Amongst this incredible, insane situation, a few odd people have been brave enough to suggest the time-tested Asian washing method, only to be sneered at. It’s not unheard of, of course. Many Australians have travelled widely, and the country itself homes millions of migrants in every state. The hand shower idea isn’t as novel as the coronavirus. It’s even the more environmentally-sustainable option compared to toilet paper. Sure, recycled toilet paper is marketed as better than regular ones, but hey, nothing beats water.
That’s such a popular saying. It means that it’s hard to change habits you’ve had for a long time. And it makes sense too if you think about it—skills we learn as children make up who we are as adults.
One such skill I acquired, quite early on in life, was swimming. My mother, like most over-zealous parents, hoping I’d become a smart athletic one day, signed me up for a swimming club. I was perhaps five or six.
The poor instructor spent many an hour in the water, trying hard to get me to co-operate with him. I wouldn’t. About four years later, I still hadn’t learnt anything except that the canteen had delectable fish pastry and ice-cold chocolate milk.
Undeterred, my mother signed me up for the school swimming classes. It was a free service offered by a school-sponsored instructor, and it completely eliminated my potential plea about wasted fees.
I had no way out.
So I learnt to swim. The instructor was exceptionally skilled, and started us off on the baby pool. Because it was so shallow, it was so easy to wade in the water and get accustomed to kicking and arm strokes.
I even began enjoy swimming.
The school instructor had managed to achieve what the paid instructor couldn’t for years.
Not long afterwards, life happened and I had to give up swimming.
Fifteen years later, I signed up for a different swimming club. Yesterday. In Canberra.
That’s when I realised: old practices don’t just come back after all those years. I spent almost 30 minutes in the pool, too scared to swim. Memories from my old swimming club rushed into my head, swelling into my chest, reminding me of that paid instructor who never succeeded.
Today I went back. This time, I headed to the wading pool—the shallow one, equivalent to the baby pool. I practiced on my own. Replaying the old instructions in my head—powerful arm strokes, kicking, breathing in while my face is out of the water and blowing out bubbles when in. It took me about 20 minutes, but by the end of it, I’d done it. I’d recalled a large portion of my swimming lessons.
I’m not finished yet. I still have at least a few more self-learning sessions in the wading pool before I can go back to swimming properly again.
So yes, old habits do die hard. But once they die, it can be quite challenging to revive them too.
Volunteering is the best way to experience a new society, right?
So when the Multicultural Festival came around, I signed up as a general volunteer—you know, the ones wearing a red festival t-shirt and a hat, and a lanyard too large for their body—wandering around the perimeter smiling at those gorging on meat on a stick, sipping their beer before stepping away so that it doesn’t spill over before they reach their friends.
The festival started at 4 pm last Friday, with cultural performances and food stalls all the way through 11 pm. When I showed up at 4, a half hour earlier than the start of my shift, the place thronged with a hum of excitement. The sun sprawled on us as volunteers scattered throughout the city circle, taking their positions, armed with brochures, information packs, while the area wardens double-checked their walkie talkies, strapped on and ready to go.
The moment I stepped out into the festival ground, I regretted not carrying my water bottle. The festival organisers had done a tremendous job of setting up water filling stations every few metres, but without my bottle, I didn’t stand a chance. When at last I gave up my ego and picked up a plastic water bottle, drained and desperate, I promised never to do that again.
It didn’t take me too long to study the festival map. Six stages with three or four tents that accommodated smaller performances, spread across five major streets in the city centre. I’d walked around that part of city enough of times to know what lay where, and after two complete rounds, I’d memorised the locations of each stage.
Equipped with so much information, I began wandering. For that was my role as a general volunteer. I was to walk around with a welcoming smile, answering questions, and helping out anyone in distress. It had all seemed easy and fun on paper. And yet as I walked around I felt myself suffocating under the smoke of charred meat, barbecue and grilled citrus waffling throughout the streets, mingled with the joyous cries of lolly-sucking kids and the satisfied lip-smacking of bratwurst-wolfing adults.
On my right, noodles were sizzling, fried with eggs and chicken. From the left came yells advertising crepes—savoury and sweet—French, with gluten-free and vegan options. Baos, or steamed buns, weren’t too far away, sitting right next to the street food extravaganza of masala dosa and curry. A little further were Croatian beers, Sydney ice-cream, Ethiopian lentils and beef stews with flavoured injera.
