Friday, March 29, 2013


As a college student in Salt Lake City, I probably got as many days of skiing in as I did going to classes.  And my undergrad transcript showed it, too.  That 5 year program I was on somehow worked out: I got a college degree and I developed a pretty deep base for skiing all kinds of terrain.  In anticipation of moving to the Midwest, I didn't really struggle leaving behind much of anything - I was ready for a change and open to new possibilities.  But when it came to what I would miss the most, it wasn't mountain biking or hiking, nor river running or backpacking - it was leaving behind a sport I loved to the bone in a place I loved just as deeply.  It was a gradual grieving process though, one I started a year prior to the move and a process that included as many days of skiing as I could manage.  It would turn out to be the perfect exit.  For my last season, I skied until I dropped and when it was over, it was over.

That didn't mean I wasn't tempted to find out what the Midwest hills had to offer.  After checking them out, I decided that it'd be my chance to take up snowboarding or I thought I'd volunteer to be the club advisor for a ski-school group.  Or best of all, I might perfect a snowplow.  All of those were acceptable options, but then I found a rock climbing class listed on one of those UW-Madison catalogues and from that class on, skiing became secondary.

It was just as well, too.  I spent some years establishing myself with all the basics to be a decent climber indoors and out, and then had Misa.  Then John-Pio.  We had already started Emma on skis just as she turned 5, and just as quickly as she became proficient on her own skis, Misa turned 2, John-Pio turned 1 and there was more time to snowplow.  Both kids were on skis as soon as they could walk and now all three of them are coming into their own as skiers.

And it's all happening as I feel a conflicting surge of re-dedication to the sport I love a lot, and the one I now realize I just set aside for 17 years.  It's all very timely, too.  Each kid is self-sufficient with their clothing, gloves, boots, and skis and they're even skate skiing on the flat parts.  Not only that, but they're bombing down the hills which now makes it possible for me to do some real turns and get in some real ski time.   I really should be relishing in this new freedom, the kind that releases my responsibility from ski-caretaker.  But instead I feel like it's too soon, like I still want these kids to need my pole to pull them around and need my help buckling their boots and putting on their gloves.  Not to need me for the sake of needing their mama . . . No, it's not that at all.  It has more to do with what I will be leaving behind once again as they point their skis straighter and straighter down the hill.

It's really that I still want to SNOWPLOW!

Ask Brad.  He can vouch for my love of snowplowing.

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.  

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Stereotypes and Race: All Things Samoan

I've had a lot of emails, text messages and conversations since initiating this topic on stereotypes and race, and have so appreciated the insight of the friends I've enlisted to tell their stories.   Stories that are powerful in their own right, and embraced by readers because their truths are told matter-of-factly, without blame or effort to perpetuate negative feelings.  The last time I hugged Logo Filloon was probably at our high school graduation in 1982, both of us covered with leis after proudly walking the grounds where we spent our teenage years.  Since then, of course a lot has happened, which is why I so enjoy getting in touch with old friends - because time gives perspective and allows a different kind of reflection.  I love Logo's easy, matter-of-fact voice and the story she tells about coming of age as a Samoan and how the very word, "race" can build impenetrable walls for her today.  Here you go . . .

I come from a pretty diverse background.  I was born in American Samoa, finished my childhood in Hawaii, coursed through my teen years in California, and now living out my life in Nevada.

My first encounter with race was in the second grade of Maili Elementary School on Oahu.  I met the only black girl in school, who I didn't realize was black until another student told me.  I had no clue.  One day she ran up to me and showed me her gums.  Not the chewing gum, but her gums that should have only been seen in a smile. She asked me why my gums were not dark like hers and my response at the time was "stop eating mud and your gums will clean up".  I did mention I was in the second grade, right?  Yeah, that was my first after school fight.

Moving on.

When we relocated to San Diego, California my younger sister and I were enrolled at Launderbach Elementary School.  Race was a bit more evident here.  The school was pretty diverse, but I found it wasn't my skin tone but my nationality that the other kids had a problem with.  When my sixth grade teacher introduced me to the class, he also mentioned I was Samoan.  My facial structure, my accent (which I had no idea I had) labeled me different.  My hair turning blonde while my skin darkened during the summer didn't help either.  Especially when my mother kept my hair long and when not braided looked like one long afro.  I was a walking Q-Tip.

