Amidst a global pandemic, spurring an increase in anti-Asian hate and discrimination, a summer camp is bringing Chinese American families together. The Chinese Family Camp, which has held in-person summer camps for decades, held its first virtual camp from July 19 to July 26.
The camp’s origins date back to the mid-1950s with a group of eight Chinese families (known as the 8 family group) in the midwest Chicago area and an organization called the Midwest CSAS (Chinese Students and Alumni Services).
Allen Yang, the son of the first camp director Jean Yang, has been attending since 1959. He said the camp has helped Chinese American children, like himself,
“[Camp] was also a chance for us kids to hang out with our true peers,” Yang said to AsAmNews. “We were children of Chinese immigrants growing up in America trying to figure out: am I Chinese? Am I American? Or what the heck am I?”
Not all families who attend are 100 percent Chinese. Many families who attend have only one Chinese parent.
In the last 15 years, the camp has also helped non-Chinese families teach their adopted Chinese children about their heritage. Non-Chinese parents, their biological children and their adopted Chinese children also attend the camp. Donna Breniman and her 10-year-old daughter Tallula, whom she adopted from China, have been attending Chinese Family Camp since 2015.
Breniman first heard about the camp from her friends MeiMei and Jim Chao. She liked the fact that it wasn’t just an adoptee camp, but a summer camp that focused on heritage.
“Tallula was going to be around people who looked like her and – while she had not experienced everything they had experienced – people she could relate to in a way that I couldn’t give to her being caucasian,” Breniman said.
Breniman said that within the first few days of camp everyone “felt like family.”
In the mid-1950s, Reverend Ellen Studley, the executive secretary of the Midwest CSAS, arranged for a boy from one of the eight families to attend the Glen Eyrie Farm Camp in Lake Delavan, Wisconsin. The boy enjoyed his time at the camp so much that Studley began to organize group vacations at Lake Delavan for the 8 family group and other families involved with the Midwest CSAS.
The vacations were a huge success. The Midwest CSAS began surveying families and found that there was interest in a study camp for children that would teach them about Chinese history, language and culture.
On August 10, 1958, the first “Chinese family camp” was held as a children’s study camp called the Chinese Children’s Study Camp. Only seven children attended. Six of those seven children were either the children of camp director Jeanne Chen or the children of camp counselors.
The Midwest CSAS later learned that parents were wary of sending their children to a children’s only study camp. They began planning a family summer camp for Chinese families across the Midwest. In their search for a central Midwest location, Studley, Edith Young and Jean Yang visited Oakwood Park in Syracuse, Indiana. The park, which was located next to Lake Wawasee, was the perfect location.
In the summer of 1959, camp directors Jean Yang and Edith Young held the first annual Chinese Family Camp. This year’s virtual camp marked the 62nd annual camp.
The camp has been held every year since 1959, and despite the constraints of COVID-19 this year was no exception. Although the camp was held virtually, members said they still felt a strong sense of community.
“I keep thinking physically we’re all together,” Lawrence Wang, the camp’s director told AsAmNews in an interview. “I as a director catch myself thinking I have got to get up early and meet Allen and Elysa [Elysa Chao, president of CFC and grand-daughter of one of the early CFC families] down at the dining room so we can plan.”
That sense of togetherness stems from the long-lasting friendships that camp has built amongst returning members. According to Wang, 80 to 90 percent of campers come from families that have been attending since 1959.
“Because we’ve had the same closeness those previous years those same feelings come about even though we’re not together,” Breniman said.
She added that her daughter Tallula has seemed happier during camp than she has been throughout the pandemic.
The virtual camp has also allowed people who may never have been physically able to attend camp to participate. Yang says that campers they hadn’t heard from in 20 or 30 years have shown up to Zoom sessions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a pivotal moment for Asian Americans. The country has seen a sharp increase in anti-Asian hate and discrimination. Wang says that a virtual camp may have been a blessing in disguise.
“If I was a betting man in Las Vegas, and we physically got together someone would have encountered some racism whether it be a verbal or physical gesture,” Wang said.
The camp invited San Francisco State University Professor Russell Jeung to do a presentation on Asian American discrimination. The camp has also facilitated discussions on activism and racial justice, as many campers had expressed interest in learning more about what they could do to help the Black Lives Matter movement.
Breniman is thankful that she can turn to her fellow campers if or when Tallula has to cope with anti-Asian racism.
“Being a mother with a child adopted from China, these are people I can go to for help – if we encounter something – about what I need to do to help my daughter through a situation that I obviously never experienced,” Breniman said. “It’s been a great resource for me for that.”
Throughout the week, campers tried to be there for one another even though they physically could not be together. The camp hopes it will be able to meet in person next year.
Corrections: A previous version of this article stated that Jim Chao was one of the original campers. He is not.
A previous version of this article stated that 80-90 percent of campers are from families of the original 1959 campers. 80-90 percent of campers are returning campers from previous years, but they do not all belong to families who were campers in 1959.
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