How A Weekend Camping Changed My "Typical Asian Mom"

“We broke up,” I sobbed into the phone to my mom. On the other end of the line was a long pause. “Maybe if you had stayed home more and cooked food. Maybe if you were more supportive of him. Maybe if you didn’t make him go hiking all the time,” she countered. “Maybe if you didn’t go camping every weekend...”

I was always the black sheep of the family. I butted heads with them often over every little thing. My parents are Vietnamese immigrants who came to America in search of opportunity. My dad moved to Illinois to attend college. My mom arrived when she was a teenager, leaving Vietnam the day before Saigon fell. They both worked their butts off to earn engineering graduate degrees and then held my siblings and me the same level of commitment in all aspects of life, never failing to remind us of their sacrifices to ensure we grew up comfortably. Any grade less than an “A” was unacceptable. If it wasn’t perfect, it was piss poor. We played piano from the age of 5. My siblings and I all played competitive sports and participated in student government to round out our college applications. Our parents wanted us to follow in their footsteps, attend good colleges, and get engineering or pre-med degrees.

But one pre-teen year, my parents sent me to an outdoor summer camp—where camp leaders and counselors gave me my first taste of redwoods and banana slugs, learning about the environment right outside my front door. I spent the week in the Santa Cruz Mountains with miles of trails, a high ropes course and rock wall. The outdoor bug bit me—hard—and I ended up volunteering for several years at the same camp, working with kids on the trail and the high ropes course. Still, the outdoors were not so much a priority as an extracurricular for my college applications.

Competitive volleyball took over my life throughout high school and college, but once I graduated, I joined a climbing gym to pass the time and fell head-first into the outdoors. At the time, I was working a customer service job for a tech startup, and my mom was insisting that I go back to school to get my masters and find a better job. I insisted, instead, on spending long nights at the gym climbing and weekends exploring California’s public lands. It allowed me to escape the hum of computers and business of everyday life.

Every beautiful spot I went, I’d send my mom photos. Yosemite, Lassen, New Zealand, Norway, the North Cascades, the Eastern Sierra, Smith Rock … and her interest was piqued. On the rare occasion that we’d get together for dinner, she’d ask me where I’d been hiking or climbing. She wanted to know if she would like it. I knew that she was hesitant to ask if she could come, so I took the initiative and invited her on a trip into the redwoods.

“Is Josh going?” she inquired. She wanted to know if my current boyfriend liked going camping and climbing and hiking every weekend. I stopped myself from rolling my eyes, even though I knew she couldn’t see me. Yes, he’s going, I reassured her, adding that he actually enjoyed doing all of those things. She kept prodding, “He’s not mad that you two are gone all the time? He’s okay with going camping? He doesn’t mind me coming?”

Last summer, I took my mom on her first real camping trip with an intimate group of friends.  She and I had hiked together on my college campus, every once in a blue moon, but it had been several years since we’d done anything together. It wasn’t any ol’ car camping trip. This campsite was accessible only via train. The camp had hot showers, heated by wood-burning stove, because she can’t go more than a day without showering. She borrowed my coziest sleeping bag, a camping cot, and my boyfriend’s car camping sleeping pad. We helped set her site up, hidden in some bushes.

My mom is a typical Asian mom, too proud and stubborn to ever admit she is proud of me and constantly showing her love in ways without ever saying “I love you.” While she’ll never admit it, our dynamic definitely changed that weekend. In the slowness of life without connectivity, she fell in love with the outdoors and sleeping under the stars. She finally understood the allure of being gone every weekend. Well, mostly understood. Suddenly, hiking and camping weren’t wastes of time. In fact, they were very valid ways to spend time. She saw how at ease Josh and I were together outside and realized that this was a huge part of our relationship.

We drank wine and made spring rolls and pancakes. My mom enjoyed helping with all the cooking and the food prep. We spent days kayaking aimlessly on the river. She squealed with glee instead of yelling when I deliberately splashed her with freezing water. We explored random dirt roads on the forested property. Instead of leaving her in my dust, we hiked alongside each other. At night, we sat around the campfire, talking about everything and nothing—more than we’d talked in a while. At home, we usually ended up getting distracted by our phones, or in my mom’s case, Pokemon Go.

As we packed our things at the end of the trip, she lamented the fact that she had nothing to look forward to, pointendly hinting at another trip. Too bad your dad isn’t into camping, she laughed. Before we dropped her off, she gave us big hugs and thanked us for taking her camping. Her eyes danced with delight, and she radiated with happiness. She looked forward to telling my siblings and her friends about the trip. As she waved goodbye, I realized this might be the first time we’ve ever spent more than a day together without getting on each others’ nerves.

These days, my mom still asks me not to show her photos of me climbing. It scares her. But she actually looks forward to hearing about our trips and no longer hounds me about why I’m gone every weekend. There are still many things we disagree on—like how often a person needs to shower whether Chacos are appropriate wedding footwear, or if I should buy a house or go to grad school. But now, she asks me when my next camping trip is, or if we can go hiking and hang out with my outdoors friends. She especially wants to go to Yosemite in the fall. And I’m looking forward to taking her.