One day, I was walking down the hall to my locker and a group of Cholos were standing near my destination - like right next to my locker.  I remember thinking, "What time is it?  It's not even lunch time yet."  But instead of facing off with me, one of them stepped up and asked "So, what are you?"

It was that one question, that one moment when everything changed.  Now, instead of wanting to fight me, they all wanted to know what I was and where did I come from.  The Black kids thought I was "a Black Mexican," and the Mexicans thought I was Black with Indian hair.  It didn't matter to me because I wasn't either.  I was me, the Lone Samoan.

By the time I entered eighth grade more Samoan families were moving into the neighborhoods.  I started hearing about Somoans at a rival junior high school called Granger, and I was frequently asked if I was "related" to any of them.  I had no idea how it came about that all Samoans are related.  No one asked if all Germans were related or if all Italians were related.  As soon as I mentioned my nationality it was, "Hey are you related to Junior in Utah?"  Junior?  Junior who?  I've never been to Utah.  It was this reason alone that when my daughter was twelve years old she came up to me and said, "I'm never dating a Somoan, Mom.  No matter who I date I'll probably end up being related to him."

It eventually balanced out in junior high, but by the time I started my shophomore year in high school I began to question who I was.  I questioned my heritage, our family ways and the lessons that my father taught my sisters and me about being true to our culture and customs.  Maybe being Samoan isn't a good thing.  Maybe I should embrace the new cultures of the Western society that I've become more and more accustomed to.  Maybe I should lose the Samoan lilt, the thick kinky hari and be friends with non-Somoans.  How else am I going to be an actress if I'm "so" Samoan?

Yet, what was I suppose to do?  Turn from my parents and family who I loved very much just to fit in?  Ignore a heritage that pre-dates French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville?  The lines of the two separate people I had unknowlingly become were beginning to blur.  A teenager living a marginal life will push the boundaries of race until something breaks.  Either it is the break from trying to fit in or the break from family, or both.  

Fortunately for me I had an awesome family who loved me, and still do to this day.  My father knew  I wasn't going to just graduate from high school to marry a Samoan (hopefully not one I was related to), have kids and be the obedient wife.  He knew that from his daughters I would be the one to leave home.  And so I did.  But with me went the knowledge that they had my back.  Which was a good thing because I ended up married to a white guy.  When I took him home for the first time for dinner he thought he was dinner.

When he took me home for the first time he said to me as we pulled in their spiral four car driveway, "Be sure you say you're Hawaiian."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because they don't know what a Samoan is," he responded.

"I'm not Hawaiian," I said.

"I know, but just for now say you're Hawaiian, okay?" he counters, pleading look on his face.

I didn't know how I was to take that, but I was young and in love and he could do no wrong.

He introduced me first to his mom, then his dad.   And although everything was pleasant I remember being really, really nervous because of what he had told me in the driveway.

His mom: "So you're from Hawaii?"

Me:  "Yes."

His mom: "So you're Hawaiian?"

Me: (choking) "Yes."

His dad:  "Really?  You look Samoan."

I've had my adventures where race played a part in them - some good, some bad.  And I realized early on that I really, really don't like the word "race" or any form of it - "racism," "racist," etc, not only in context but the word itself.  It hinders you, builds up walls and sucker punches you when you least expect it.  When filling out any form and it asks for "Race" I usually put down the Kentucky Derby, or NASCAR 500 or my favorite, Cat Town Races.

