Hiking… With an Asian family

Some of my most fond memories from childhood are of my dad hooking a worm for me and cheering me on as I reeled in my catch. After the recent passing of my ông nội (paternal grandfather), I thought it would be a good bonding opportunity to go on some kind of outdoor activity the whole family. So I organized a day trip to a popular and easy destination: Trillium Lake in the Mt. Hood National Forest.

The thing with that side of my extended family, and Asian people in general, is that outdoor recreation is still considered a lowly activity. This is because the notion of “colorism,” a term coined by American novelist Alice Walker. Fair and bright skin, especially for women, is prized in all of Asia and is associated with high status and beauty, while darker skin is tied with being a commoner or as a result of generations toiling in the fields. Of course, spending time in the sun exacerbates that, so while my dad, a man, encouraged us to go outside, my mom often carried vats of sunscreen and a closet full of hats to ward off the sun during our outdoor activities. I think these views are slowly shifting however, so I’ll expand on this idea in a future post.

That said, this excursion into the MHNF was a totally new experience for most of the people in my extended family. But being outdoors and having that sense of adventure is something that brings people together, and I could feel that energy buzzing as we texted back and forth between cars on the way there.

Pretty sure everyone stopped here for a picture!

As we entered the parking area, I was stunned to see cars backed up to the main road. Meanwhile, my mom was feeding off the exuberant energy of the flocks of people. I found that difference in perception humorous – she is of an earlier generation, and for her, the vibrancy of the location meant that this was an exciting, acceptable, and even fashionable thing to do. I, on the other hand, was rolling my eyes because people meant noise and noise meant irritation. When my dad asked me if I liked the beach or the mountains, I immediately answered “The mountains, away from people.” Both my parents were pretty shocked! They didn’t know that their daughter actually likes to go into the so-called dangerous wilderness. We all laughed though, because it didn’t matter if it was sea, mountain, or anything in between. What was important was that we all had an opportunity to share in an experience as a whole family.

Once we arrived and thankfully found parking, I realized that four generations of my family had managed to make it out here. From my ba nội (paternal grandma – on her first outing since loss of her husband), to all her children (honestly a miracle, they tend to keep to their own families), to their children (my small horde of cousins, aged 2 months – 29 years old), to the children of my cousin (2 and 4 years old!). The plan was for anyone who was able, to hike the 2 mile loop around Trillium Lake together. My grandma, a few older relatives, and the nursing auntie and her newborn stayed behind at the park to enjoy the breeze by the water.

When we started off, my two nephews were being pulled along in a wagon by my dad while everyone else went at their own pace. Being the go-getter he is, my dad pushed fast along the trail, wanting to get a good workout. I was very happy that he was enjoying himself because he’s previously discouraged me from hiking. The typical Asian father he is, he’s read too many horror news reports about people getting lost, injured, or never coming home. It used to irritate me that he thought I shouldn’t/couldn’t hike because I’m a female, but organizing this event was my way to start changing his point of view.

My mom was taking her time, enjoying the scenery, and taking fabulous pictures of course! She loved it.

See? Fabulous.

I was also surprised that my younger cousins, two of the most reclusive in my family, were actually enjoying themselves too. They were very interested in Milo and kept telling their mom that they wanted a dog. So of course I showed them the proper technique to pick up his doodoo (their mom: “Seeee? Can you pick up poop like Chị Yến does?”) and eventually I gave the older one Milo’s leash for him to handle. I was close by to give instructions to both of them, and I was proud that my 16 year old cousin was saying things like “stick close to me” and “good boy,” which was a side I’d never seen of him.

The teenage cousins didn’t want to take a picture, so here’s my visiting cousin with Milo.

For my cousin who’s a newly single mom, I think this was a moment of healing for her. She kept telling stories of how she used to hike before she got married and had kids, of how adventurous she was. I could see her strength shine and her love for exploring returning with every step. Her resolution to remain strong for her two sons spurred a new drive to experience as much as she can with them, with or without a man in her life.

I think this walk meant something a little different for everyone. My visiting cousin from London finally got to spend quality family time away from the city; my perpetually fearful uncle was able to bring his young daughter on a fun outdoor trip; my other stoic uncle bonded with me a little over photography and his new camera. I was able to slow down and enjoy things as they were, instead of being disappointed in what they weren’t. Even my 80 year old grandma was enjoying herself! She wandered around with her eldest son, probably something they haven’t been able to do for decades since his family lives in the UK. We were all able to enjoy being outside in our own way, together.

This was the first time in ages that that side of my family had done something outside of one of our houses. Despite our differences and the sadness of the recent funeral, I think those few hours helped rejuvenate our relationships and foster new possibilities that weren’t there before (hello, plans of future family camping trips?!)  We laughed, talked with one another, and swatted bugs together. I think ông would’ve been very happy.

Sometimes when people think of the outdoors, it seems like a very “me-centric” experience. Instagram, Facebook, and other media is flooded with images of a solo hiker standing triumphantly at the top of some ultra-picturesque landscape. Was the journey gnarly enough; was the view worth it enough; if I make it to that ridge can I check it off my bucket list?

But there’s something that deeply connects people when they are outside together, and I think that stems from the fact that we evolved to be that way, not indoors in concrete jungles, fixated to our screens. And like eating vegetables, that part of our human experience can’t help but make us feel those positive effects, no matter how small the dosage.

I do hope that this trip will open the doors to creating better bonds for my family, but for now, I am thankful for this moment!

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