By Truc Allen
Northwest Asian Weekly
My life has been a little lonely. Ever since I first put on a climbing harness, stepped into snow skis, got my first skateboard kickflip, or even my first whitewater combat roll, I’ve always been a little alone.
It’s not for the lack of having friends and it’s not because I live in some rural part of the country. For over 25 years, I’ve spent my life in the outdoors and for almost every day of those years, my life has been mostly devoid of Asian Americans.
I’ve long wondered what the reasons would be. Is it culture? Perception? Exposure? Influence? In a recent study of outdoor participation, Asian/Pacific Islanders represented only 7% of the overall outdoor participant population.
Even living in Seattle, one of the top 10 cities with the highest Asian populations, it’s still a mystery why there’s still a lack of Asian Americans in the back country.
I recently caught up with a Korean friend of mine, Lisa Kim, who had just accomplished one of her hardest rock climbs to date. At about 5’3” and in her 20s, Lisa thrives in the climbing environment, whether it’s with friends or actually climbing, she brings a contagious exuberance and spirit. I took the opportunity to ask her about the racial disparity, as well as why she became involved in the sport.
“I think it’s about the culture and the expectations from our parents. As a second generation child, I grew up with a pretty religious upbringing, and with a very traditional family. My parents worked hard to provide as much as they could, with the hopes that I’d become successful in later life. Most of my Asian friends in school weren’t interested in the outdoors at all and I wanted to do something different. I wanted to find adventure and something more fulfilling.”
I took what Lisa said and dug a little deeper, thinking about how culture and heritage plays a significant role in our upbringing and thus, choices on what roads we can take. This is especially difficult with families who are tied deeply in their beliefs, whether they’re religious, pragmatic, cultural, or just having simple expectations for their perception of a successful life and career. She led me to reflect on my own story of coming to the States in 1980, after the fall of Saigon with my mother.
We had endured an escape from a prison camp, separation from my biological father and 3 other siblings, and being placed in a Malaysian refugee camp. We pretty much made it with just the clothes we wore. You can imagine that the hopes my mother had for me at that point wasn’t necessarily to spend my life chasing mountains. Yet, I craved the very thing that my friend Lisa craved: something different.
Cases like Lisa’s and mine are prime examples of how we diverged from cultural expectations in exchange for taking a different path and seeking physical, mental, and emotional rewards. We strive to find what we consider fulfilling. Spending even one weekend day in the craziness of the city instead of being out engaging in an outdoor activity and we’re like fish out of water.
On another perspective, I asked one of my close Vietnamese friends the question of why he never considered getting into the outdoors. Quan Chao is a fit and healthy mid-20s male, whose passions include fast cars and motorcycles. We’ve been riding together for a few years and I’ve never been able to convince him to join me on one of my trips. His reply when asked why,
“I guess I don’t see the rewards for it as others do. I perceive outdoor activities to be strenuous, dirty, and somewhat clique-ish. I don’t think skills are a part of it, since I consider myself pretty good at gaining physical skills.”
I thought Quan’s statement provided a lot of insight, and probably echoes the thoughts of many people, regardless of nationality. But I also felt that it doesn’t totally explain the fact that according to a 2010 census, the Asian & Pacific Islander demographic accounts for almost 258,000 of a total 1.8 million in the King County population. Where is everyone?
In addressing the mystery of why Asians are missing from the outdoors in America, I don’t think it’s simply about diverging from the norm, nor is it simply heritage or culture. Japan as a country seems to always be in a transformative state, whether it’s fashion, food, technology, or embracing of the outdoors. Some of the strongest rock climbers of our time have been from Japan, and even in May of 2013, Yuichiro Miura became the oldest climber to summit Everest at 80 years old.(4) Koreans, too, have been in the forefront of the outdoors with their significant history of mountaineering accomplishments dating back to 1927 and appear throughout first ascent accounts around the globe.(3)
So that brings me to exposure and influence. With the constant growth of technology and its implementation into our everyday lives, it’s easily assumed that it’d be hard to make a compelling reason to go outside, get dirty, and challenge oneself physically and emotionally. However, it’s that very technology that has also given outdoors a boon. Social media has played a large role in both exposure and influence. Platforms like Facebook has allowed us to see pictures of the cool things our friends are doing and perhaps instill some influence or inspiration to get outside and try it.
It’s with that intent that I hope to provide future stories, trip reports, interviews, and even Q&A from our readers that will get more Asians into the backcountry.
Hope to see you out there. (end)
Truc Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.