Currently, in the United States, the outdoor industry is experiencing an unprecedented shift as many organizations and individuals aspire for a space that is more welcoming and open to all. As a former civil rights lawyer who’s now a part of this industry, I myself have become an advocate for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) while working as an outdoor writer and running my mountain-trekking social enterprise, Brown Gal Trekker. As a Filipina and an Asian American, I’ve also become mindful of the need to explore my own visibility–or lack thereof–in this realm as a means of finding a sense of belonging. Ever since I attended my first Outdoor Retailer show in 2018, I’d been keenly aware of how hard it can be for the varied experiences and perspectives of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) to be seen in an industry in which the leaders are still predominately white. And since the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had been quietly watching another epidemic unfold in the United States, that of the hatred towards the AAPI community. At the same time, I couldn’t help noticing that this hate epidemic appeared almost invisible in the eyes of many Americans. I found myself reacquainted with the familiar sensation of being unseen and treated as irrelevant as an Asian American, a Filipina and an immigrant–an experience that I’ve known all too well since I first stepped into the U.S. at the age of thirteen.
During this past year, reports of attacks against Asian Americans in the U.S. just kept coming:
On July 17, 2020, an 89-year-old Chinese American grandmother in New York was slapped and set on fire.
On July 28, 2020, a pregnant Asian American woman was punched in the face in Philadelphia.
On January 20, 2021, an 84-year-old Thai American man was shoved to the ground in San Francisco. He hit his head and later died.
On February 3, 2021, a 61-year-old Filipino American man was slashed in the face on the New York city subway.
In February, 2021, a 52-year-old Asian American woman was attacked in Queens, NY, resulting in injuries.
On March 30, 2021, a 65-year-old Filipina American was kicked and stomped on in New York city.
Organizations such as Stop AAPI Hate have set the stage for collecting data and establishing mechanisms to allow the reporting of these and other rising hate incidents against AAPIs. The organization aims not only to educate the masses about the ongoing issues but also to amplify the cries of the AAPI community for collective action. On March 16, 2021–a day that six Asian women and two others were murdered in Atlanta, Georgia by a white gunman–Stop AAPI Hate had published its latest national report indicating that 3,795 hate incidents occurred between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021, 9.8% of which happened in public parks and 25.3% on public streets. Hate incidents happened in all 50 states, as well as in Washington, D.C. Asian and AAPI women reported such incidents 2.3 times more than men.
This violence is nothing new. Hate against Asian Americans in the U.S. dates back to the 1800s when the first major waves of Asian immigrants came from China often to work in railroad and mining industries, as well as in farm fields and factories. Between seventeen and twenty Chinese people were killed in the Chinese massacre of 1871; at least twenty-eight died in the Rock Springs Massacre in 1885. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese immigrants from coming to the U.S.; it didn’t get repealed until 1943. During World War II, around 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps. In 1982, when two white men–who reportedly claimed Japanese people were taking their jobs–murdered a young Chinese American man, Vincent Chin, they received only probation and a fine. And these are only a fraction of the hate crimes that have occurred.
Most recently, according to the report released by the Asian American Bar Association of New York:
“Anti-Asian hate incidents increased dramatically in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and then surged after the election of Donald J. Trump. South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Middle Eastern communities all faced recurring cycles of harassment and violence. Since the onset of the pandemic, however, anti-Asian hate incidents now primarily directed at East Asians have skyrocketed according to both official and unofficial reports. Across the country, there were more than 2,500 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents related to COVID-19 between March and September 2020. And this number understates the actual number of anti-Asian hate incidents because most incidents are not reported.” (Source: “A Rising Tide of Hate and Violence against Asian Americans in New York During COVID-19: Impact, Causes, Solutions).
It’s worth noting that during this pandemic, AAPIs in healthcare jobs have continued to put their own health and lives at risk to try to save others–and as of September 30, 2020, 31.5% of U.S. nurses who died of COVID-19 were of Filipino descent. AAPIs include frontline workers who have been battling the pandemic while also battling hate.
Invisibility in the Outdoor Industry
Despite the rising hate incidents over the past year, many members of the outdoor industry remained silent on the hate epidemic against AAPIs until the Atlanta mass shooting occurred in March of this year. In recent years, the outdoor industry has claimed to be working to create justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) on all levels. Hence, I’m drawn to ask the question, “What does it take for the outdoor industry to collectively act or speak in solidarity with the AAPI community?”
