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As a kid growing up in Canada in the 1970s and 80s, there always seemed to be this nature show on TV. I remember wondering a lot about the Asian-looking host who spoke accent-free English. I thought he was a bit odd. First of all, he was always outside. My family wasn’t outdoorsy at all. We never went hiking, and I was probably 18 before I saw my first tidepool.
My parents immigrated from Taiwan in the early seventies and my dad, eager to experience the feeling of owning land, purchased a tiny farmhouse and 10 acres of land in Niagara, Ont. We lived on what my dad called a hobby farm. We had an old tractor to till the soil, and a bunch of tractor attachments (I still don’t know their proper names) to plant stuff and then harvest it later. We had a barn that my dad’s non-outdoorsy friends managed to build. Unfortunately, it was too small for the tractor but perfect to hold farm-related odds and ends, plus a bunch of mice.
There was really nothing to do on the farm. Wheat grows slowly, as do corn, barley and soy. It was hard to think of games to play with the crops, nor could you snack on them. In the summer, when the days were long and hot, I would sometimes walk down to the end of the street, then down the dirt path, to the creek. It was a tiny creek but there was water in it most of the time and a rickety bridge. I spent a lot of time playing in this creek, not because I had somehow become outdoorsy, but because I had nothing else to do. I remember fishing out the snails so that I could hear the satisfying plop when I dropped them off the bridge back into the creek. I remember trying to get crayfish to pinch my stick and trying unsuccessfully to catch grasshoppers. Sometimes I would just sit there, with my legs dangling over the side of the bridge, and watch the water trickle by. When the sun started to set, I would saunter home. Sometimes, I’d watch TV.
I eventually learned that the outdoorsy Asian-looking guy on TV was David Suzuki and that the show was called The Nature of Things. I never really paid that much attention, it was just this guy talking about trees and bears and stuff. One day though, David Suzuki said something that made me pay attention. I remember him talking about his eyes and how some people treated him differently because of the shape of his eyes. It was the first time I had heard someone say something like that on TV. I didn’t really know how to feel. My eye shape was not that different from his. Surely people wouldn’t treat me differently because of the shape of my eyes? Maybe mine were slightly bigger than his and I wouldn’t also get judged in this way? Of course I was wrong. Throughout elementary and high school, kids would pull back the corners of their eyes and sing bewildering songs at me. I didn’t think much of it then – it was a part of life.
In university, I gravitated toward all of the courses related to nature. I learned about this field called ecology and that there were summer jobs where people would pay me to study how animals moved and lived in water. I learned about this thing called graduate school and how people can make a living studying nature. I’m now a professor of ecology at a university in Canada. There are not many professors of ecology who look like me. In Canada I can probably count them on one hand. Through my undergraduate, masters, PhD, and beyond, I did not have a single professor or mentor in this field who looked like me. I have had excellent mentors and I am grateful for their guidance. But, when nobody in your field looks like you, you always wonder if you really belong there.
When I started second-guessing my career path, I often found myself thinking about David Suzuki. I didn’t know it at the time, but growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, with the odd but regular TV-sighting of the Asian-looking guy talking about nature, seeded my fascination with the natural world, and subconsciously guided me to where I am today. For me, David Suzuki made it okay for someone who looked like me to be outdoorsy and to spend my days (and nights) trying to unravel the mysteries of nature.
For the last few years, I’ve been volunteering with the David Suzuki Foundation, helping with a program that teaches and encourages people to photograph and document butterflies in the wild. Recently, my collaborator at the organization introduced me to David Suzuki. I had watched him on TV for decades, heard him speak and read about him in the news, but had never met him. I tried to be cool as a cucumber but in reality, it took everything in me to keep it together. I was my usual witty (hopefully) and slightly sarcastic self. But then something happened. For whatever reason, I started telling him about what he said about his eye shape so many moons ago, and how he was one of the reasons why I do what I do today. Embarrassingly, my usual stoic self morphed into a blubbering ugly-teared mess. He was gracious and immediately told a lighthearted and self-deprecating story about the importance of representation. I was horrified at the emotional wreck I had become (in front of my colleagues too no less), but in reflecting on the night, on his recent retirement from 44 years on the air, and on how he had laid the foundation for people like me to go out and study nature, I’m okay with those tears.
My parents still live on their hobby farm. They’re older now and instead of farming it themselves, they rent the land to a local farmer. I visited recently with my kids. As I was walking around the fields, absent-mindedly staring at the milkweed plants that had popped up on their own, a monarch butterfly circled, glided down and laid some eggs. How in the world the monarch found these few milkweed plants among acres and acres of soy and corn eludes me. But, thanks to my dad’s decision to buy this hobby farm, and to that odd nature show with the Asian-looking host, I get to continue spending my days (and nights) contemplating the nature of these very things.
Michelle Tseng lives in Vancouver.