PIN UPS explores race and identity in one woman’s desire to explore the great outdoors

Pin Ups

By Yi Shun Lai

Little Bound Books: Sept. 8. 2020


Yi Shun Lai is the very American daughter of immigrants from Taiwan. In Pin Ups, she details her experiences growing up determined to be a tomboy despite her parents’ pressure to be a good Taiwanese girl; in other words, feminine, docile, academic, and family-oriented.

Early in this extended essay, she says, “I was never encouraged to get lost in the woods as a child; good girls don’t do such things in my culture… But I was already more interested in cutting out the articles about the girls who races BMX bikes, or the ones who played powder puff football. I remember wanting to surf and ski from the minute I became cognizant these activities existed.”

Her obsession with the challenges and rewards of the active, outdoor life leads her into all sorts of experiences, both personal and physical. Because she is not only struggling to free herself of her parents’ and culture’s expectations, she is also running uphill against mainstream cultural (i.e., White) expectations of what Asians are supposed to be and do.

She sees no faces like hers in trail running or mountain biking groups. She experiences a range of awkward encounters with people who are perplexed by her desire to bike, run, or climb. Lai wants only to find her place in the great outdoors, without regard to her race, gender, or class. “I love the outdoors with a distracting kind of joy. I can lose hours in the simple contemplation of it.”

“I used to think it was good to stand out, ” she writes. “But now I know better. You get tired of being the girl who’s ‘so articulate.’ Or ‘so outgoing.’ Or ‘so loud.’ Or ‘so outdoorsy.’ Because all of that stuff, if you’re me, living here in America, comes with the unspoken addendum: ‘…for an Asian girl.’” She notes that she is just “searching for what it means to be me.”

Lai realizes she is attracted to sports because it’s a meritocracy, where she is not a token, just another athlete. While riding her bike on sunny days, she notices that her shadow reveals no ethnicity. She is just a woman.

Pin Ups is a fast-paced, potent read because Lai’s introspection matches the intensity of her desire to find her place in the physical world. She’s smart and funny and opinionated, and she spares no one, including herself, from her analysis of her ongoing efforts to live what poet Mary Oliver called “your one wild and precious life.”

You can read my review of Yi Shun Lai’s debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu (Shade Mountain Press, 2016) here.


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