I’ll never forget the first time I put my park ranger uniform on. I made sure everything was perfect. I ironed my gray shirt and green pants, straightened my belt, badge, and name tag, and shined my brown leather boots. When I put on the iconic flat hat to complete the look, I felt like Ash Ketchum, ready for the world. Being a park ranger was a dream job and one I never expected to get. I mean, look around you, how many BIPOC rangers are out there?
My journey with the outdoors is a story that may sound familiar within communities of color. I grew up in the suburbs, 20 mins east of Los Angeles. Shout out to the San Gabriel Valley (the 626!), which has a predominantly Asian, Hispanic, and Latinx population. I was always an active kid, but never ventured into the outdoors. My family was far from being “outdoorsy.” As a single-parent immigrant, my mom hardly thought about spending time in the outdoors. She was simply trying to survive in a foreign country, navigating her own internal trauma, while also trying to raise two kids on her own. Even though I had access to the San Gabriel Mountains, with little to no support from my family and community, I had no interest in exploring the outdoors. That all changed after a celebratory trip to Yosemite National Park with my college graduate friends.
We drove to Yosemite overnight and as we entered the valley, my friend woke me up, yelling “Vivian! We’re here, we’re here!” I opened my eyes and my jaws immediately dropped. I was completely in awe by the vastness of the valley and the sheerness of the gigantic, granite rocks. When we hiked to Vernal Falls, I couldn’t believe how tall and misty the waterfall was (and how many steps there were to get there - haha). Honestly, this trip to Yosemite changed my life. I had such a great time with my friends, and it crossed off major “firsts” in the outdoors for me – first time camping, first time in a national park, first time experiencing the “true wilderness.” Many mistakes were made as we were new outdoorists like washing our hair under the water spigot, but ya know, ya live and ya learn. After that trip, I wanted to fully immerse myself into the outdoors. I wanted to hike every trail and enjoy all the different recreational activities out there.
I started working in the outdoors industry as an instructor for an outdoor science school. It was here where I met a colleague, who’s now a dear friend, that worked as a park ranger during the summer and encouraged me to apply for a position at Yellowstone National Park. I initially felt like I didn’t stand a chance knowing the hundreds of people that would apply, but what made this position unique was that they were looking for someone who was bilingual - specifically someone who could speak Mandarin. This was my opportunity to seize. I immediately had flashbacks to all those years of my mom saying how important it is to keep our native tongue and why Mandarin is going to be a language just as important as English. This is another example of “mother knows best.” I applied and jumped for joy when I found out I got the position. I couldn’t believe I was going to be a park ranger!
I worked for two summer seasons in Yellowstone as an Interpretive Park Ranger. They’re who you see answering questions at the visitor centers, presenting the ranger programs, and walking around the district. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Yellowstone and have fond memories of it, but it’s hard not to recognize my experience as one of the few rangers of color in the district, let alone the entire park and the broader National Park Service. As an Asian American woman, I was met with microaggressions throughout my time there. I had visitors ask me “where I’m really from”, call me ‘oriental,’ and ask me how my parents felt about me being a ranger. I even had a co-worker mock my language and when brought up to my supervisor, my feelings were dismissed and overlooked. I also felt a sense of hyperawareness with my actions and words because if I were to do anything wrong, it was easy for anyone to identify me as the “Asian ranger” since I was the only one in the district. I felt this heavy chip on my shoulder every day. When I would venture outside of the park, I was met with dirty looks and stares. It was a constant reminder that I was an outsider and that I didn’t belong.
Although my identity came with experiencing racism and other challenges, I felt a sense of pride playing a small part in bringing representation for rangers of color, especially for the AAPI community. I’ve had encounters with several Asian visitors that have come up to me with excitement, letting me know that it was so comforting to see a ranger who looked like them and they took photos with me. I’ve had Mandarin-speaking visitors express their gratitude when they realized I could speak their language and made their trip to Yellowstone even better. I even met government officials from China and chatted with them about the park and my experience. I was also featured in a video about the Yellowstone Pledge and helped translate the script to Mandarin. It’s these moments that remind me why I’m proud to be Asian American, proud to be different, and why representation, diversity, and inclusion are important.
We’re living in a time when communities of color are finally being somewhat recognized and acknowledged. We’re tired of being overlooked, overshadowed, unheard, and unseen. Times are changing and we’re here to stay and shake things up. I want to remind my fellow AAPI friends that you belong in the outdoors, just as much as your white counterparts. Although the outdoors industry still has a ton of work to do, I encourage BIPOC folks to get out, enter the outdoors, and take up space. Remember, YOU MATTER. Don’t ever let anyone else tell you otherwise.
Currently, I am not working for the NPS. I had to step away from the seasonal life for a bit, but as a way to stay connected with the outdoors space, I’ve been working with the Outdoor Advocacy Project , an organization focused on providing education and resources for all things outdoor advocacy (e.g. tools on how to recreate responsibly, proposed policies to know, actions to take). As outdoorists, we have a responsibility to protect and care for the land we love. So, let’s continue to welcome each other, be kind, and preserve these last few beautiful places we have left on this Earth together. 加油!