Exactly twelve years ago on this day, I was in my tiny apartment watching Roger Federer complete a career grand slam in tennis. School was far from my mind: just a year prior, I’d resolved to take a break from college because I was burned out, stressed, constantly worried about money, and frankly uninspired by my experiences interacting with an overwhelmingly white and exclusive group of students and faculty in the marine science circles at my previous university. I was working in a local county office as an entry-level assistant, filing and imaging paperwork and proofreading court documents. I was relishing having weekends free so that I could do things like watch my favorite sportsperson on TV live, instead of on a recording days or weeks later. Watching Roger play a match was one of many available fun distractions from my thoughts about my future, or about how far I had deviated from my original intentions to pursue a career in marine science.
As a young child, it was always assumed I’d become a doctor or work in medicine. It’s the “child of Asian immigrants” stereotype, and being a kid who excelled in math and science meant that those expectations were placed on me. Although he’s now mostly retired, my father practices traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture, herbology, moxibustion, and acupressure, and he’d always wanted me to follow in his footsteps. Becoming a doctor and practicing Western medicine was a compromise: I’d be able to break from family tradition, but it wouldn’t be a break that would disappoint my family because the exchange was for a career with high prestige, and hopefully, high income.
As I neared the end of high school, I began breaking away from those expectations. I had started coming out to close friends that I was gay, and began writing short stories about men who loved other men in our high school’s underground magazine, partly from a teenage desire to shock people at my staid private high school, but also as a way of outing myself to the wider school community by proxy. I got abysmally poor grades in some math classes, which was a shock to me and those around me at the time, but absolutely unsurprising in retrospect, considering that I had been placed into advanced classes well before I should have been. Perhaps that was because I “looked the part.” I was still interested in biology, but because I wanted to become a biologist, not a doctor. Still, when I first attempted to go to university, I applied to be and was accepted as a pre-med student.
That first semester of university was terrible. I had skipped first grade and my birthday falls months after most school years begin, so when I began college I was only sixteen. I’d never lived away from my parents for more than a week. I went to New England for school thinking I would be fine on my own, and I wasn’t. I was constantly homesick, and just learning how to be an adult and attend to my basic needs, from cooking to doing laundry, ate into so much of my time that I wasn’t able to devote as much time as I wanted to my studies. I was also living with a much older roommate who regularly drank and ran a fake ID business out of our room, so I didn’t have a place to study without distractions. I would wait until he fell asleep close to midnight, then turn on a small desk lamp and start my work.
I started missing classes because I kept sleeping through my alarm after staying up late to prepare well for quizzes and exams. This was something I always did in high school but got away with because my mom would always force me awake if I was running late. I didn’t realize until I was older how much my mother had done for me when I was a child and teenager so that all I had to think about was excelling in school, and what a privilege that had been.
That first semester, I’d signed up for classes that I thought would be in my wheelhouse: biology classes with a heavy emphasis on lab work and research. I didn’t hate it, but because I was so stressed out outside of my classes, I couldn’t dive into the coursework. I performed terribly. And biology wasn’t what I thought it would be, at least based on my experience in these classes. I was in lots of cold, dark lab spaces, surrounded by cold, dark instruments, in cold, dark, tower-like buildings of metal and glass and brick. It felt like the exact opposite of biology, and I found it hard to be excited about it.
I left that school and eventually transferred to one in California. By this time I knew I was interested in marine biology, inspired by my love of the San Mateo County coastline and how much I had missed it during my time in New England. I spent a huge portion of my childhood on that coast, and my memories of it are intensely personal and complex. However, even with this new direction, I was still too young and unprepared, and still stuck in classes that I hated. The field of marine science was even whiter then than it is now, so I never felt I belonged either, particularly since I was now some years older than most other undergraduates and wasn’t dressed for the field with apparel from REI either. So I left again. It took me a long time to get over the burnout and the horrible experiences and to finally decide to go back to a local community college six years ago.
It was at this college that I realized how much I’d learned during my time away. I took courses that I’d taken multiple times in the past, but this time, I realized that I actually deeply understood the material, and all because I was finally in a personal place where I could be fully present and ready to learn. Even on days when I was having issues in my personal life, I learned that somewhere along the way I had acquired the mental tools I needed to be able to not let that affect my work. I’d also learned that if those tools weren’t enough and my personal life was bleeding into my work, it was okay to miss a class, to turn in an assignment late, and to avoid beating myself up over not being perfect.
I learned that I loved field work and field research. I took a course that brought myself and other students out into marshes full of cordgrass and pickleweed and mudflats dotted with sandpipers in the southern half of San Francisco Bay; a park that was a thrilling mix of serpentine grassland and coast live oak woodlands; and a state park on the rocky and ever-dramatic San Mateo County coast. Having been born and raised in the area, I’d always had a strong sense of place, but this class deepened it, albeit with a settler science approach to seeing the world. Still, it gave me even more clarity about what I wanted to do: to work in marine science, but to do research in a way that provided me opportunities to be outdoors, to connect with the land and water, and to ground me in a deeper way to my surroundings.
