Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Climb Ev'ry Mountain

Musing on why my minority family loves the great outdoors...

Glacier National Park - from our trip there in 2010

Last week, I read about how The National Parks Service is trying to make themselves more appealing to non-white Americans.  And I thought to myself "Hm, for as long as I (non-white American) can remember, I have found National Parks to be quite appealing."

Then a couple days after that I read about why outdoor activities are appealing to white people and not to minorities.  And I thought to myself, "Hm, why are outdoor activities appealing to me?

And so today I find myself reflecting on the circumstances that lead my own family to become the nature-loving, yearly-camping, National Park visiting, mountain hiking, despite being non-white Americans that we are today.

My family is ethnically Chinese, but my parents immigrated here to the United States via the Philippines.  Ethnically Chinese people make up about 1.6% of the Philippine population, and about 15% if you include people of mixed Chinese/Filipino decent.  I didn't know that before, I just learned it from a wikipedia page about Chinese Filipinos.  I have more to say about being Chinese from the Philippines, but maybe I'll save some of it for another blog on another day.  For now, I'll just muse on how I think it played a part in how my family came to love the great outdoors.

I think it began with my dad, who moved Iowa to begin grad school in 1972.  He was 23 years old.  The thing about Iowa in the early 70s is... there were not a lot of Chinese guys from the Philippines.  Actually, there probably still aren't very many.  But back then, my early-20s-dad landed in Iowa and was immediately surrounded by people unlike himself. 

I note this because it seems like basic human nature to notice when you feel out of place.  If you're used to being around people who look like you, you notice when you're surrounded by people who do not.  The NYT article opens with this implication, that few minorities choose to visit National Parks because they don't perceive it as something that minorities do. 

But what happens when you aren't used to being surrounded by people who look like you in your daily life?  What if, like my dad in 1972, you're the "only one," the only person from where you're from, who speaks your native language?  At first, I think you start to find the similarities you have with the people around you, similarities beyond your background and language.  And second, I think you begin to acclimate to a new status quo.  You no longer need to be surrounded by people who look like you in order to feel comfortable.  And so, I think it was this ability of my dad's, to find comfort in uncomfortable situations, that led him, and the rest of my family into the mountains.

And it didn't stop with our nuclear family.  When my grandparents came to live with us in the mid 80s, we acquired an additional tent, and an air mattress to accommodate their elderly backs.  When our aunts and uncles and cousins visited from the Philippines, we borrowed a family friend's Dodge Ram Van, piled in, and hit the State Parks of Michigan.  And in the following years, we acquired a canoe, a kerosine lamp, a bug zapping lantern, a portable stove top, better flashlights.   We figured out how to put tarps underneath our tents so we didn't get wet during the night.

And it's this quality in my dad that kept us going back each year.  He's genuinely curious to try new things, and stubbornly patient when trying to figure something out.  There might have been times when a tent was unruly, or was missing an important piece.  There were times when it rained the entire day and he had to set up our tents and start a fire while getting completely drenched.  He never got discouraged; never hinted that something couldn't be done.  He looked at each problem and calmly found a solution.  And we kids internalized that.  We've all grown up to look for solutions, to never assume that something can't be done.  I don't think this was even intentional on his part.  He didn't create "teaching moments."  He never sat us down and said, "when there's a problem, look for a solution."  We just watched him figure out how to do stuff, and one day found ourselves doing the same thing. 

We love National Parks.  We've visited nearly 40 of the United States, as well as much of Canada, all by car.  Traveling to our country's most beautiful spots, and standing and staring in wonder and awe, is something we've been doing for as long as I can remember.  And there's no question in my mind, that it's something our family will continue to do, for generations to come.  

So I guess if I were going to share my two cents with The National Parks service, I would say... try to appeal to people's innate curiosity and sense of adventure.  This curiosity can be found in people of all colors and backgrounds, universally.  Get kids (all-the-colors-of-the-rainbow kids) into a national park to witness something mind-blowing, and those kids, whatever race they are, will want to pass on the experience to their own families and friends.  The truth is, there are also plenty of white people who are completely intimidated at first (my husband may or may not fall into this category) by traveling in the great outdoors.  How do we make National Parks more appealing to them?  I think if there's an answer to that question, it will likely increase the number of people, from majority and minority backgrounds, to climb mountains, ford streams, follow rainbows, 'til they find their dreams.  ;-)
Climb Ev'ry Mountain - today's blogpost title song encourages a young and curious Maria (pre-Von Trapp) to follow her dreams in The Sound of Music.

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