“Pin Ups” by Yi Shun Lai

Yi Shun Lai Yi Shun Lai

Short books: digestible in one sitting (think a cup of coffee or, in this instance, the final hour before school pick-up) and self-contained. The idea that few(er) words still pack a big punch. Increasingly, short books and series of short books are becoming more popular, their bite-sized format appealing to readers, writers and publishers alike.

In the case of Pin Ups, Yi Shun Lai writes a personal essay for Little Bound Books Essay Series about her relationship with outdoor sports. Lai, who was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States at age four, weaves into her story a discussion on her own experiences with culture, identity and race.


Pin Ups. Yi Shun Lai (Little Bound Books, September 2020)
Pin Ups, Yi Shun Lai (Little Bound Books, September 2020)

Conversational and observant, Lai opens with a desire to hike the Appalachian Trail and quickly (the essay is a compact 40-odd pages) gets to her backstory:


I’m not sure where I got this idea, because it had certainly never been posited to me in my cushy, advantaged upbringing. And I was never encouraged to get lost in the woods as a child: good girls don’t do such things in my culture.


Her mother buys her a subscription to Teen magazine, but articles on clothes and makeup are discarded for those about girls who ride BMX bikes.


I remember wanting to surf and ski from the minute I became cognizant these activities existed. I clipped those articles too, and pinned them all to my wall.


She is similarly drawn to the outdoors:


I do not love being dirty for too long. But I love the outdoors with a distracting kind of joy. I can lose hours in the simple contemplation of it. I can stare at a stormy sea day after day and watch the sun sear the desert for those same days.


Eventually, Lai finds her footing in adventure racing—multi-sport and often multi-day endeavours that have exploded in popularity around the world, including in Hong Kong. But as she becomes more involved in adventure racing, her experiences lead her to make other observations, including those of race, of being Asian-American in the United States, of gender and of privilege (including her own).

Lai moves through a lot of subject matter and through a number of different people and experiences, both of her past and now as an adult, with a conversational ease that keeps the essay flowing.

Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.