In search for an answer, I spoke to Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, PhD, an anthropologist based in Washington State who specializes in ethnographic research on the Sherpa diaspora and Sherpa culture, among other topics. Dr. Sherpa states:
“For [members of] the outdoor industry to say, ‘We don’t want to say anything on this matter,’ does not necessarily makes sense to me because…a lot of people in the outdoor industry come from communities that face systemic violence on a daily basis…. The only way a statement like that could make sense is if the outdoor industry didn’t think experiences of those individuals mattered, which I don’t think is true. I hope [the outdoor industry] doesn’t see the individuals who experience racial violence on a daily basis as outsiders. I think it is an issue the outdoor industry would want to take on and speak about…. We are now living in a time when there are a lot of crossovers, interconnections, interdependence, and the outdoor industry is not isolated from what happens on the outside.”
Irene Yee, a professional climbing photographer based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and a Chinese American, reiterates the connection between problems in the world of outdoor recreation and the rest of society: “When we talk about [the] outdoors, we’re not talking about people, we are talking about a place. But, inevitably in these places we have people and that is where racism comes in. That’s where sexism comes in. And, I think that’s what a lot of people don’t realize…. Mother Nature is not very discerning [but] it’s not about that. It’s about the people who decided to be in those spaces and bring ideas–good and bad–to those places…so we are putting ourselves in a potentially scary place.”
The AAPI community is comprised of more than 50 ethnicities with more than 100 languages spoken. If I learned anything in this process, there’s so much to uncover in terms of the wide range of AAPIs’ experiences in the U.S. and beyond. Being Asian American carries with it a set of diverse narratives, including people who identify as Japanese American, Chinese American, Filipino American, Vietnamese American, Nepali Sherpa American, among many other cultures. While I came to the U.S. with my family as a result of my maternal aunt’s immigrant petition, others may have come as refugees, professionals or students. Regardless of our varied backgrounds, many of us stay true to our roots as immigrants or as children of immigrants. These roots may guide us on our individual and collective journeys as we mold our unique sense of self in a country that often prejudges us rather than accepts us for who we are–diverse, complex, multifaceted, but nonetheless Americans.
One of the most violent forms of this kind of prejudice comes in the way that AAPIs as a group have been scapegoated unfairly as the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. Invisible as individuals or as real people to some, we have become suddenly visible as monolithic stereotypes of an imagined threat. “It’s really bad,” Irene says of the current bias. “I think being Asian American is a very complicated experience that usually people don’t ask about…and I think it’s hard to pinpoint a trajectory that is the same for every Asian American person…. [With the hate epidemic], by simply the way that I look, I’m now targeted.”
I asked Dr. Sherpa about her views on the intricacies of Asian American identity: “I see myself as a Sherpa woman,” she replied. “Being a Nepali woman is also an intimate identity. That’s something I grew up with since childhood…Being Asian American is the most recent identity, and so I’m still learning what that means to me and how I present myself as one.” Right now, she adds, she feels motherhood is her dominant identity.
We moved on to discuss how the word, “Sherpa,” is often still misunderstood in the outdoor industry, routinely used to refer to guides or porters, rather than to describe an ethnic group that inhabits the Everest (Chomolungma) region of Nepal. “There is misappropriation of the Sherpa name,” Dr. Sherpa explained, when “the ethnic name is used to refer to a job…. The implication of this misappropriation is we don’t see people from other ethnic groups who are doing those jobs [as expedition workers] and so they become invisible. In Nepal, [there are] members of other ethnic groups like Tamang, Rai, Gurung [working on 8000-meter peaks]…but when we talk about high-altitude mountaineering we use the word Sherpa to refer to everyone involved in mountaineering assistance. That invisibilizes other ethnic groups.” The misuse of the term can also dehumanize Sherpas themselves, frequently reducing their entire identities to the single function of mountain workers in the Everest region.
It’s in this sense that the problem of invisibility in one country, such as the U.S., remains inextricably linked to larger issues of misrepresentation and erasure in distant mountains like the Himalaya. Hence, the discussions of AAPI invisibility in the American outdoor industry wouldn’t be all-encompassing without an examination of the invisibility that people of Asian background experience from Westerners in other countries–such as the experiences of Sherpas in Nepal.