A year after community college, I transferred into San Francisco State University with two associate’s degrees. In my second semester I took field courses on the biology of algae and on wetland ecology. I had to drive nearly three hours round trip twice a week to get to the Estuary & Ocean Science Center, where both these classes were held, but I did it and loved it. From traveling all around San Francisco Bay exploring salt marshes and eelgrass beds to collecting seaweeds from Bodega Bay and making my own personal herbarium collection, I soaked it all in. One morning before getting absolutely drenched and muddy at a huge marsh restoration site, I put on a wetsuit for the very first time. I even aced my chemical oceanography course—a subject I had done terribly in at the last four-year university I had attended.
As that semester was ending, I took a weekend trip to Seattle to watch Roger Federer play a charity match, and to visit some parks and shorelines I’d seen and loved on a previous visit to the city years ago. It was during that weekend that my boyfriend and I went on what we now consider our first date: a hike in Discovery Park followed by some Thai food in Ballard.
During finals week, I asked my phycology and wetland ecology professors if I could work in their labs over the summer, and they both said yes. I ended up staying on at the Boyer Lab for almost two years, and during my time there, I became close friends with a graduate student in the lab. She loves Roger Federer too, and we once went to see him play an exhibition match in the Bay Area.
As part of the Boyer Lab, I also explored the eelgrass beds of San Francisco Bay. I learned to kayak on the job at a sprawling, muddy restoration site on a morning that featured triple-digit temperatures. I identified thousands of zooplankton under a microscope. I learned how much the people who do this work love the land, the water, and the life they study.
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia (January 2015) – Roger Federer feeds wild bottlenose dolphins before the start of the 2015 Brisbane International tennis tournament. Around the same time the year before, Federer was filmed in Brisbane with Tinkerbell, a koala. (Video credit: Tourism & Events Queensland)
Around this time two years ago, I was getting ready to say goodbye to my boyfriend and my two part-time jobs for five weeks to travel to San Juan Island and take an intensive summer course on the ecology of infectious marine disease at the UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL). I’d asked to be admitted into the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs quarter early so that I could count the class toward my course requirements, so it was technically my first class as a grad student even though I wouldn’t meet my SMEA cohort until a few months later. I was one of two SMEA students studying at FHL that summer.
When I became a SMEA student, I had no clue what these past two years would have in store for me. I didn’t know that I’d get involved with fellow students’ efforts to advance justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) within SMEA, an effort that had been a long time coming and was given fresh energy by the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence last year.
I didn’t know that after just under two quarters of in-person instruction, I’d be spending the rest of my time perched at the bar counter separating my kitchen from the rest of my apartment, constantly on Zoom, watching my boyfriend lose his job and go on unemployment as I struggled to cobble together a patchwork of research assistantship funding, short-term fellowship funding, part-time student jobs, teaching assistant positions, and student loans. I didn’t know a close family member would be assaulted in a park near their home in Los Angeles for Walking While Asian during a pandemic.
I didn’t know how changed I would become as an ecologist after reading about, meeting, listening to, and learning from Indigenous stewards and scientists. I didn’t know that, after studying eelgrass ecosystems at Friday Harbor and at San Francisco State University’s Estuary and Ocean Science Center, I would be perched on artificial floating wetlands in the Lower Duwamish River last summer, collecting data and working with community scientists at a distance. I didn’t know I’d be back at FHL this quarter as a teaching assistant, ending my master’s program where I started and doing my best to instill that love of place in my students.
My research during my time at SMEA had a significant field component that had to be dramatically cut back due to the pandemic, and because of that I didn’t get to connect with place and with people as much as I had hoped. I don’t find that my motivation or passion for the work I do has been hurt by that, though. If anything, my appreciation for the living world—and the opportunities for healing, both personal and environmental, it provides—has only been amplified over this past year. I’m open to having my career trajectory change quite drastically, as that is something that has happened to me multiple times already. However, at this point it’s hard to see myself doing something other than what I do, which is to practice ecosystem restoration, in service not just to the environment, but to the community, to myself, and to my own sense of belonging in the world. I think that’s why I do this work, to a large extent.
Yesterday, Roger Federer withdrew from the same tournament where he completed his career grand slam twelve years ago. He had just won his third-round match, but he stated that he wanted to protect his health since he’s coming back from two knee operations. He’s received some criticism for the decision, but I see it as a sign of maturity. Sometimes it’s okay to miss a match, to say no to an obligation, and to put your health first at the risk of seeming imperfect.
Nowadays he’s a lot older than when I first became a fan, but Federer is still competing at a point in his life when most tennis players would have retired. He’s nowhere near as quick or dominant as he was, but he’s still playing, and people generally agree that it’s because he loves what he does so much. When he won that third-round match, it was in an almost completely empty stadium because France is under a COVID-19 curfew. Because the match was scheduled for the late evening, he didn’t finish until well after midnight.
Still, when he was interviewed afterward, he said: “I love tennis. I love to play.”
Tomorrow is World Oceans Day. It’s difficult to express how much the ocean—its shores, its people, and its roaring waters—means to me, and how much purpose it gives me. If you don’t yet have something in your own life that gives you this feeling, I sincerely hope you find it.