I'm Asian, and I'm Going Camping!

5 years ago

This Labor Day weekend, I’m heading to Yosemite National Park with my family for a weekend of camping, hiking and swimming. Every summer, we spend several days camped out in a national park – no Internet, TV, cell phones, or electricity.

To be completely honest, being so completely unplugged makes me rather uncomfortable. I thought this was because, as a blogger, I’m completely addicted to my iPhone, my Twitter, my email. But a study released by the National Parks Service this summer suggests it might be because I’m… Asian. The study that reported 90% of visitors to U.S. National Parks are White, a number which hasn’t changed much in the past ten years, despite increasing racial diversity in the United States.

Image Credit: col&tasha, via Flickr

Not that I don’t enjoy – even love and crave -- nature. I was fortunate, growing up as the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, to have a childhood full of family car trips to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. (One interesting note from the study: Asian and Native American are the minorities most likely to visit a national park.) While my parents took us hiking and fishing and visiting any site with a historical marker, our family never actually pitched a tent or slept outdoors. Why? When we could pull into the nearest Motel 6? And do you know how hard it is to steam rice on a Coleman stove?

My husband, on the other hand, relishes these expeditions -- the more outdoors, the better. He was raised on the quintessential American road trips – his family owned a RV and drove to campgrounds around the country, where they would while away their vacation playing cards at the picnic table.

While the expense and travel time is part of the reason behind the low numbers of ethnic minorities using National Parks, it’s not that simple. Visiting these sites is nearly free. Yosemite charges a $20 weekly use fee, and a campsite doesn’t cost much more than that. It’s pretty inexpensive, compared with taking a family to Disneyland – or even staying at a Motel 6.

In an interview with
Our National Parks.org
Shelton Johnson, an African American and a ranger at Yosemite, explains that recreation habits are largely learned from one’s upbringing:

“We learn to recreate from our parents, so if our parents never went to parks, as is the case with most minorities, the kids won’t even think to go to national parks. So when they go to take a vacation, the thought of experiencing the wilderness is entirely foreign.

That makes a lot of sense, as I recall a conversation about camping I once had with a Vietnamese American friend. She quipped, “Camping? We came to America so we don’t have to sleep on the ground in tents!”

The National Park Service’s plan to attract more racial diversity to its sites includes raising awareness among people of color. Oprah Winfrey took on the cause last fall, when when she and Gayle King roadtripped to Yosemite to camp and meet up with Ranger Shelton Johnson. In the summer of 2009, President Obama and his family visited Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon for their first time.

Other suggestions to increase ethnic diversity at the landmarks include more multi-lingual signage and multicultural interpretive displays. From the National Parks Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public:

For example, althought it is relevant to interpret the significance of slavery at Civil War battlefield sites, it is equally relevant to interpret the stories of African American success, in addition to African American enslavement.

Also, there is the need to understand cultural travel habits. Asian Americans, for example, might be more inclined to outdoor recreation with a large ethnic or religious group, as opposed to just with the nuclear family. Part of this cultural sensitivity could come as a result of hiring more people of color within the parks service, where 80% of full-time employees are White.

And with exposure, people can learn to enjoy the outdoors, even if it’s not something they’re traditionally comfortable with. Over the five years that my husband and I have been taking our kids camping, I have grown to appreciate the wonders of our environment in a new and deeper way. Our bodies get exhausted from long hikes, sometimes the weather’s too cold (we hightailed it out of Yosemite Valley on Memorial Day several years ago as snow flurries flew), sometimes it’s too hot. But removing ourselves from civilization also removes the stresses of daily life. The kids don’t ask for TV or video games – because those things simply aren’t there. Instead, we float in the Merced River or build a campfire under the shadow of Half Dome, and our bodies and minds take on a different rhythm... the rhythm of nature.

What are you doing this Labor Day weekend?

Let’s talk about about how your cultural background has shaped your idea of recreation.

Race and Ethnicity Section Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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