Karsang Sherpa is an ethnic Sherpa who grew up in Khumjung village in the Everest region. Karsang has been residing in the U.S. for twenty-five years and works as an investment manager in commercial real estate. Three of his uncles worked in the climbing industry. Today, Karsang is an avid advocate on behalf of the Sherpa community, both in the U.S. and in Nepal. “Because I’m passionate about the stories of Sherpas,” he says, “I attend presentations by American climbers who climbed Everest. What I always find interesting is that in their presentations, the Sherpas are almost invisible. If they’re ever mentioned, they are shown as a block of people or laborers who just happen to be there. I almost never hear their names. Instead, [the American climbers] would say, ‘Our sherpa pitched a tent’ rather than ‘Pasang pitched a tent.'”
Individual Sherpas often receive little recognition for their endeavors, Karsang points out, be it as a climber or a high-altitude mountain worker, and many major Western outdoor brands lack Sherpas in their list of athletes and ambassadors. This is the case despite Sherpas’ reputation of having extraordinary skills in alpinism and breaking records (such as taking part in the recent first winter ascent of K2, achieved by a group of Nepali and Sherpa climbers). Karsang adds, “This white man’s narrative is happening at all different levels. If you look at all the athletes of big companies…it’s mostly white guys and girls…. Sherpas these days, even those based in Nepal, can see how it works in the U.S., England or Australia. They clearly see that they are not getting the credit or recognition that’s due. So, there’s a lot of frustration among Sherpas.”
With the spread of social media, Karsang notes, more people have become aware of these issues, particularly as more Sherpas are now able to tell their stories directly online. Although there still hasn’t been a major cultural shift toward the recognition and humanization of Sherpas, some climbers and advocates are initiating change on individual levels. More climbers are recognizing and verbally acknowledging guides by their names. But the consequences of many decades of invisibility remain entrenched in workplace conditions and practices in the Himalaya. For example, the amount of life insurance is only $14,000 and still inadequate, Karsang explains, for Sherpa workers who die in the mountains. Karsang explains: “The funeral cost can easily go over $10,000. You’re talking about a family who lost the only breadwinner…. His funeral expense will take away more than two-thirds of his life insurance…and suddenly that throws a middle-income family into poverty.”
A similar dynamic appears in the invisibility of low-altitude porters from different ethnic backgrounds in Nepal. Through my nonprofit organization, The Porter Voice Collective, which advocates for the labor and human rights of porters, I learned of inequitable working conditions, such as unfair wages and poor sleeping and working conditions on the trails. With the exception of a few advocacy organizations, conversations regarding workforce inequities remain largely absent among tourists and the trekking industry as a whole. When such conversations do occur, the influential voices that get heard often belong to white advocates, not to those of the Nepali porters themselves. Consequently, porters and their struggles frequently get discussed from the perspectives of outsiders. As an American of Asian descent, I’ve also found that my own attempts to reach out to advocacy and trade organizations within the trekking tourism industry often yield no response or are received with skepticism.
How climbers tell stories in U.S. media can reverberate in how the audience and subsequent climbers act abroad. In the still-common narrative of “a white man conquering the mountain,” there’s no room for recognition other than that of the white male protagonist. Even today, Western climbers and media often portray ascents as an individual feat, not a team effort. Until this narrative is replaced by stories that truly value inclusion and equity–and until more space is created for guides and porters to speak directly about their experiences–the lives and contributions of expedition workers from a range of backgrounds will continue to be unrecognized and devalued.
In the U.S., to get a perspective on Asian and AAPI experiences in alpine workplaces, I connected with Don Nguyen, a Vietnamese American climber who has been a mountain guide since 2016 with American outdoor climbing companies. Don recounted experiences of hearing one white guide characterize South Asian clients as “clumsy” and another label Chinese clients as “rude,” all while Don was standing there. When he confronted the guides, they quickly became defensive and reframed their comments as personal observations about specific South Asian or Chinese individuals, claiming that they weren’t stereotyping an entire group.
There can be repercussions for speaking up about anti-Asian sentiments in the outdoor industry and elsewhere–and thus deviating from the image of being a “model minority,” a designation that often portrays AAPIs as compliant or meek. At one past job, the consequences for his outspokenness, Don felt, would appear in other areas of reviews at work–not for being the Asian guy who speaks up and who breaks preconceptions of how a “model minority” should behave. In contrast, a white male counterpart, Don notes, would be more likely to receive a pass or even a commendation for similar outspokenness. These observations appear to highlight the lack of safe spaces for AAPIs at times within the industry. A compounding problem is the unequal access to the top tiers of hierarchies in the climbing and guiding industry. “This is the dynamic of power that exists,” Don says, “Here are the IFMGA elite guides that have the money, time and privilege to pay for and train for these positions of power…and there’s everybody else…the marginalized people that will be affected the most…who are trying to keep their jobs.”
