By VAL WANG
I had no idea what the short sentence meant, only that it came from the Bible and when I said it, all the other campers in my Bible study group laughed and I was off the hook for answering any more questions about God, Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, none of which I knew anything about.
It was the summer after seventh grade, in 1988, and my new best friend Meghan and I had decided to consecrate our friendship by attending sleepaway camp together. Her grandfather happened to have founded a camp in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania a few hours from the Maryland suburbs where we lived, so off we went.
It was to be my first experience of summer camp, that quintessential American rite-of-passage. It would also be the first of many lessons in what summer camp reveals about what it means to be American – lessons that have come flooding back to me this summer when COVID-19 has closed camps nationwide and the country is in the throes of a profound identity crisis.
That the camp I attended with Meghan was a Christian camp was incidental, or seemed incidental at the time. The brochure said the camp would “provide a setting where Christian faith can be joyfully experienced through times of Bible study, prayer, worship, recreation and fellowship.” In other words, to get to all the good stuff – the canoeing on the Susquehanna River, the lazy hours in the wooden bunks, the s’mores around the campfire – we had to sit through morning Bible study and nightly Vespers, whatever that was. The only times I had ever set foot in a church were for weddings.
The Bible study teachers thrust a dusty King James Bible at me and I tried to follow along. I could not make heads or tails of the stories, the language, or the underlying idea that seemed to unite all the mostly blonde campers who sat in the circle with me. At some point, someone came across that silly, alliterative two-word sentence, and I used it often as my get-out-of-jail-free card.
I was an aberration at the Christian camp. In one photo taken that week in front of our cabin, you could play the “which one of these things is not like the others” game: four blonde girls with their arms around each other (well, three with matching puffy ‘80’s bangs and long hair standing arm-in-arm, plus short-haired Meghan with her hands deep in her pockets) and, on the step behind, one Chinese-looking girl with a black bob and gigantic tortoiseshell glasses. She leans in with what I can now recognize as a request to be included that is not going to be granted. In group photos today, I sometimes still glimpse that same needy face of mine. I still so often feel on the outside.
While the other campers were as foreign to me as I was to them, no racial incidents stand out in my memory. And if anyone tried to “save” me, I was oblivious to it. Nevertheless, a strong sense of discomfort accompanies my memories of that week. At the time, to my tweenaged mind, my problems were strictly local: I got my period, my friendship with Meghan was unraveling. I don’t actually have many specific memories of us together at camp save for a disastrous seven-mile canoe ride we took down the Susquehanna. It started out well, but as the miles went on and the sun beat down and my bulky pad got soaked through, she wouldn’t stop barking “Row! Row! Row!” despite my pleas of exhaustion. Many times when I looked back at her, she wasn’t even rowing, just dabbling her silver oar in left and right, “steering” as she claimed. When we finally reached the end, I looked down to find a dime-sized blister on my thumb, rimmed in silver. The pain festered for the rest of the week.
My strongest positive memory from the week was crouching in the woods and talking with one of the few dark-haired girls during a game of capture the flag and seeing a deer emerge through the foliage, large and tremulous, before it bolted off. Seeing a deer in the wild for the first time was truly magical.
Later that summer, I would attend a very different sleepaway camp geographically only an hour and a half away from the Christian camp but a world apart. My entire family went to a Chinese family camp in the Poconos, where, to be honest, a similar homogeneity reigned: the parents were mostly refugees of the Chinese Communist Revolution, most lived in suburbia and aspired to the Ivy League for their children. While we had our afternoons free, mornings, just like at Christian camp, meant enduring a mandatory Culture session: snoozing through a screening of the documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?, squirming through awkward conversations with our parents about sex and drugs, shrugging at speakers droning on about our community’s lack of political participation.
I would like to say I fit in better at Chinese camp, but in actuality it was far worse. My bunkmates were a vicious clique of girls, some with the same ‘80’s perms as the Christian girls, who had been going to the camp since they were six or seven, and when they pushed all the beds into the center of the cabin, my bunk hung off the side like a barnacle off a ship. I was friendless and miserable, and, to top it off, I got my period again. I remember the chill of the morning air as I hauled myself out of my warm sleeping bag and the icy touch of the water as I rinsed out my underwear. I hung up the sopping undergarment at the back of my wardrobe before anyone else in the cabin had even stirred. The shame and humiliation of enduring puberty at camp was beginning to feel like a nefarious coming-of-age ritual. If it hadn’t been for one girl, also named Val, who befriended me and became my pen pal throughout the next year, I would have refused to return. As it was, we went back every year through high school and I made friends I’ve kept for life.
