Washington Trails Association
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Outdoor Asian has helped me connect to nature, my family and my culture | by Joan Hong
My connection with the outdoors, like my connection with many other facets of life, began with food. My grandma and I spent hours picking basketfuls of blackberries and armloads of fresh, fuzzy, green fern shoots. We ate blackberries until our fingers were purple. We soaked the ferns in cold water to de-fuzz before drying them for banchan and bibimbap.
I remember the smell of rice and sesame oil as my mom spent hours preparing California rolls for picnics at Mount Rainier or Hurricane Ridge. And I can’t count how many family reunion barbecues we had at local parks, with kalbi and mackerel sizzling on the grill. For a young me, the outdoors were equivalent to amazing food. And, honestly, that’s half the reason I still love going outdoors!
My family also spent many weekends snowboarding at The Summit and camping at state parks like Lake Chelan and Fort Flagler. We dug clams on dark, frosty mornings and even went fishing once.
My fondest childhood memories were made in the sun and under the clouds. But despite all of the time I spent outdoors, I never considered myself outdoorsy. By unspoken definition, being outdoorsy meant weeklong backpacking trips, bike trips on Highway 202, hunting trips in Eastern Washington and summiting Mount Rainier. That definitely wasn’t me.
I know better now, and a lot of my work focuses on shifting the perspective of what it means to be outdoors. But back when I wanted to dive deeper into outdoor recreation and sports, a lack of institutional knowledge, resources and community kept me from pursuing those interests until I was in college — and even then it wasn’t without challenges.
During my sophomore year of college, I went to REI with my parents. We filled a brand-new backpack with a sleeping bag liner, mosquito net, headlamp, wool socks, clothing and other miscellaneous gizmos and gadgets needed to study abroad in the forests of Costa Rica. Five hundred dollars on top of thousands of dollars in tuition. I had no idea how any of this gear worked, and my parents had no idea what any of the gear even was. We relied entirely on the sales staff to outfit me.
Because my parents owned a small gas station for the majority of my life, I have always calculated purchases in candy bars. So that day, when my dad jokingly asked me his usual, “How many candy bars did I have to sell to afford to pay for this?” I had already done the math. At an average of 10 cents in revenue from a single Hershey’s bar, my dad had to sell 5,000 candy bars just to afford this 1-hour shopping trip.
To my parents, the new experience of studying abroad was something they were willing and able to support — but not every family has the same capacity. I’m eternally grateful for the opportunities afforded me because my parents worked 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, to do so.
This experience, and many others like it, is why I joined Outdoor Asian, an organization dedicated to creating a diverse and inclusive community of Asian and Pacific Islanders in the outdoors. By growing a network that can share knowledge, history, culture and experiences, Outdoor Asian is uplifting Asian and Pacific Islander communities. The work I do honors my parents by making it easier for families to enjoy the outdoors together.
Outdoor Asian means so many different things to so many different people, and it has given me the opportunity to change the perception that walking through a park, having a barbecue and foraging aren’t “outdoorsy.” It’s an incredibly important space for me because it brings together a community that understands, accepts and empathizes with my immense struggle to come to terms with my identity.
In Korean urban legend there are spirits called the “dalgyal gwishin,” or egg ghosts, that endlessly roam remote forests and mountains. The story is that they are the ghosts of those who have passed away without family or friends to remember them. As time passes, they slowly begin to lose their identity and what makes them individuals. They’re called egg ghosts because their faces are as featureless and smooth as an egg.
There were many times in my life when I felt I was becoming a faceless dalgyal gwishin, mindlessly living without a sense of identity. As a Korean-American, I struggled to reconcile my heritage with the life I lived in America.
My identity crisis began at the age of 6, during my first week at a new elementary school. I can still feel the hot tears and the confused shame I experienced when a fellow classmate jokingly used her fingers to pull back the corners of her eyes to call me “Hong Kong Ching Chang Chong.” It was the first time I felt like an outsider, and there was no one who empathized because there was no one who looked like me — none of the students, none of the teachers. I had never felt so incredibly, fundamentally alone. That I was somehow different from everyone else was a realization that hit hard. For over a decade, that realization triggered deep feelings of shame and confusion over the Korean part of my Korean-American identity.
That incident was the turning point in my life. I started to question who I was and what was “normal.” I resented my parents for being “too Korean.” I made jokes at my own expense to diminish the part of me that was Korean, and highlight that I was American, as if the two were exclusive.
But over the years, I built healthy relationships with other people of color who identified with my struggle, and grew comfortable in my own skin. That shame I felt so deeply as a child turned into anger. Anger when two bearded men in downtown Bellingham shouted “konichiwa” at me as I walked down the street. Anger when a group of young hikers told me to go back to my country. (Hi, I was born in Texas.) Anger when a former colleague asked me to play the “what Asian are they” game. The color of my skin isn’t for the amusement of others. My standing where I am today is a testament to the resilience of my parents. They tirelessly worked to provide opportunities for their three daughters that they never could have imagined for themselves growing up in post-war Korea.
My experience isn’t unique — I have met countless Asian and Pacific Islander Americans who have had a similar experience with identity. Outdoor Asian brings Asians and Pacific Islanders outdoors, but even more than that, it’s a space for those who identify as Asian or Pacific Islander to find respite. My first time meeting with Outdoor Asian, our group shed tears over our historical connection to the outdoors. For us, the outdoors are a place of healing and a place of trauma. It’s how we connect to our families, our ancestors and our culture.
Beyond the outdoors, Outdoor Asian is a space where our community can connect over the shocked realization that dishwashers, in fact, clean your dishes and aren’t just fancy drying racks. We can nod our heads in agreement about how we shamelessly slurp our noodles in public, and laugh about how we gleefully bring uncut kimbap on flights, even though it looks like stacks of TNT going through TSA and smells like a kimchi refrigerator.
Many members of Outdoor Asian today are forging our own paths into the outdoors. We’re visiting Mount Rainier, snowshoeing, climbing and backpacking — often for the first time. We’re learning about the ecology of old-growth forests and about human impact on our natural spaces. We’re seeing wildlife we’ve never seen before in our backyards, and experiencing the outdoors with all of our senses. We’re discovering where to bring our friends and families to play outside, and we’re sharing camp recipes overflowing with fragrant spices that remind us of home. We’re sharing our tables, our stories, our memories and traumas. Over half of the world’s population is Asian or Pacific Islander and while the diversity even among ourselves is vast, we share aspects of culture that resonate deeply.
I stand where I am today because my parents fought tooth and nail to lift me to this spot. Lately, they’ve been getting outdoors, and I’ve had the joy of sharing what I’ve learned with them, buying hiking boots and trekking poles for them, and adventuring together. I share which plants are edible, where to find different wildlife and the best places to hike during each season — all things I learned wandering the pathways they helped to pave. It sounds cheesy, but we’ve come full circle — now I’m working to provide opportunities for them. Thanks to them, I get to grow my knowledge and share it with them and with my friends in Outdoor Asian — all within a community that itself is constantly teaching and learning and evolving.
Joan (“joanne” not “jone,” she/her) is a first-generation Korean-American from Bellevue who grew up in Washington. She is a founding member of Outdoor Asian, an organizer for Environmental Professionals of Color and a passionate advocate for making the outdoors inclusive and accessible for all. Her goal is to ensure that the voices of people of color are included in the outdoor and environmental narratives. She loves camping, backpacking and hiking, but also loves lazy weekends playing board games and baking cakes. Find her online at instagram.com/joannenotjown.