These experiences in the climbing and guiding industry prompted Don, along with two other Asian Americans, Mariko Ching and Christopher Chalaka, to create Climbers of Color (COC) in 2017. COC is a BIPOC run, nonprofit organization based in Washington State that aims to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the climbing and mountaineering community by developing leaders of color.
Irene also strives to help create more inclusion and visibility for AAPIs and for other climbers of color through her photography. “I want to show folks who we don’t get to see,” she says. “It’s been wonderful to be in this space and see the rise of women and BIPOC folks getting into climbing…. Representation has gone up, which is great, but we need to remember that you have to be very intentional in how you continue to carry on with that story. And how people’s stories are told…. I want to make sure we’re uplifting as many communities as we can… It’s about being visible and showing that many [BIPOC] people climb…. I’m not saying there’s no huge barriers to entry. But I want people to know that they have the ability to do this if they want, and if they can.”
Irene has always been “intentional about creating safe spaces for herself and others,” she says. Now, as a result of the hate epidemic toward AAPIs, and in the wake of the Atlanta shooting, she has had to re-evaluate her approach to safety, especially as an Asian woman. “That’s enough to put you slightly off balance and make you really rethink your actions and what you’re doing…But there are two sides to that. There’s the side of me that has to think a little bit more and then there’s a second part…the opposite of that where…[I realize that] I choose to be here and I choose to be visible because of what’s happening. [It’s] so important especially to show strong Asian women that they can do things, and that they shouldn’t be afraid. So, it’s a very weird dual mindset that I now have to sit with–the need to feel safe but also the need to show that I have power in this world.”
Creating a Path of Asian & AAPI Visibility in a JEDI Infused Outdoor Industry
In examining experiences of many AAPIs in the outdoor industry, I immediately saw the immensity of the scope of our invisibility and how it affects us in various ways. No one form matches that of another, and there is no single solution to all the issues. Instead, there’s a need to listen to–and implement–solutions from AAPIs of multiple backgrounds. Yet, AAPIs must ask of themselves this question first: “What kind of visibility do we wish to have?”
When I ask Don how he envisioned better visibility for AAPIs, he responds: “I want to see Asian Americans, amongst other BIPOC peoples within the spheres of top-level leadership–diversity all across the board–Asian folks being the producers, not just the consumers in the industry, but also as mentors, leaders and educators. That’s part of what I’ve been building for the last few years with [Climbers of Color].”
One way of creating visibility is to tell our own stories–and outdoor publications need to allow more room for these narratives. “People just make assumptions especially about Asian folks…that are not our stories at all,” Irene explains, “and so the more visibility we have, the more people [can] realize how different our stories are…the more that they can realize [the term], ‘Asian’ is a lump sum term that doesn’t define anybody who is of Asian descent in this country…Because we have been so silenced in the past, whether purposefully or unpurposefully, through racism in this country, nobody gets to know our stories…. [Storytelling] is the most public form of being visible. I encourage folks to do that but also… I want to tell them, ‘It’s OK–you don’t have to [tell your story]…. I hope people think of it as a choice.”
Karsang adds that Sherpas should have fair access to sponsorships and ambassadorship from Western outdoor brands: “I would definitely ask of big companies, ‘Why are Sherpas completely invisible whether as athletes or people that they support?'” Media companies and organization leaders in both tourism and outdoor industries must also create more spaces to discuss workforce equity for all expedition workers, both guides and porters, and to include their voices in these discussions.
For Dr. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, “The ideal situation is to be recognized as being our full selves…to express ourselves without feeling ashamed, embarrassed or unsafe…” Many, if not all, Asian Americans have been subjected to all forms of ridicule, microaggressions and harassment all our lives. We have had to combat being treated as perpetual foreigners. In my own career, I sometimes felt that I had to hide many aspects of myself as a Filipina or Asian whenever I was in unsafe spaces where being truly myself could affect my professional advancement or sense of belonging. Irene echoes a similar sentiment, “There are times when you cannot say anything. You are either in a professional space or a space where you don’t feel safe…. It’s so important to create safe spaces outside of the safe spaces that you’re in.”