I find myself thinking back to these first sleepaway camp experiences this summer as COVID-19’s rampage across the country has cancelled the camp I was scheduled to attend with my own family. As I, among many other parents across the country, grieve the loss of a crucial element of what makes summer summer in America, I wonder what exactly we are losing.
Last summer, my 6-year old twins and my husband and I attended Camp Aranu’tiq in New Hampshire, which aims to “build confidence, resilience, and community for transgender and non-binary youth and their families through camp experiences.” We had been regular attendees at a local playgroup for gender nonconforming children, but this long weekend camp was the first time we were fully immersed in a community.
Unlike the other camps I’d been to, the makeup of the campers was extremely heterogeneous. We are a tri-racial family living in liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts with a jaundiced view of America; on the other side of our cabin was a white family from down South who wore American flag t-shirts. The heterogeneity extended to the experiences of our children as well: there were those who knew they were trans from a very young age, those who had identified as trans but were emerging into new genderqueer identities, those, like one of ours, who when given a wheel with some possible gender options spun it to “just me,” and many other realities. Not even to speak of the counselors, some of whom pushed the boundaries of what we’ve understood gender to be. One heavily bearded counselor wearing a skirt had an arm tattoo reading “tender femme.” Every story was unique. But as we all dropped into a quintessential American summer camp, the familiar lexicon of camp allowed us to relax and come together: There were communal meals at long wooden tables, canoeing on the lake, arts and crafts in the barn, archery at the end of the road, the dad who snored so loudly no one could sleep. All the paths were internal circles that never led outside the camp and, in this insularity, we felt safe. As parents, we were united in our desire to ease our children’s suffering in this rigidly gendered world, the policing of which terrifies us in its potential for violences both big and small. We wanted to find connections with other parents and to give our children, who face so many daily obstacles, a community that accepted them fully, potential friends to make, cool counselors to look up to.
Nothing is as American as sleepaway camp. It was invented at the beginning of the Progressive Era in the late 19th century to provide a nostalgic retreat into America’s simpler agrarian past for white, middle-class Protestant boys holed up in dirty, crowded cities in the Northeast. Camps for white girls followed soon after. Nature would be the antidote to the artificial, mechanized environment of the city and return the campers to an idealized state of innocence. Campers roughed it, sleeping in crude shelters and building their own fires to cook their food. The rise of summer camps was also a product of the invention of “childhood” as a time of innocence that needed protecting. To bolster this nostalgic vision of returning to the primitive, many camps appropriated Native American identity through the invention of racist, make-believe rituals. By the end of the Progressive era in the 1920’s, separate camps for marginalized groups began to appear. Camps for Jewish children added a second aim: to “Americanize” the children of immigrants. Those for African American children were also founded, as the whites-only camps did not fully integrate until the Civil Rights Era.
One early 20th century sleepaway camp pamphlet promised to save children from “dying of in-door-ness.” This is a pretty accurate description of how this spring spent in quarantine felt, for those of us privileged enough work and study from home.
Thinking of this history has peeled up one layer of this summer’s loss. Today’s summer camps market nature as an unmediated sanctuary away from the endless screens and scrolling of our modern life, and this aim feels especially necessary in this Zoomed-out time. To lose Camp Aranu’tiq this year has made me acutely aware of the intimate, sensorial texture of camp life. To hug campers we know from last year, to walk on those wooded paths together down to the lake, to eat elbow-to-elbow at long wooden tables – all of this seems an Eden so far from our current reality.
But as the spring of coronavirus has given way to the summer of protests against police brutality and structural racism and headline news about transgender rights, summer camp has taken on a deeper meaning for me. At Camp Aranu’tiq we would have had a chance to celebrate together the major Supreme Court decision banning labor discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation and also talked through the next steps to combat the Trump administration’s attempt to take away transgender rights in health care. We would have built up our strength to endure the world and also to change it. All this news feels very personal. One night at the height of the protests, I jolted awake, my heart pounding, and stared in panic at the sleeping form of my husband, who is Black, imagining the unimaginable. Other days I look at the fragility of my gender nonconforming child’s seven-year old body and I want to cry. My beloved people living on the margins with me – the center of my life – my heart. Suddenly I can see the summer camps I attended as a child from another angle.
Our Chinese family camp rented the grounds of a Jewish summer camp, always in the last week of August after their camp ended and just before school started. Our camp took cues from the Jewish ones, which had shifted from their original aim of assimilating the children of immigrants towards strengthening the campers’ Jewish cultural identities. Hence our mandatory morning Culture session. This reflected a general shift between the World Wars away from the idea of summer camp as a return to Eden; roughing it in the woods gave way to what outdoorsman Henry Wellington Wack bemoaned as the “pastries” of civilization: organized sports, movies, radio. Camp leaders began to conceive of camp as a tiny idealized civilization, a utopian laboratory capable of molding responsible citizens.
