Dear Outdoor Asian family and friends,
The tiny and mighty island nation of Taiwan has a number of notorious quirks: bustling night markets, steamy bao dumplings full of soupy wholesome-ness, universal health care (wow!), and home to the greatest drinkable 16 oz. bucket of balls known to mankind: boba.
The list goes on to include innumerable other traits, but my friends, let us add our own item to this list of fabulous Taiwanese things: our very own Grace Fan.
Today, we bring to you a story of one woman's journey to the peak of two summits. Along the way, she finds many blisters, a few new friends, and a life-long lesson of what it means to take a walk in the woods.
If you had told me that Maine was known for its stunning nature and outdoor recreation as a child, I wouldn’t have understood. As the daughter of two Taiwanese immigrants, I spent all of my childhood and most of my teenage years afraid of the Maine woods (and completely did not realize how special they are). My family and I would go on drives to scenic coastal views, but the family activities we chose never included camping or hiking—we’ve never even stepped foot (or many feet) on a trail together.
My first longer hike was during my senior year of high school with our school’s outing club. We hiked on a 6.7 mile trail up one of the 4,000-foot-tall peaks in Maine, Old Speck Mountain (which is in the ancestral land of the Wabanaki tribe). I remember being incredibly nervous, standing at the trailhead with my new blue Merrill boots tied a little bit too tight to feign some sense of security that I internally lacked. Much of the nervousness I felt was a mixture of imposter syndrome and the fundamental feeling that I didn’t belong on this hike with a bunch of white kids who grew up playing in the woods, fishing, and hiking on trails with their parents. And it wasn’t exactly like anyone on the trip really made me feel differently either. I remember being incredibly self-conscious as I trailed toward the back of the pack, sweating more than anyone else (and being grateful to the couple of friends who were willing to stay back with me). While everyone was gracefully trekking over slippery rocks and tree roots, my best attempt at keeping up had me fumbling over even the smallest pebbles—my body having not yet learned a kind of trail agility that builds only after much practice.
View of Old Speck during peak foliage season.
I never went on another hike with the outing club, but I was hooked on the sense of wonder and thrill at summiting a mountain and looking down at the landscape below. I was determined to find a way to feel that rush, immense joy, and deep love while outdoors, but for myself and on my own terms. In the following years, I learned to backpack, hiked many trails surrounding my college in the Berkshire Mountains (which is the ancestral land of the Mohawk and Mohican people), and led trips to teach folks who have never backpacked that it’s possible to feel comfortable outdoors.
But even while I continued to build a proficient outdoor skillset, it was a constant uphill battle to find and see folks like me on the trail in New England. The comfort of seeing people who had similar identities, backgrounds, and histories as me always felt like a gaping hole in my outdoors experience. Often, it felt like I had to slip into another skin and buy into the idea of what an “outdoorsy person” is (read: white, male, wealthy, non-disabled, fit, etc.) and I wasn’t allowed to bring my whole self to an outdoors space—my Taiwanese culture, food, habits were always left at home inside.
To be honest, I hadn’t even realized that I was doing this kind of outdoors code-switching (or assimilation) until I lived in Taiwan, my motherland, for a year. It was the first time I had ever lived in a majority non-white place (though Taiwan’s racial politics are its own situation) and the first time I had ever lived in a place where most people look like me. In urban spaces, this was groundbreaking, but in outdoors spaces it was earth shattering.
View of Taipei from the top of Qixingshan.
When I went on my first solo hike in Yangmingshan National Park, right outside of Taipei, I was, firstly, shocked that I could just take a couple buses and then be at a trailhead, and secondly, surprised by the weightlessness I felt. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that the utter lack of community/solidarity for Asian American folks in the outdoors felt like an extra 10lbs in my pack every time I stepped on a trail. Thirdly, I was taken aback by the variety of people who were on the trails. Ama’s and agong’s (grandmas and grandpas) were some of the first people I encountered on the trail. One agong carrying a bag full of fresh vegetables got off the bus with me and we walked slowly uphill through a small stretch of tropical forest as he directed me to the trailhead. We talked about where I was from, my parents’ stories, his kids, my studies, his home, etc. until we had to part ways — him to his house and me to the trail.
Hikers on Miaopu trail on the way to the summit of Qixingshan.
Twenty minutes later, I was met by an old couple and their daughter. They were all bundled up in layers while I trekked up flight after flight of stairs in a t-shirt and cropped leggings. From 20 feet away, the old Taiwanese couple shouted out to me, bombarding me with questions as we crossed paths and expressing their concern for my safety—
(“You are wearing so little! Do you have enough clothing? Do you have enough snacks? Yes? Are you sure? Do you have enough water? Are you sure? Are you all alone? Please take our snacks. Are you sure you don’t want them?”)
The kindness of this couple not only made me feel welcome on the trail, but also made me feel cared for—an unfamiliar sense of kinship and community with these strangers who didn’t know me and whom I will never see again. The walls I was used to constructing as I prepared myself to hike never even got the chance to build themselves as I got on this trail to Qixingshan. The feeling of being alien never bubbled up, as Taiwanese hospitality and kindness seemed to quell those emotions before they even arose.
Sulfur vents by Xiaoyoukeng trail on the way down from Qixingshan.
Now, as I’ve moved back to the United States, I have returned with a more internalized understanding that the outdoors do not universally belong to white people—this is simply a lie that white supremacy in the United States has constructed. After trekking on trails seeing mostly other Taiwanese faces, I have a newfound confidence in my abilities that rests in the knowledge that people like me (albeit across the world) with my background and similar histories sit at the top of a mountain drinking tea in between mouthfuls of bao. This experience and awareness have morphed into tools to deconstruct and work against the violent myth that people like me and other BIPOC, women, poor, queer, fat, disabled folks do not belong in the woods, on the trail, or doing whatever it is that they wish to do in the outdoors. I am grateful to my motherland and those ama’s and agong’s who have fundamentally changed my relationship to land and to trails and to my own body. And I look forward to taking my whole self on my hikes with Taiwanese hospitality as a tool to help others feel more confident and comfortable too.
Clouds over Yangmingshan National Park create dramatic shadows and sunbeams.
The mountains and sulfur vents burned orange as the sun set that day.