words: Sadie Maeda
I’ve spent my whole life editing myself down. Toning down my culture for the comfort of others, always at the expense of my own identity. I didn’t bring lunch almost my entire time in school because I didn’t want the stares or the questions–to have someone say, “What’s that smell?” I have a Japanese and Chinese middle name that I never tell people because I’ve been scarred from sharing it as a kid. I changed the way I refer to things because “this is what we call it here.” The things you learn about being Asian when growing up stick with you.
In my experience, the plight of the modern Asian American is that there is a constant internal struggle between being “American” enough to fit in and “Asian” enough to still feel connected to your culture. Usually this results in falling somewhere in between, lost somewhere. Personally, it left me with a feeling of just never being enough.
That’s why Soy Sauce Nation is exactly what snowboarding needs. Founded by Nirvana Ortanez and Andrew “AK” Kelly, it’s more than a community of Asian snowboarders. It’s a safe space to be yourself, where individuality is celebrated and you feel right at home. Because the average Asian American doesn’t look, sound, or act the same. We can not be generalized. We are mixed, quarters, halves, and fulls. We are immigrants, adopted, visitors, first-generation, second-generation, third-, and so on. We speak our native language. We don’t know a lick. We are all so different, yet branded the same.
This is where the Soy Sauce Nation Stir-Fry comes in. Stir-Fry is the second annual SSN gathering, the evolution of their first event, Soy Sauce Nation’als last spring at Mount Hood, that brought together API snowboarders in a way we haven’t experienced before. This time the event was held at Woodward Tahoe at Boreal—and with a lot more sauce power. Kikkoman (aka the king of soy sauce) slid into SSN’s Instagram DMs a couple months ago and a casual joke from last year became reality, as they became a title sponsor for this year’s event, along with Burton.
The event went down April 6-7th, with a community day on Friday the 8th. Nirvana Ortanez, Andrew “AK” Kelly, and Max Tokunaga partnered with Woodward Tahoe to go all out this year. One hundred Asian snowboarders, hailing from all over the world, came to throw down and mix it up. And the event isn’t for just top riders, it’s for everyone–old pros, current pros, ams, groms, industry folks–and it spans generations. The opportunity to connect in real life, rather than just on Instagram, means you really get to know the humans of SSN.
Did you know that Nali Prevedel is a talented composer and songwriter? Or that Austin Hironaka builds hot rods? That Anny Vongsavanh just did her first season at Boreal as a cat operator? And that Alex Grumblatt is studying to become a doctor of chiropractic? We are more than snowboarders and we are more than our skin color.
Vibes were high on the first day. The first ride through the course, you could see that Woodward Tahoe had fun with the build, it’s not every day that get asked to spray paint barrels to look like sushi rolls. Special shoutout to the Woodward Tahoe park crew because the details were immaculate. There was a hip shaped like a soy sauce bottle. Duncan, a member of the park crew, was the artist behind the sushi roll barrels, there was a ball that was painted green as wasabi, and two down rails set up like chopsticks.
People were sessioning those sushi rolls like an all-you-can-eat buffet and throwing down on the jumps. Max even stood on the knuckle with a giant Kikkoman inflatable for the perfect photo oppurtunity. The roof on riders’ right of the course made the perfect viewing platform/dance floor and Kim Woozy’s 90s hip-hop playlist kept energy levels high and people moving. Who doesn’t love a little Chingy while you are hiking?
Post-riding, the whole crew got together for family dinner on the third floor of the lodge and Boreal served up pork adobo and Pancit Bihon, which of course, we smothered in Kikkoman Soy Sauce and Sriracha Mayo. A crew of us went to Donner Lake after dinner. Anny Vongsavanh and Tran Justin took an ice-cold dip and Jen Chang brought a bottle of Sake to toast to the week.