Logo Filloon was born in Leone, American Somoa.  At a young age, her family relocated to Hawaii and settled on Oahu.  In 1977, her father once again relocated the family, this time to San Diego, eventually making National City, California their home.  Although she started writing during her junior high school years, it wasn't until late 2011 that she self-published her first book, The Binding; the first in The Velesi Trilogy.  Book 2, The Drifting, is  available on for Kindle with the final installment to be released in 2013.   Logo's books are on my list of books to read for young adults! 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Birthday Challenge Fun

It isn't a challenge if you're not challenged.  That's the point of a Birthday Challenge - you need some element of training and it has to be hard.  And FUN.  A year has past since John-Pio's last Birthday Challenge which appears to becoming an annual thing.  He's been going to Boulders Climbing Gym since he was an infant in a car seat, harnessed up when he was 9 months old, and has been climbing in some form ever since - mostly bouldering.  In fact, he was always afraid to go UP, so he never did get to the top of any climb on rope.  EVER!  Two weeks ago during climbing team training, he admitted he felt dejected and unmotivated because he couldn't successfully participate in the climbing game that involved drawing a cool picture if you made it to the top.  That must have done it in for him, poor kid.  So that's when my mom-voice-of-strong-encouragement kicked in and I said, "If you want it, you have to go after it.  And once you get it, you'll feel amazing.  I'm not telling you to do it now or tomorrow or next week.  But that's a very good goal for you and I want you to get to the top because I know you'll feel amazed."  And that was that.

When he went to team last Wednesday, I told him to have fun because I knew I would be doing the same.  In the middle of training, as I was coming down from my climb, Brad and I noticed John-Pio was three-fourths of the way up the wall with his climbing coach belaying giving him words of encouragement.  She put a blindfold on that boy and sent him up to ring the bell.  Nervously and tentatively and seemingly on the verge of panic feeling around for his next big jug, he had just one more move to make and I had just one more breath to take and he'd be ringing that bell.  Yes!  He made the move and rang the bell.  It really was a moment of triumph.  He made his first climb to the top in spite of his fear of heights, and I got to witness it silently hoping that this might mean he'd do the same outside on real beautiful rock. 

Today's Birthday Challenge was a bunch of different things: push-ups, sit-ups, plank, burpies, jumping jacks, dynos, and running.  But the real fun was witnessing him climb up the wall blindfolded eight times, each time with more ease, more ingrained muscle memory, and more strength.  And definitely more fun - challenging hard FUN. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Stereotypes and Race: How I Fit into America

Most teachers will agree that one of the best moments in education is when former students return and fill you in on their life.  I get updates on some more frequently which is the case with Maiyer Xiong - an awesome student I had in 7th grade several years ago.  Back then she was intelligent, conscientious, and social and that much hasn't changed.  What's different now are the topics of conversations we can have - all very engaging and spontaneous, especially the ones that have to do with identity and fitting into "systems".  I'm proud to feature Maiyer as she describes what it was like to be an immigrant and the realities she faces as she battles the internal conflict with race and stereotypes.  I love her expressive writing and how she shares her story as an Asian girl trying to fit into America . . .

Going to school in America isn't always as great as it seems.  I am very privileged to be here and to be educated.  I would never change a thing and I appreciate all that I have.  But when someone thinks that I am unworthy of an achievement I have made my own, I will be offended and I will be defensive.  Rumor has it that "white" has become the minority.  It's okay for an African American, Asian, or Hispanic person to be a minority but as soon as a white person is a minority then it becomes an issue.  Sometimes I do wonder if there is a more worthy white person who could have had my spot at the UW.  I have to repeatedly remind myself that yes, I am worthy and yea, half the time it's timing and half the time it's luck, so I guess I am just lucky.  Why should I even have to ponder this though, is the real question.  The world out here is just so competitive and I really do believe that in order for one person to succeed one must fail.  Not everyone can be pleased. 

Immigrating to America at such a young age helped me assimilate to its culture.  One downfall to this ability was that along with becoming more and more American, my knowledge of my culture and my language became hindered.  I started to realize that even my friends sometimes forgot I was Asian.  This may have been because I perfected my English so that I wouldn't have an accent or that I intentionally drifted myself away from the Hmong community out of not wanting to be associated with Asian stereotypes.  I am happy as the person I am today, and I have made wonderful friends from all types of backgrounds, but if I could have grown up without knowing what Asian stereotypes were, I believe I would have more Asian friends.  The desire to disassociate with such stereotypes did help me to become a culturally diverse person but at the same time it's not fair to the people who raised me.

