Words By: Shelma Jun
Photos By: Sasha Turrentine & Jenn Flemming
This is part one of a series on Arc’teryx Ambassador Shelma Jun’s investigation of how her identity as a climber and her identity as a Korean-American immigrant can converge through a three week trip to Korea this past May. Land is about the way that climbing has impacted her connection to Korea. The last part, a short video, will be about how Korea has changed her connection to climbing.
There’s a deep love for the land in Korea, and there always has been – through Japanese occupation, post-World War II oversight by the US, the Korean war and the following tumultuous navigation of democracy into what it is today. I think a strong connection to the land has been a way for Korean folks to maintain a constant sense of identity throughout these chaotic political times.It makes sense when you have the opportunity to look at the landscape of Korea. It consists of 70 percent rolling mountains and long, rocky coastlines along most of the border of this peninsula country. Korean Confucianism and Shamanism helped shape traditions and beliefs deeply tied to nature. Even the South Korean flag is comprised of simply the symbols yin and yang, and trigrams that represent the four natural elements: air, earth, fire, and water.
Most people know me as the founder of Flash Foxy and the Women’s Climbing Festival, which brings together hundreds of women several times a year to learn and grow together through climbing. Flash Foxy came into being from feeling as though women did not have equal opportunities or representation in the outdoors. However, being a woman is just one part of my identity and one of the factors that has influenced my experience outdoors.Born in Seoul, South Korea, I immigrated to the United States with my family when I was four years old. Due to financial reasons, we were never able to visit Korea as a family and it was not until well into my 20’s that I was able to return for the first time. And, it’s been exciting to be able to make a second trip almost ten years later. This trip highlighted that my familial ties to Korea are getting older and older, and it created a desire to gather as much knowledge as I can of what my connection to this place is. The most obvious place to start was with my grandmother.
My 할머니 (grandma) was born in Seoul in 1938 during the Japanese occupation of Korea, which ended in 1945. She stayed through the US Military Government in Korea from 1945-1948 and fled to Busan during the Korean War from 1950-1953. She returned to Seoul to live through seven different republics of South Korea including several military coups. To come from a line of strong women who lived through so many tumultuous times (and these are just the political ones) and thrived is something I shall think back to often for inspiration. This is just one story of a strong woman who has thousands of stories to tell – someone whose identity is inextricably tied to the land. I wondered how strong my ties truly were. Would they slowly wane and disappear when I no longer had any family here?It’s also been an interesting experience to be raised in a Korean household in America and then return to Korea. Some gestures, expressions and cultural ideas feel incredibly familiar and recognizable, while others make you feel completely disconnected. And not only that – some folks will tell you that you are Korean no matter where you’ve been while others see you as a foreigner. Neither is completely wrong.As we left Seoul at the beginning of the trip to explore the amazing climbing Korea offers, I was feeling a bit lost. I was unsure if I would be able to find an intertwining of my climbing and Korean identities. At this point, I was feeling as though my connection to Korea was more tenuous than ever before. We filled our climbing packs, headed to the crag and looked up at the climbs. Excitement began to fill my insides. I racked up and started up my first pitch of rock climbing in Korea.Rock climbing has this amazing capability to create connections. The physical act of climbing is a sort of communion with the landscape. I’ve always felt a bit like an observer when looking up at big walls from the ground. But when I’m hundreds of feet up, hanging on the side of a wall surrounded only by rock and air, that’s when I’ve felt a part of these places… like the trees, like the mountains, like the clouds. And, it should have come at no surprise that I would feel like this again clipping the anchors up on the walls of Bukhansan National Park.I was reminded of something I wrote in my journal this past winter while in Payahuunadu, the Paiute name for the Owen’s River Valley where Bishop is located. “When things are hard, go back to the land. When you can’t remember what you’re doing here, go back to the rock and remember what drew you here – the push, the pull, the familiar dance between body and land. Embrace the rawness of palms against the sharp rock and the stillness of windswept summits. And give thanks for powerful places.” Sick and stressed, I wasn’t sure what I was doing there as I wasn’t even motivated to climb. My friends Paul and Jolie encouraged me to take some time and get out onto the land. They are from the Bishop Paiute Tribe and have long understood the healing power of places. I realized that my connection to this land is beyond being born in Korea, beyond being raised in a Korean household and beyond my ancestral ties to this place.
The simple act of climbing, of spending the day interacting with rock, has provided me with a different pathway to my ancestral homelands – and for that I am grateful.Hear from Shelma and watch the premiere of her film ‘이원성 | DUALITY’ at the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy in Squamish, BC on Friday, August 23. Find all the event details HERE.