During the past few years, this yearning to be in safe spaces has led to an increase in affinity groups for BIPOC communities in all types of outdoor activities from hiking to climbing. These can also be crucial spaces for experiencing solidarity. In addition, I have witnessed the outdoor industry’s efforts to make room for BIPOC faces and voices in public forums, on company websites, social media, marketing campaigns and publications. The efforts thus far are not perfect. At times, I find them to be merely performative–or simply done as reactions to tragic events that attract national media coverage. There’s a need for more authenticity in the form of proactive and preemptive approaches.
“A lot of companies don’t know how much risk is involved,” Don says. “[They have to] take as much risk, if not more risks than the people that are being marginalized on a daily basis…. There are men walking around the streets shooting Asian women…and people never realized that [the risk is that high]…. In an allyship, we confront that risk together.” The outdoor industry must answer a difficult question: Whether, in an industry that operates largely on profits, its leaders, stakeholders and members can cultivate the necessary mindset to act based on the struggle for human rights.
As a community, we can speak and act against those who caused us and others harm, whether individually or collectively. “We have been silent for too long because we don’t want to rock the boat,” Karsang says. “It’s the same thing up in the mountains. Sherpas are silent because they don’t want to rock the boat or [offend] the ego of their clients.”
“The way we communicate with each other and share space for one another is [important],” Irene adds. “Language has a lot to do with creating safe spaces…. We can support each other as climbers when we are faced with racism at the crag or in the outdoors. We can all stand together and be helpful in that manner…. Sometimes just being there…is a nonverbal way to communicate that I’m safe. ‘I’m here to back you up if you need it’…. [To be] an advocate is to continually learn and grow and never stop.”
When we choose to be advocates or leaders, we also learn quickly that the process can be laborious, tiring and even hazardous. At that point, when allies apply their resources to create spaces to include us or use their voices to amplify ours, they are alleviating the burden, emotional or otherwise, of advocacy work on us. “Connecting with each other on a personal level, at a human level,” Dr. Sherpa says, “I think is one of the effective solutions to address this issue…creating a community of care, one that is safe, open and welcoming. I think each ally in the community comes with different set of skills and different ways of helping.”
Dr. Sherpa’s comment reminds me of how I envisioned the outdoors when I first learned of its ability to attract people from all backgrounds. I was drawn to the sense of humanity that exists in the outdoors whenever we tap into our innate and human tendency to take care of one another without prompting. At their best, experiences in the outdoors can ease the process of being kind toward others and can even make us welcoming of those who we may otherwise exclude in our lives. We can realize that our own survival is closely interconnected with that of those around us. We can learn to be attentive to each other and to nurture our commonalities. We can value our strengths. We can create a community with no room for hate.
Then and now, invisibility has harmed Asians and AAPIs in numerous contexts within the U.S. and beyond. It is a heavy burden that we carry each day. And yet, in light of the pandemic, the invisibility of Asians and the AAPI community has been cast aside–as, once more, our community has been subjected to a slew of unjustified violence and hate. Now, we are the most visible that we have ever been in a long while. Yet, at times we are still unseen and unheard when we desperately need the world to act or to elevate our voices. Faced with so many threats and uncertainties, many of us are experiencing a tremendous amount of fear and vulnerability.
The contributions, achievements and diversity that we bring as Asians and AAPIs to the outdoor industry in the U.S. and the rest of the world are undeniable. There are the accomplishments of talented athletes such as Ashima Shiraishi, who at age ten became the youngest person of any gender to climb a V13 boulder problem and at age fourteen, the youngest person and first woman to climb V15. Of Eiichi Fukushima, who took part in the historic 1966 American Antarctic Mountaineering Expedition that made the first ascent of Mt. Vinson, the highest peak on the southernmost continent, as well as other peaks. And of Lakpa Rita Sherpa, who became the first Sherpa to climb the Seven Summits, who has summited Everest seventeen times, and who continues to pursue a decades-long guiding career from his current home in Washington State. There are the stunning rock-climbing photographs of Irene Yee, which have been featured in Outside, Climbing, Rock & Ice, Alpinist, SELF Magazine, and elsewhere. Countless more examples abound.
The achievements and contributions of Asians and AAPIs in the U.S. and beyond should be celebrated always. At the same time, in dire times such as the current hate epidemic, we also want you to hear us and see us, in our pain. The creation of an inclusive community that is rooted in empathy and in our human tendency to care for one another can’t be merely an aspiration for the outdoor industry. The time to create it is now.