CultureEssays

Reflections on a Cover, Jimmy Chin, and Representation

One editor’s thoughts on the Asian American illusion of belonging

(Photo: Peggy Sirota (Jimmy Chin), Bailey Zindel/Unsplash (Yosemite))

On my desk sits a copy of Outside’s current April/May issue. On its cover, Jimmy Chin is smiling, with a coiled rope over his shoulder. In big white letters, the main cover line reads “Good News!” Indeed, there’s a lot to look forward to in the months ahead, especially after the year we’ve had. 

As a first-generation Filipino American and an avid climber and runner, I feel an immense sense of pride when I see Asian Americans like Jimmy in the spotlight. Having a climbing legend like him positioned front and center on a national magazine symbolizes that outdoor spaces are for people who look like me, too. 

Yet these moments still feel few and far between. And I wish that our cover line was true of our country’s current racial climate. We’re reckoning with the rise of anti-Asian hate, after eight people were killed—six of them Asian—in the Atlanta spa shootings in March, just a couple weeks before Jimmy’s cover hit newsstands. Meanwhile, targeted hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen in the past year. In late March, a man in New York City attacked a 65-year-old Filipina, kicking and stomping her and yelling, “You don’t belong here.” These attacks have resurfaced a common theme for many Asian Americans like me: we mostly feel like we’re accepted in this country until instances like Atlanta or New York yank that sense of belonging away. The same dynamic can be true of our experience outdoors: we belong, until we don’t.

I don’t explicitly think about race when I’m at the crag or on the trail; I’m there to spend time in nature, with friends, and sometimes just with my own thoughts. And in the past, I haven’t talked much about being Asian American with my climbing partners or most of my coworkers at Outside. I often feel guilty bringing up the topic, because so much of my time outdoors has been positive. In America, most people continue to think of race as a Black and white issue. And some still don’t understand that racism is more than overt acts, like calling someone a slur. As an Asian American, there’s often a psychological burden to prove to others that we, too, experience racism and bias. 

Although I haven’t experienced explicitly racist encounters while being outside, my memory is peppered with more nuanced instances of marginalization—like noticing I’m the only non-white person I’ve seen all day at the wall, or being asked where I’m from from (I guess Virginia isn’t a good enough answer). I’ve even seen my non-white peers internalize the idea that the outdoors isn’t their domain—in college, some of them would describe my weekend adventures in nature as me going off to do “white-people stuff.” Such comments made me feel like my hobbies weren’t justified for someone with my skin color. The feeling of being “the only one” has extended to my time working in the outdoor industry, too; I’m the only male person of color on Outside magazine’s editorial staff. I can count on two hands the amount of Asian Americans I’ve met at various PR dinners and brand meet and greets, and this lack of representation only feels magnified at big industry events like Outdoor Retailer. These experiences amplify a nagging question at the back of my mind: Do people think I belong here? 

To be Asian American in this country, and especially in the predominantly white outdoors, is to know these feelings of tenuous belonging.

And even as much as I celebrate the Jimmy Chin cover, it also brings up complicated memories about the times I’ve been compared to him. At a get-together in 2019, a friend’s kid said I look like Jimmy. That friend then brought it up in front of another group, which was met with laughter all around. “How cute!” one person remarked. A few months ago, I told a friend that I was planning a climbing trip to California and would be sleeping in the back of my Honda CR-V. “You’re going full Jimmy Chin, eh?” they quipped.

In these instances, I acted flattered. Jimmy has been a hero to me since I learned about him in the pages of Outside in college. I’d always paid special attention to him—in a sea of white dudes, he stood out to me; he was essentially living my dream, going on adventures and getting paid to document them. 

But in truth, I also felt uncomfortable in these moments, because I’m obviously not comparable to Jimmy, according to any metric. Professional mountain biker Eliot Jackson, who is Black, described what I felt in an essay he published last summer. On the topic of being often compared to Black motocross racer James Stewart, Jackson wrote: “How do I take this? Do I ignore the fact that people might not be seeing me for who I am and just focus on the good intention? Or do I dig in deeper and say, ‘I understand what you’re saying, but are you just comparing me because of the color of my skin?’” 

Ultimately, those comparisons were embarrassing to me because my race felt hypervisible. When my friends made their lighthearted comments, why didn’t they think to mention any other famous climber, like Tommy Caldwell or Alex Honnold? It felt apparent that they did see me for my race, and that felt like a tough pill to swallow when most of my life I’ve tried to think that people don’t see me any differently from them.

At the time, I didn’t do much to wave off the comparisons to Jimmy Chin. On Halloween a few years ago, I threw on a tuxedo and crafted a makeshift Oscar statue out of aluminum foil and gold spray paint—a nod to Free Solo’s Academy Award win, which Jimmy codirected. Celebrating him is a double-edged sword: It’s awesome that Jimmy is such a popular figure. Yet he stands out because he’s Asian American. These scenarios reveal that the list of outdoor rock stars who look like me—an Asian American man—is short.

To be Asian American in this country, and especially in the predominantly white outdoors, is to know these feelings of tenuous belonging. You mostly blend in—you think—until you see an article celebrating Olympic gold medalist Chloe Kim, followed by a reader comment to cut the identity politics and not speak up about Asian American accomplishments. Or until you read anti-Asian rhetoric being spewed by our (now former) president. Or until a shooting or a hate crime makes the headlines. Then the illusion of belonging is gone, like you were never part of the club in the first place.

But taking pride in this magazine cover—and writing about how it excites and inspires me, as I’m sure it will others—couldn’t have come at a better time. Seeing Jimmy pose on the cover is a summation of his accomplishments, and that’s worth celebrating right now, during Asian/Pacific American Islander Heritage Month, even if the moment is simple, short-lived, and happening during a time when there’s also plenty of discouraging news.

Next to Jimmy on our cover, one line reads “49 Reasons to Feel Hopeful in 2021.” For me, this cover shoot is one of those reasons. I think it’s worth chasing that sense of belonging, no matter how elusive it is, or how many times it’s snatched away. That line might as well read: “You can be here, too.”

Filed To: ClimbingNewsNaturePolitics
Lead Photo: Peggy Sirota (Jimmy Chin), Bailey Zindel/Unsplash (Yosemite)