Nature was certainly not the reason my parents went to the Chinese family camp in the woods. They had never spent any time in the countryside, having grown up in big cities (Beijing-Jakarta-New York for my dad, Kunming-Rangoon-New York for my mom), and then eventually moving to the suburbs. Quite the opposite to America’s romantic Arcadian ideas, their generation saw the countryside as a place you get “sent down” for punishment. “The idea of roughing it is not my cup of tea,” my dad recently told me when I asked about the camp. “I like my cushy mattress.” But I imagine that more appealing to them was the idea of creating for a week an insular world with other immigrants like them. Camp was the one week of the year when they could be apart from mainstream American society, with its values and customs that were at odds with theirs and, though they rarely spoke of it, the subtle and not-so-subtle racism that they had no doubt experienced since immigrating here around 1965, when the U.S. repealed its racist immigration ban. Summer camp was an exercise in constructed nostalgia for our parents too – this all-Chinese world of peace and freedom they created for themselves and for their American-born children was one they had never actually experienced during their own war-torn childhoods. They played organized sports together, held mahjongg tournaments, did ballroom dancing in the evenings. Along with this aim, the camp’s founders also wanted to trigger a political awakening in our notoriously apolitical community. Rather than changing the world, our community was much better at turning the other cheek.
Attached to the edge of my Christian summer camp experience is one incident that stands out in my memory. Before Meghan and I arrived at camp, we stopped off at her grandparents’ lake house for a night. We were all sitting around together enjoying the summer day, when Meghan’s mom began hastily, and with much show, apologizing to me. It took me a moment to realize that one of Meghan’s grandparents had said something racist to me, which I had not understand or even registered as racist, as no one had ever spoken to me like that. The air was suddenly fouled.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“It’s not okay,” she admonished me.
“It’s not okay,” I parroted.
“You’re the first Chinese person they’ve ever seen. I’m so sorry.”
I wanted to ask for clarification about what exactly had been said, but I didn’t want her to get any more worked up in my direction. Her remediation had made me much more uncomfortable than the actual insult. I felt ashamed to have brought this cloud upon us and doubly so to not know the right thing to say to make it pass. I see now that she was right to apologize, but her admonishment should have been reserved solely for her parents.
With the addition of this memory, as I think back on my week at the Christian camp, my sense of discomfort takes on another, more sinister valence. I was probably the first Chinese-looking person many of those kids had ever seen. What else might I not have registered?
I am American, but I learned that summer – and continue to be reminded – that parts of the country don’t see me that way. I’ve always found that cities, as filthy and crowded as they are, are a much safer place to live. After graduating college, I lived in Beijing for years, then New York, and I now live in a city that jokingly calls itself the People’s Republic of Cambridge. I have tried to shield myself from the worst this country has to dish out, but after Trump’s election not even Cambridge could protect me. A jobless white man on the street demanded to know if I was a foreigner and blamed Chinese people for taking all the jobs. Asian American friends in the city got yelled at to “go back home.” Reports of hate crimes against all races escalated across the country.
Then COVID-19 hit, and the anti-Asian racism that largely simmers just below the surface of this country burst into view. Trump dubbed it the “Chinese Virus” and the “Kung Flu” and down cascaded another vicious round of anti-Asian bias and attacks, well-documented elsewhere. But a catalog of hate crimes doesn’t quite get at the problem. “Most white Americans can only understand racial trauma as a spectacle,” writes Cathy Park Hong in her essay “The End of White Innocence” in her recent book Minor Feelings. “What’s harder to report is not the incident itself but the stress of its anticipation. The white reign of terror can be invisible and cumulative, chipping away at one’s worth until there’s nothing left but self-loathing.” Reading this essay jolted me to recognize the weight of these million invisible moments – the acceptance withheld, the hostility expressed only bodily, the vibe in the air – and connect them with my ever-present feeling of unworthiness. Hong at the end of her book asserts that the path to Asian American emancipation is through “[freeing] ourselves of our conditional existence,” and asks whether that means keeping the struggle alive or simply awakening to our own suffering.
I have often downplayed anti-Asian discrimination, as it seems trivial compared to anti-Black racism. I have witnessed my husband living in a parallel America in which racism is always on the boil. But we are all just separate tentacles of the octopus of white supremacy. We Asians are used as a wedge to prove that there is no systemic racism or inequality and that hard work alone will earn you success. For our compliance and our silence, we can earn off-white status. Many of us have, myself included. The protests triggered by George Floyd’s death have revealed to many white people that this octopus includes them too, and that their neutrality, indeed their very innocence, is anything but.