The only stereotype I allowed myself to become a part of is the one about Asians being smart.  Unfortunately, I've always felt like I had to live up to that, not only because other people expected nothing less of me but also because I felt that that was the only way to get by in this world.  If you lack intelligence, common sense, or talent, anything that makes you stand out from the rest, then you will be left behind.  I've always grown up to be sure that I impress those who expect me to do well because of my father; however when the results don't prove true, twice the amount of pressure results in the feeling of failure being twice as much.  There is no doubt that I influenced those around me to desire the same knowledge but that did not ever lighten the load of pressure.  It should be understood that culture and people are dialectic just as much as people and people are dialectics.  Our culture shapes us, we shape our culture, and then we shape each other.

This country is composed of diverse backgrounds, yet we cannot seem to accept the differences that make us up individually.  Walking in public with my ex-boyfriend who is a white male, always sparked the glares of at least one Asian person, or white person - and for what reason must they stare?  Society is branching into so many different groups nowadays and it should be embraced.  Of course now that it is 2013, interracial couples, gay marriage, transgender, etc. is accepted more and more, which is wonderful.  Happiness is a way of life and if it must be pursued in a way that someone is not used to, then so be it.  America emphasizes individuality but those who deem themselves different are gossiped about, exiled, or made fun of.  People expect change without wanting to change themselves or be part of it.  You can't just sit and watch life happen, you have to live it.

Maiyer Xiong is an Hmong immigrant from Thailand with English being her second language.  She is a second-year student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her current major is biology with the hopes of obtaining a Global Health Certificate as well.  During her free time she enjoys playing volleyball, working out, and painting.  She's spent at least a hundred hours with Misa and John-Pio as their babysitter and playmate extraordinaire! 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Stereotypes and Race: In Other News . . .

Since this blog is about climbing, culture, cheese, and connections to professional development, it's time to write about . . . climbing!  Climbing has gone through its usual ups and downs with my unruly schedule and commitment to other sports, like running and skiing and kids.  It takes a climbing trip in my future to get me into the groove of training, and it's not just one trip but two.  Hooray!  I'll be in Arkansas late March and El Paso late April.   Yesterday was double coupon day that started with a 90 minute run and then a few hours of bouldering.  I felt so thankful!

On the "what's happening in WI" cheese line, today was John-Pio's birthday party.  He officially turns 8 tomorrow which is always a bittersweet time of year.  Brad's mom died unexpectedly 8 years ago just a day before John-Pio came 6 weeks unexpectedly, too.  I often imagine the two of them passing each other in the deepest part of John-Pio's sleep.  That's a comforting thought.  So a bunch of kids came over (practically his entire class) and they decorated cupcakes, made art, played Star Wars, and read books.  That 90 minutes went slower than yesterday's 90 minute run.  Anyway, John-Pio will be 8 tomorrow and he doesn't have a care in the world, which is how it should be when you're a kid with a one-track mind that begins with the letter P.

P for Play.

In other news . . .

Well, okay I am not going to sit on this any longer.  I have to get it out.  As we were going through Misa's Friday folder and re-capping the week she told me she took a survey about bullying in her computer class last week.  The teacher in-charge was helping kids fill out the personal information part and asked if everyone knew what "ethnicity/race" meant and she proceeded to go through the choices:

African American
Native American
More than one race

Most kids in her class, including Misa, had never taken an online survey like that before so Misa raised her hand to ask a question.  And before she could even ask it, the computer teacher "thought she knew what I was going to ask" because she said, "And if you're Asian and White, check the 'more than one race' box."  Here's the rest of the conversation as retold by Misa (teacher in italics):

"I'm not just White.  I'm also Chamorro."
Okay then check Asian.
"Chamorros are from Guam."
So you're not Asian? 
No, I'm Chamorro.
Just check one or the other, or check 'more than one race.' This part isn't that big of a deal anyway.

That last comment was more frustrating to Misa than the effort it took to get her to understand that Guam is not in Asia, and she's not Asian.  And besides that, it had nothing to do with the question Misa was going to ask in the first place!  I was laughing inside and holding my head very still straining my neck muscles to keep from shaking my head all the while internally scolding that teacher.  Misa just sighed and asked, "If it wasn't a big deal, why do they even ask what our race/ethnicity is anyway?"

Good question, Misa.  Good question . . .