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Just Call Him “Luke”: East Meets West in Montana

Just Call Him “Luke”: East Meets West in Montana

Guangzhou, China, is a long way from Bozeman, Montana. It’s a long way from pretty much everywhere if you live in the Western Hemisphere. But for a perpetually happy young Chinese immigrant named Luke, home is where your heart is. His real name isn’t Luke, of course, but he knows that Li Haoxin is difficult for Americans to spell and pronounce, so when he smiles and shakes your hand, he says “I’m Luke.”

His infectious smile is hard to resist, and you soon get the sense that Luke is right where he wants to be. He shares a house just off the Montana State University campus in Bozeman with two roommates; one is my son Jack, and the other is another friend with Chinese ancestry who came to Montana by-way-of Canada. They met their first year in college and the friendship has lasted. The duplex they share looks like a thousand other houses near MSU, but there are differences.

As you might expect in a home inhabited by three young men, the bathroom needs cleaning and the video game collection is impressive. More unusual for three twenty-somethings, though—Luke is a helluva cook. The kitchen usually emits some wondrous aroma of Asian origin, but mixed with a thousand other flavors from around the world. And like many Asian chefs, Luke works wonders with the raw materials at hand. In this kitchen, in this town, in a state that revolves around the outdoors, that raw material is frequently wild game.

When Luke moved to the United States to attend MSU back in 2012, he had never hunted. “That just doesn’t happen in China,” he explained in remarkably fluent English one afternoon following an unsuccessful deer hunt west of town. For average Chinese citizens, hunting isn’t an option, and the on-again off-again status of foreign hunting in China complicates the subject even further. The current situation is all a bit murky, as you might expect from a closed country, but apparently tightly controlled legal hunts by residents occur on a strictly limited basis, but only by wealthy Chinese elites.

“I think hunting happens a lot in western China,” Luke explained, “but it’s not really allowed.”

Illicit subsistence hunting in rural China aside, for a kid like Luke, who grew up in a city of 20 million, hunting is as foreign as Montana. Eating isn’t, however. So when Jack started bringing home wild game, Luke didn’t hesitate to use it in the brilliant meals he concocted out of nothing but his imagination and a typical student budget. His Chinese hot pot, for example, is legendary. “My mother taught me to cook with whatever we had in the house,” he said, “and I like to experiment.”

Wild game was, and still is, the Bozeman house’s primary source of protein. Jack was the original source for most of that meat, and since he had grown up hunting deer and birds back in Wisconsin, the young men didn’t starve, but it was touch and go for a while if you ask them.

If hunting was a mystery to Luke, firearms were more so. Even though his father is a police official in Guangzhou, (aka Canton), Luke had never touched a gun back in China, much less owned one. He vaguely recalls seeing his father’s government-issued SKS when he was very young, but that was the extent of his experience. “Private ownership of weapons is completely controlled,” Luke said. “It’s almost impossible for a regular citizen to have a gun.” In fact, it was a revelation to him that average people could own and shoot firearms here without government interference—he just assumed that America was like China when it came to guns. Not surprisingly, it turns out that personal freedom in the Western World “isn’t really taught in Chinese schools.”

When he got to Montana, however, he found a lively and dedicated shooting and hunting culture, and it didn’t take him long to want to join in.

Luke and Jack became roommates in 2014, and Luke quickly expressed an interest in learning to hunt. Jack and other friends with hunting backgrounds were more than happy to oblige. Gun safety was the primary focus, of course, and the expansive shooting complex in nearby Logan, Montana was the perfect place to learn how to safely handle firearms.

They shot everything from .22s to Lapuas, and the Logan range is where I first met Luke, who had to set down a. 223 AR-platform to shake my hand and smile. He had a devil of a time hitting the 100 yard target that day, but he’s a good shot now, and ultra-conscious of gun safety. He had to be, because once he learned to shoot, he also wanted to hunt, and he knew he needed to pass the state’s hunter safety course to get a license. He was also truly worried about wounding an animal and not recovering it—mortified might be a better word. He can’t stand the thought of lost game. So the young men spent a lot of time at the range—they still do.

Even though their busy schedules don’t often line up, the roommates started hunting together in 2016. They took every opportunity to explore the hills and draws near Bozeman together. One appeal of the Bozeman area is that public hunting lands are numerous—another surprise to Luke—and they are convenient enough that Luke, Jack and the other members of their hunting cadre get to chase critters with some regularity.

If you let Luke choose the game, he’ll pick upland birds every time, since so many Asian dishes revolve around poultry. But there’s a lot more meat on an elk or a mule deer, so not much arm-twisting is necessary to get him out into the mountains for bigger quarry. Besides the immediate Bozeman area, the young men have a ranch to hunt near Alder, Montana, where the hills hold game of all kind, including muleys and elk.

Luke most certainly prefers early-season hunting—snow is still something of a curse for this kid from the tropics of southern China. He had no experience with the white stuff until he got to Montana, and for Luke, the slipping and sliding is vexing. In retrospect, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Luke grew up wearing knock-off Nike’s on city streets. Traversing icy mountains while chasing game wasn’t on his radar screen. Fortunately, he’s not the type to give up easily. According to Jack, “He just needs better boots.”

Indeed, he needed a lot of help outfitting himself with hunting gear—everything from footwear to backpacks had to be acquired on a meager budget, and with lots of advice from his Montana friends. A local thrift shop and clearance sales at the abundant sporting goods stores in Bozeman ended up being an asset for Luke, and he was able to gather some quality outdoor gear and still be able to put gas in his car.

Hunting rifles were an issue, too. Since he obviously didn’t bring any with him from China, for now, everything he uses has to be borrowed. Fortunately, loaners are pretty easy to come by from his Montana friends. That’s one of the things he loves about Bozeman—his friends all hunt, and they encourage him to keep going. For the deer/elk hunt, he used a borrowed (and scoped) .308 Thompson/Center Icon. Luke admits he is definitely a better shot with a scope than he is with iron sights, but he’s working on learning to shoot open sights, too. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to afford a scope when he gets his first deer rifle, and he figures it might help him with his wingshooting, too.

Luke didn’t connect on that first big-game hunt. Deer were scarce, and the elk stayed high in the Rubies, but it didn’t matter. He is hooked now on a quintessential American outdoor past-time. He didn’t know such things were possible when he was back in China. Now, he truly cherishes the outdoor life he has created for himself in Montana, and he can’t imagine losing the ability to hunt and shoot.

Ultimately, he wants to stay in Montana—he wants to build a business; he wants to hunt more; he wants to keep shooting at the range; he wants to have his own guns; and he wants to teach his friends and family back in China about the adopted American lifestyle he loves. The smile doesn’t lie. He’s happy to be where he is.

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