Words By: Shelma Jun
This is part two of a series on Arc’teryx Ambassador Shelma Jun’s investigation of how her identity as a climber and her identity of being a Korean-American immigrant converged through a three week trip to Korea this past May. The first part, Land, is about the way that climbing has impacted her connection to Korea. The second part is about how Korea has changed her connection to climbing.
“The desire to go home, that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars...” – Rebecca SolnitI recently read this quote and wondered if this perhaps could be the reason for the strong urge I’ve had these past several years to go back to Korea and climb. Some parts of me have always felt as though they remained on separate parallel paths, never intersecting.
I grew up in Southern California, where there is a large Korean American community. The Los Angeles (LA) area actually boasts the largest population of Koreans outside of Asia. With a community this big, it comes as no surprise that a distinct Korean American culture emerged, as can be seen with the much larger Chicano culture of LA. However, I never found myself feeling connected to that community. It always felt a little forced – as if the fact that we were Korean was not enough to foster a relationship with another.This was exacerbated by the fact that beyond homelife and church, the activities I participated in were absent of my Korean community – cycling, snowboarding and climbing, to name a few. I found that these communities were predominantly white. In a Venn Diagram, there would be little or no point where these two circles overlapped. Rather than search for things to talk about with other Korean Americans, I found I was more likely to seek friendships through shared interests.When it became clear that this Korea trip would become a reality this past spring, I wondered how much interaction I’d actually have with Korean climbers. Without any climbing connections in the country, I assembled a crew of good friends from the US and scoured Mountain Project and a climbing guide book that was lent to me from an acquaintance in New York City, where I live.
Serendipitously, my trip coincided with the second annual Climbing NOW (Network of Women) Bouldering Festival in 광주 (Gwangju), South Korea and I was invited to attend and give a presentation on my work with the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festivals. As I corresponded via email with Sanga Kim, the founder and organizer of Climbing NOW, I felt the beginnings of doubt and anxiety. Would it be like before… would it feel forced to create conversation and connection?The Women’s Bouldering Festival started out with an incredibly fun indoor comp that had us working in teams made up of climbers with a range of abilities. This format gave us the opportunity to support and cheer on one another, celebrating together as each person topped out problems. The next day, the outdoor climbing day at 무등산(Mudeungsan) created a more casual environment to have one–on–one conversations. I asked many of the women about their experiences. How long had they been climbing? What did they love about it? Why had they started or attended the Women’s Bouldering Festival?
I found that conversations came easily and our mutual love for climbing shined through. Women shared their excitement to be mentally and physically challenged. In a society where traditional feminine stereotypes are still strong, the women I talked to are finding different ways to connect with one another. It reminded me of the special energy that is always felt at the Women’s Climbing Festivals we host in the US. Many who’ve attended have shared with me how they hadn’t had many female friends, but were able to cultivate deep friendships with women they met at the festival. It was as if we were all discovering that one common denominator, whether it be identifying as a woman, being a climber or of Korean descent, is rarely enough to create a connection.Several years ago, I checked out a climbing gym in Paris with a friend who is not a climber. I had just arrived for a two-month stint and hardly spoke any French, but within one gym session I had two new climbing partners and plans to climb later that week. My friend marveled at how the connection to climbing was powerful enough to transcend language and cultural barriers— two things he had been battling for months in his search for friendships.
And it’s true. I feel lucky to have climbing friends all over the world that I’ve met on trains, crags and (often) the internet. And on this particular trip, climbing allowed me to connect with Korean folks in one of the most organic and natural ways I’ve experienced. We connected as climbers first and foremost, then through our similar experience as women and finally through our shared heritage. When I came to Korea, I was singularly focused on how this trip to my ancestral homelands might deepen my relationship to climbing. To my surprise and delight, it’s gone both ways, enriching my connection to Korea and its people in ways I couldn’t have imagined. It feels good knowing the climbing community in Korea is thriving and that I now feel like I’m at least a small part of it.
Watch Shelma’s film, DUALITY: