Monday, March 25, 2013

Stereotypes and Race: "China is Here . . . "

--Big Trouble in Little China

For my long-time climbing friends in the Midwest, Todd Mei needs no introduction. He had a large and humble presence within a thriving community in Madison for several years and was the one who inspired me to do my first birthday challenge 9 years ago, which he helped me craft.  In fact, ingrained in my memory was being witness to one of his birthday challenges: three two-finger pull ups bearing a 100 lb weight, beverage in one hand, a beef brat or two waiting on the table. Wouldn't you want to know what makes this guy go?  When I asked him to write for this blog, I wanted him to tell a part of his story that would describe his experiences as an athlete - specifically an Asian American athlete.   You'll read it for yourself, but I love this part of his piece:  ". . . being part Chinese proved to be a major asset in the climbing world . . . well, at least among my friends." His sentiment has special meaning to me and I think for many of you who find friendship in your pursuits, it will for you too.  Enjoy!  

I was slight as a child, though I could appreciate feats of physical excellence as much as the next Southern Californian young'un - mostly in the way of the martial arts flicks of the 70s and 80s.  My father used to take my brother and me to the local Vietnamese-run cinema that had double billings on the weekends.  My brother and I used to munch on Haw Flakes and, after the films, try to reenact fighting movements.  Little did I know, but at the time I had seen one of China's budding stars in Jet Li as a young Shaolin monk fighting the Manchus.

Yet reenactments would be as far as physical endeavors went for me until my parents enrolled me in aikido.  As much as I hated it (would rather have been watching TV), it taught me how to roll, which became critical for time spent as a wrestler.  But even as I was establishing myself athletically as a wrestler in the 7th grade, I was slight and had to compensate for opponents' superior strength with brains and stamina.

Why do I mention this background?  I think it had a very profound effect on how I approached challenges in life.  Even in a multicultural Southern California (Orange County), as a Chinese-Japanese American youth, I still had a lot of things going against me.  Asian Americans were perceived to be nerdy by default, and my friends used to jokingly call me "Long Duc Dong" (after the character in Sixteen Candles).

There came a time when I had to establish myself, as juvenile as it may sound.  And it was pretty much the case that being smart really didn't matter with peers - in fact, it was a liability, as most readers probably know.  But proving myself in a sport of some kind went very far;  and this psychology pretty much stuck with me through my life (for better or worse).

Exit wrestling.  Enter climbing.

I never faced any difficulties with being a non-white when climbing in California.  One of the local stars - Lin Nguyen - was Asian, and any friction felt usually involved local residents in rural areas not taking too well to an Asian kid wearing lycra - not surprising.  When I sported the "Mike Tupper-Prince Valiant" haircut in 1993, I think the reception was remarkably worse.  Outside Devil's Lake Wisconsin, many years later (2000), I remember vividly walking into a bar with my friend from Fargo, ND.  Tim Halbakken was 6'4", and with me at 5'7" and wearing a motley Mexico soccer jersey, we made a pretty conspicuous duo.  Some semi-racist, anti-non-local comments led to a quick beer and a return to more liberal grounds in Madison.

But if anything, being part Chinese proved to be a major asset in the climbing world . . . well, at least amongst my friends.

Re-enter Chinese Kung fu films.  This time during the mid 90s.  Location:  The University Theatre in Berkeley, California.  My friend Phil Requist turned me on to Jackie Chan and Jet Li films - in their heydey.  At first the following was small but dedicated.  The pinnacle of their popularity was, as I fondly recall, a Spring evening in 1993.  It was a double billing of Jackie Chan's Drunken Master 1 and Drunken Master 2.  The cinema, an old school layout that could accommodate an enormous crowd, had been sold out.  The owner was so psyched, he announced the fact at the intermission between the films.  The audience roared, the lights cut, the second feature began, and when Jackie appeared on screen, everyone clapped and hollered.

The amazing choreography and acrobatics of both Chan and Li provided a rather funny background amongst my friends. Simply put, it was believed that being Chinese meant inheriting some degree of awesome athletic power - summed up best by the classic technique (well before Tarrantino) of the Buddhist Palm.

I had quite a bit of power as a climber, but by far the exemplar was Ingar Shu.  His ability was uncanny, and in the 90s he fast became a legend.  But he seemed not to really take seriously being a climber;  and this only added to his mystique.  I had always thought of myself as a representative of the Asian Wave of climbing, perhaps my fondest memories having been in the Midwest.  I'll never forget the many trips spent with Tim Halbakken, Patrick Neuman, Nate Emerson, Nick Rhoads, and Mike Simon.  Above all, amidst the many birthday challenges, I'll remember having to convince Neuman on a rainy afternoon to head out to Necedah, WI.  The steepness of Whiskey Direct afforded me just enough dryness to get the send.

Throughout my years, reference to being Chinese has come and gone.  I now don't climb as much, but every so often undertake birthday challenges. After completing the most difficult one I have ever done for Steve Edwards's 50th birthday, Lisa Romney (his wife who organized an event where all of Steve's closest friends attempted a challenge in his honor), replied, "But you're Chinese.  That's like cheating."  Nice to see the tradition continue.

Being non-white in the world of climbing . . . it was definitely an asset, but that was only possible due to the ethos that my close friends - in California and Wisconsin - cultivated.  Yes, the Stagarite's words never get old or lose their power: "Everyone has friends, but mine are the better."

Todd Mei is an assistant professor in philosophy at the University of Dundee, in Scotland.  He climbs and windsurfs occasionally, has a penchant for bourbon and gin martinis, and endeavors to keep one-finger, one arm pull ups as a staple of his maintenance workouts.  

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