Row after row showcased food from all over the world, in various shapes and sizes—from pulled pork burgers to the so-called healthy zucchini fritters, from paella to pan-friend momos, from fresh-squeezed orange juice to vodka-infused lemonade.
Overwhelming is an understatement. For five hours, I let the crowds push me from one place to another, as I tried to find my way through, only wanting to return to my starting point. As I left the festival that evening—four hours before the performances ended for the day—I was ready to hit the bed and not return for my shift the next day. I didn’t want to volunteer ever again.
But on Saturday afternoon, I arrived again, signed in to my shift three hours early, and started patrolling the grounds, looking for something more engaging than dead meat. Fortunately, that second day was the best.
In most cultural events that are advertised on Facebook with flyers abound and hashtags galore, people throng in thousands, flashing cameras at dancers as if they’d never before seen a blend of colours or beaded jewellery. Our impression of culture is often so stereotypical that we can’t imagine anything beyond a stage performance featuring slender female dancers and flavoured meat.
However, this multicultural festival tried to showcase some genuine culture. Not only did it feature music and food from various countries, but it also accommodated embassies of various nations. Why, one of the most popular aspect of the event—aside from the German beer and sausages—was the EU village. For an entire day, a large section of the festival hosted embassy stalls where delegates and foreign representatives shared brochures, travel advice, traditional information, and snacks. They even gave away free EU passports at the European Union tent—a fun activity for the young and the older where you could walk your way through all the tents of the EU countries and get your passport stamped at each tent.
A little later that day came the iconic Multicultural Festival Parade. As the name suggests, it’s a tremendous walking and dancing display of culture by the many countries that call Canberra (and Australia) home. From indigenous musical representatives to Chinese dragon dance, to Korean music, south Indian drumming, Bulgarian dancing, Brasilian samba, belly dancing, and more, the entire parade was a blurry flourish of colour.
Each of the six main stages represented a region. For instance, stage five was for African and Pacific Islander performances, food, and crafts, whereas stage two and its surrounds featured Celtic performances and Scottish traditional foods, information, and dance troupes.
Day two was more satisfying than the first one.
When I woke up on Sunday, hoping to make it on time to hear some multi-lingual poetry at 10 am, I realised I’d been stressing myself out. I had to lie in bed until I had to leave. My shift was to start at 1pm and I checked in 10 minutes prior.
Having spent two whole days at the festival without staying anywhere long enough to enjoy any performance completely, I’d decided to let it all go and have fun.
The section I stood at featured the Greek community and culture. From Zorba dance and olive pastries to sipping black traditional Greek coffee, I had a wonderful time, nodding to tunes I’ll never get out of my head.
As I waddled over to the Latin American zone, loud maracas and drums invited me with floral t-shirts and unpronounceable words. It was the most warm and welcoming experience I’ve ever had. Charged by my volunteer status, I walked right to the front—not because I was being an arsehole, but because being 5 feet and a couple of inches, in a crowd, I can’t see anything other that people’s sweaty, muscly, arms.
While the groovy Peruvian music troupe sang and danced, the audience had a party of its own. People in all kinds of clothing set their bags on the ground to jump onto the dance floor. It was a perfect amalgamation of traditions—performers came from various Latin American countries and the audience featured black, white, and all shades of the brown in between.
As the festival wound to a close, I’d changed my mind about volunteering. I’d so it all again next year, but now that I know the scale of the event, I’ll be more strategic about channeling my energy and enjoy the event.
After all, what good is volunteering if we don’t have fun?
I’m a proud minimalist. My unrealistic dream is to own one pair of shoes that I can wear for everyday commuting, running, hiking, and the occasional work-related public speaking.
When I arrived in Canberra, migrating from India, I had one cabin bag—which contained my laptop, a few snacks, and the essentials for surviving an overnight fight. I had to check in my luggage because it weighed 12 kilos, a little over the 8 kilos of maximum allowance of a cabin bag.
And I’ve often narrated that story without the slightest sense of shame. While most people would identify themselves by the things they own and the value of those items, I lack the lust for materialism.
To put that in a different context, if a bushfire approached my house and I had to leave immediately, I’d have less than half a backpack to carry. Everything I own fits into my yellow rucksack.