On day two, everybody was feeling loose and playful. The quarter pipe needed a little bit more vert for a proper handplant, so Nirvana, Nali Prevedel, and Phil Bahner picked up some rakes. The rest of the afternoon, there were mini sessions going down on the quarter pipe, wasabi ball, down-rail chopsticks, and a-frame. People were especially have fun on the a-frame, some people hitting the tree to riders right, going one-legged, or generally just trying whatever.
We ended the day with group photos on the soy sauce-shaped hip and I couldn’t help but look around, proud but also slightly sad that it was already over. We all party lapped down for awards and our group hangout as a family. Everyone lost their collective minds when Nirv and AK came out in Kikkoman Soy Sauce costumes. Very, very kawaii (aka “cute” in Japanese).
New this year, Community Day was open to the public, giving anyone the chance to come see what Soy Sauce Nation was all about. It was a whole parking lot party; Kikkoman was giving out free food, Burton was running demos, and Kim Woozy and Sima Bayat of Skate Like a Girl held down the SSN tent to hand out raffle tickets.
Kim also brought a mini-basketball hoop so naturally, we hosted the first annual SSN Knockout Tournament and crowned Naima Antolin and Jordan Sugay the women’s and men’s champs. And in the most high-energy raffle giveaway I’ve ever seen, we gave out an entire table of goodies, including prizes from Skullcandy, Roxy, Burton, Crab Grab, Stance, and Yeti.
Easily my favorite two days of the season, Soy Sauce Nation Stir-Fry at Woodward Tahoe let me experiencing snowboarding in its purest form: without judgment, and with a refreshing lack of ego, zero pressure, and love and smiles all around. How it should be. It didn’t matter what trick you were throwing or what board you were riding, and it sure as hell didn’t matter where you came from or the color of your skin.
Looking around at Stir-Fry, you could see how unique each of us are, but the differences don’t separate us. It’s actually the beauty of SSN and what brings us all closer. We get to teach each other about our cultures, share our experiences, and root for each other. I heard people teaching each other phrases in their native languages, talking about what they ate growing up, and recommending their favorite sauces. Every conversation I had, I felt the eagerness to learn about the things we have in common, just as much as the things that make us uniquely ourselves.
So to my fellow Soy Sauce Nation, don’t shy away from your Asianness. Let others live in the discomfort of learning about other people’s cultures, educate them about your food and traditions, and bring them into the party instead of assuming that they won’t understand. Because the ones that are the true allies, the supporters of our truest selves, are eager to learn.
To the Soy Sauce Nation, thank you all for being exactly who you are. Thank you for showing up, beautifully and authentically as yourselves. For reminding me to be proud of my roots. The world isn’t like Soy Sauce Nation but for a few days a year, when Nirvana Ortanez, Max Tokunaga, and Andrew “AK” Kelly have created a space for us to call home and gather like family.
So find your community, MAKE your community, and let’s bring more people in. In the parting words of AK, “This is your community. You are the Soy Sauce Nation.”
Special shoutout to Boreal Mountain and Woodward Tahoe for going above and beyond to be an ally to us, we can’t thank you again for opening your gates to us for a couple of days. Big ups to Kim Woozy and Sima for putting on the community day. Thank you to Lauren, Juan, and Lulu over at Kikkoman for joining us in the fun and supporting the event. We are so grateful to all the sponsors, Burton, Roxy, Crab Grab, and all the brands that provided giveaway products, Stance, Yeti, by kvp, and Skullcandy.
As always, we wouldn’t be anywhere without our fearless leaders, Nirvana, AK, and Max. To you, we toast our soy sauce bottles and say thank you for everything you do. <3
Soy Sauce Nation Stir-Fry Awards
Yeti Beast Shred: Steve Lauder and Iris Pham
Burton Surf Style: Nali Prevedel and Jamal Awadallah
Kikkoman Sauce Boss: Jen Ngo
Youth Ripper: Ace Pena and Bea Kim
Send-sei: Alice Gong and Bong Carandang
Love You Long Time: Kelsey Van Patten and Joe Tayabji
Best Overall: Naima Antolin and Keyser Murphy