Skate free or die

On the board, I could be the kind of girl I wanted to be -- fearless, gnarly and completely myself.

By Soo Young Lee
June 24, 2003 7:38PM (UTC)
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Dream: I am skating on a disco board, flexi metal and light pink with the grip tape going down the center. Sailing down a hill that never ends but curves around islands of tree-filled parks, my hair billows behind me and brushes past my face as I swerve around each curve. My friends and family watch and cheer. There is no rush and every movement seems to be caught in a single flow. It's just me, my board and my loved ones there to witness my dance through the streets. "Trusty" (the name I gave my skateboard) moves with the slightest turn of my hips. At the end of the hill, there is a 10-foot vertical ramp that I drop into, leaning my body forward, knees loose and slightly bent. Riding the board from side to side, I feel as if I am being gently pulled from both ends by an invisible rope. Hips and knees guiding the board upward and downward, my hands are up in the air with the breeze slipping through my fingers.

When I was an 18-year-old freshman at Boston University, one of my best friends at the time, Coop, gave me his Lance Mountain skateboard. It was a gift that embodied his youth. I know that he sweat and toiled on that board all throughout high school. He learned some of his first tricks and got beaten up for being a skate punk while carrying it around. Every time I stood on the worn and chipped plywood, the spirit of his rebel years traveled through my red Converse high-tops to my knees and up through my whole body.


Once I started skating, I couldn't stop. I was struggling and tumbling off that board in between classes, at night after dinner, after parties, even Sunday mornings when everyone else was still hung over. I swear you need balls to have natural balance on a skateboard. My breasts, slim hips and girly shape were fighting to stay on the damn thing. But I achieved a decent sense of balance after many road rashes, scabs and swearing until my tongue felt numb.

Skating to class was a thrill because I did not have to rush. I could move at my own pace and enjoy the ride. Sometimes on rainy or snowy days, I would ride the shuttle to campus and then enter one of the long buildings. I would set my board down on the smooth marble floor and glide from one end of the hallway to the other. "One, two, three, one more time," I would whisper to myself, while trying to squeeze in one more ride across the floor before class. The sound of the hard rubber wheels on marble settles inside you; that whirr lets you know that everything is flowing, moving as it should be.

It took a few months to get good enough to skate to class and around Boston. The Esplanade, a very long stretch of smooth concrete running along the Charles River, was the best place to skate. On weekends it was too crowded with dog walkers, runners, rollerbladers, walkers and lazy lovers, so my friend Tita and I decided we would skate there at night. The shadowy corners and isolated paths were perfect for muggers. I could hear the voice of the campus security guard saying, "The Esplanade is not for after hours," each time I let my board down to echo across the hard concrete laid out before us. To battle the dangers of the night, we would get all thugged out like we were an Asian gang. After layering our clothes to bulk up, we would put on big flannel shirts borrowed from guy friends and tie bandannas in gangster style across our foreheads. Then we would head out to the Esplanade and have the whole flat path to ourselves. We screamed and laughed when we flew off the board because an acorn or stick blocked our path. There was no one there to watch us except for a few sleepy homeless people. Even now, I can return to that rush of adrenaline I felt while riding down the spiraling paths, taking sharp turns and making it to the bottom in one piece. The night was glorious, and the wind off the Charles River only seemed to aid our efforts.


The night adventures did not stop there; suddenly, the whole city felt like it was ours to skate on. We would take our boards out to Copley Square in the middle of the night. There is a beautiful fountain and marble walkway in front of the Boston Public Library. Our skate goddess was there; she was dressed in robes of green and gray and rested her stately arms between the entrance to the library. When we stood below this statue, we would blow her a kiss and raise our boards in her honor. She protected us from harm and blocked all fears from our mind. As long as we were skating, she promised to ease pain, relieve sadness and guarantee laughter.

These nightly trips gave us the perfect study break. After a while, we dropped our protective masculine costumes and started wearing our own outfits on wheels. Red and bleached blond hair were tangled by the wind while legs covered in layers of ripped-up tights rippled with muscles. The extra clothes felt like some sort of protection we no longer needed. We were stripping away something, the nagging voices that told us to behave like young ladies. It's most fun to skate with a skirt and tights; the wind blows across your thighs, the air travels up your skirt and between your legs.

As we let go of our inhibitions, the fierceness of our skating increased. We glided later and later into the night and into all the dark corners of the city. Our boards were potential weapons, our protection. We knew that with one swing we could do some serious damage to skin and bones.