So now, when I think back on all the summer camps I’ve been to, I think less about camp as escape from an over-industrialized or over-technologized environment than as an escape from the madding social world of America. The Christians can be with the Christians, the Chinese with the Chinese, the transgender with the transgender, each in their own place purified of prejudice and persecution. (I have read that white American Christians still feel persecuted?) It is what our Puritan ancestors did when they fled England and sought to build the proverbial City Upon a Hill. It is so American. As author Adam Morris writes, in his book about homespun prophets, American Messiahs, “the impulse to purify the group through separation from mainstream society, now regarded as the signature of a cult, could not be more fundamental to the nation’s history.”
And this peels up another layer of the meaning of summer camp in America and its loss this summer: We celebrate multiculturalism and diversity as a cosmopolitan ideal, but this country has never truly found a way to live together in a way that ensures liberty and justice for all. After a fall, winter, and spring spent in our country’s often violent and alienating reality, summer can be a time when we retreat to our own tribe – to relax, let down our hair, stop explaining, speak honestly, be safe, heal.
Never was this necessity more clear than last summer, when our family attended Camp Aranu’tiq. While the kids played games with the counselors in the mornings, we parents broke roughly into trans and non-binary discussion groups. Unsure of exactly where we fit, my husband and I went into the non-binary group. We sat in a circle by the lake and, with a striking lack of small talk, plunged straight into the deep end of honest conversation about a part of our life that few can understand. How can we help our children navigate daily life in a gender-segregated world? What is the best way for them to participate in sports, make friends, safely go to the bathroom? How do we react to our kids being misgendered with family, at school, in public? Is it our job to educate people, or no? What’s the best way to change the world? My child is, like I used to be, one who will say “it’s okay” when it isn’t and it’s the world I want to admonish, not them.
And if I thought puberty as a cisgender girl was hard, I never could have imagined the terror it inspires in non-binary kids faced with the ticking time bomb of their bodies. Go on beta blockers to buy some time? Do nothing? Our heads spun and our hearts felt swollen. Nowhere else in the world could we have had these conversations.
We talked about the kids who refuse not only the binary of “male” versus “female” but even the binary choice of “binary” versus “non-binary.” I had the acute realization that for many people’s inner experience of gender, language is inadequate. There are simply no words for how some people experience the world. This is a hard thing for me as a writer to accept. But what I find hopeful is that we – at camp and beyond – are creating new language that is determining new outer realities, even if there are still gaps. We are getting closer. Instead of recreating a lost world like my parents’ generation had done with Chinese camp, it felt like this camp was building a new, more perfect world – a utopia.
We met kids who’d met their best friends at camp in years before and who have monthly playdates together even though they live three hours away from each other. I yearned for the same for my child (sans the three-hour commute, if possible) and I could feel my parents’ hopes for peace and freedom echo in me.
On the last night, my husband said that being out in the woods and seeing all the stars in the night sky felt somehow related to the expansiveness of the gender universe. After our weekend of camp, the world felt at once smaller and more intimate, and much, much larger. At the talent show that night, the counselors closed with a rendition of “True Colors,” their arms around each other, and as they sang (“And I’ll see your true colors / Shining through / I see your true colors / And that’s why I love you”), I looked over at my kids. Cue the tears, for both them and me.
This summer, I think about what the camp leaders almost a hundred years ago worried about: because there was such a discontinuity between the closed and intense world of camp and the world outside, they feared that nothing of what they built could possibly survive the transition. When faced with the modern world, the new self built up at camp might fade as quickly as a suntan. We are facing that test this summer. Right when we most need what sleepaway camp can offer – the community, the space of retreat and healing, the nature – we cannot have it. Instead of retreating, we have to move forward. We have to be in America this summer.
But what an America it has turned out to be. The protests have gathered larger and more heterogenous groups of people across the globe than I ever could have imagined, to advocate for Black lives, for justice, for defunding the police, for building healthy communities, for an end to white innocence. The Supreme Court ruled that you can’t be fired for being trans. Then they ruled that the Trump Administration can’t immediately end the protections for the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers. This progress is being led by activists who are Black and undocumented, who are trans and gay, who are bringing the utopian dreams I associate with camp to the outside world. After being in quarantine for months, the first time my family and I went out with others in public was for a socially distanced protest on a big avenue near our house. We stood with our neighbors holding signs reading BLACK LIVES MATTER and INVEST IN COMMUNITIES and UNITE AGAINST RACISM, all trying our hand at a new, better way to be together in America.
Val Wang is the author of the memoir Beijing Bastard as well as the director of the documentary short The Flip Side. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.