However, as I’ve navigated society, I’ve developed many relationships and therefore, interests. As a result, I’ve started accumulating things. Stuff. Possessions I cherish, not because they’re mine but because I have anytime access to them—I now need them. For instance, I need proper running shoes, separate from my everyday sneakers. Of course, I didn’t start running until mid November of last year. And I would’ve have started if it hadn’t been for my friends talking about their running.
More than everything else, however, I can’t help but acquire books. I’ve always had that problem. Before I moved to Canberra, I gave away so many books because it made no sense to carry them all with me. Books—especially ones you want to re-read and enjoy for a lifetime–are, in bare terms, baggage. If I’m emotionless, I’d say books are an unnecessary burden. Having my teen ages possessed by technology, I’d argue I could get all the books in the world in one ebook reader—for the size and weight of one.
Yet, my social activities and my friend making has altered my view of possessions. I realised this last week when I visited a book fair. Even though I’d been to many such events in India, I’ve never bought anything because my string mind voice opposed to it. This time however, I ended up buying three new books, to add to the rather small pile that I know I’ll hold on to as long as I can. Unless there’s a bushfire and I have to evacuate immediately, I’d take these books with me.
This has made me question my principles.
I still consider myself a minimalist, but with a larger collection of things than I had before. I’ve come to understand that minimalism isn’t about having fewer things, but instead, about knowing the difference between wants and needs. It’s impossible to have one pair of shoes that’s ideal for all activities. And it’s ok to have two or three good pairs of shoes. As for books, I can always donate, and borrow when I want them again. Buying a book introduces me to the title. Once I’m familiar with the title, the author, and the style of writing, I can loan as many as I want.
That was my lightbulb moment. Minimalism isn’t about limiting your experiences, but it’s about expanding them. And you can do that without overloading your backpack.
It’s almost a year since I relocated to Canberra, and even though I’ve become conditioned to many of the everyday lifestyle quirks of living in Australia, this land and people never cease to amaze me.
For the first few months, I engaged in what I can only call aggressive exploration. I wasn’t violent, but I pushed myself to go out, meet people, make friends, and get involved in community activities. I even had a strict rule not to stay indoors during the weekend. As a remote employee, since I worked from home quite a lot during the week, I’d tease myself to go out even if I had no place to go.
Thanks to all that self-possessed desire to belong and become part of Canberra, I made some excellent friends. People who now text me and call me and want to meet up to know how things are with me. It’s wonderful. To be surrounded by people who care enough to spend time listening about my life choices. It’s not always easy to find that in a new, unfamiliar society, and I’m lucky to have that.
And yet, as I approach my first anniversary of arriving here, I’m baffled at the number of things and behaviours that are still so foreign to me.
Like joining a singing club, for instance. One of my friends introduced me to a sea shanty group. I’d never contemplated the idea before: a group of people—government staff, interview scribes, private consultants, business people, retirees, teachers, high-schoolers, and anyone from any walk of life—coming together after work on a Monday night to sing about pirates, the ocean, and seafaring.
I knew nothing about any of it. Aside from the short ferry rides during my travels, I’d never sailed in my life. Yet, there I was at the shanty club, one with the wall, unsure of what to do, why I was there, too nervous, and downright doubtful.
Oh, and did I say shanty club meets at a bar?
I don’t hang out at bars. I’ve never hung out at bars in India. Heck, there wasn’t even a bar where I used to live.
The good thing, however, was that the group was warm and welcoming. It also helped that my first time at the shanty club was in winter, and it was way more fun lounging by the fire and singing (shouting) at the top of my voice than being outdoors. That might’ve even encouraged me to stay the full two hours instead of running away at half time.
We sang about being in South Australia, travelling to England and back, drinking in Aussie pubs, and drowning in rum. It was so much laughter and belly-aching joy. I stuck with my friend because I knew no one else in the room, but as the weeks rolled on, I started recognising regulars, and they, me.
Now, almost a year later, I’m so comfortable with shanty club that I look forward to it. I smile at the bar staff as I walk in, the usuals wave when I arrive, and we indulge in small talk—something unimaginable in the past.
And I have a hell of a time, every time.
The toughest thing about migrating to a new land is navigating negativity without it affecting your sanity. Often, by allowing yourself to have new experiences, you find people and activities you’ll enjoy and cherish. Shanty was one of those things for me.