It was really easy to spot us: I had short blue hair and often wore striped tights with hot pants. Tita, who was Filipino, had blond hair and wore kilts and skirts made out of ties. Every time someone looked at my gnarliness with disdain on his or her face, I remembered being a child and how I was yelled at for not being ladylike, for climbing trees in my skirt, laughing heartily with my mouth open, and begging to take Tae Kwon Do lessons.

I had never wanted to be a cheerleader, and I refused to be a "Betty," which is the term for girls who hang out with skater guys and hold their boards and drinks while they work up a sweat. These "Bettys" watch with earnest interest while the boys tirelessly go round and round the park. They wait for the cool boys to look their way and give them a smile -- a reward for being there. I have watched these young women sit and bake in the sun to witness their guy friends flip their boards up and down, twist and turn their bodies, and cuss and spit endlessly. It seems so clear to me that these young women are dying to laugh, skate, play on their own. They look at me with suspicion -- why is she here? Is she here to steal our men or impress them? No, I was there to skate, to fall, to cuss and to learn something new or at least find a new place for a scab. The funny thing is that these young boys on boards are probably just as nervous and weirded out by someone watching them make mistakes and stumble over their boards. I think young women sometimes forget about the power they hold over men. I too enjoy watching people skate, watching young lean bodies work up a sweat trying to land a trick perfectly; but at some point, I have to get on the board myself.


A board is about rebellion, not just against conventional stereotypes, but against anything that does not fit your way of life. Skating lets you start over with your own set of values and styles. It's like that with your body too. As you start skating, you have to learn all over what feels right for you -- whether you want to push off with your left or right foot, how much you have to lean your weight to create a turn, what bumps to ride over and which to avoid. Skating teaches you movement, balance and pain. I realized that as I was pushing off with my left foot, trying to gain speed, anger often welled up inside me. My jaw would tighten and tension would rise in my throat. Once I gained speed, I felt fine. Maybe this is how it is for everyone.

I would find anger hidden behind many corners and joints in my body. While skating, to forget my cramps, I recalled the freedoms that were taken away from me when I got my period. I was 10 years old when I hit puberty. Before then, I was allowed to roam free in my neighborhood until dark. My childhood friend Andy and I would climb the highest tree on the block and watch the sun go down, firing up the sky. But after I was "stained" as a woman, I was not allowed to sleep over anyone's house or stay out late or do many of the things I had enjoyed. The message that was given to me said: You are now a lady and therefore weak and vulnerable to dangers of the world. Stay indoors, stay demure, accept your fate.

On the board I could be as girly as I wanted and as wild as I wanted. Being on a board, making the sweet sound of wheels on concrete, with all eyes on me, gave me a vehicle, a jump-start to this expression. My mother often called me wahlguh duk, which means wild, unruly thing in Korean. Even then I took pride in being this wild girl, the black sheep in the family, but there was a split in how I presented myself to the world. In front of family and company, I played the good little Korean girl waiting to be spoken to, laughing quietly. Then by sneaking around and taking a change of clothes and a bag full of punk-rock makeup to school, I was free to be me. The skateboard let me be both, to take back what was mine: the girl dying to take woodworking class; the girl who was proud to beat up the neighborhood boys who called her "chink" even though she got spanked for it afterward; the girl who was a tomboy and wore her pink dress while playing kickball; the girl who had enough rage to rip up a phone book in her room when faced with a no that was so easily given as a yes to her brother; the girl who loved playing with her china set and climbing trees.


I skated to get that girl back.

Now, at 32, I'm teaching my 7-year-old son how to skate, and he is already a natural. I figure, start him early before he knows fear, before he has to second-guess what people might think about what he chooses to do. He struggles with balance too, with his butt sticking out and hands waving in the air, but I see his face when he glides down the newly paved road down the street. I know he feels what I feel on my board -- ecstasy.

There will come a time when my son will reject the things I've taught him, a time when he might toss the skateboard aside just to piss me off. I will do my best to not take this personally. But sometimes I have nightmares that he'll want to go to prep school or carry a Louis Vuitton briefcase or take up golf. Everyone chooses his or her own instrument for rebellion. I don't know what my son's will be, but my only hope for him is this: That by sharing my passions with him, I have planted the seeds of defiance that will someday be turned against me.

Soo Young Lee

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