The Sassy Environmentalist
Ten years ago, we first met in the basement of the Central branch of the Windsor Public Library. Two years went by and we saw little of each other, though she stood out in the halls of our math-oriented South Windsor high school for her unique fashion sense and cheery disposition.
It was when we took an English class together that we got to know each other better. I liked her outspoken nature. We didn't live far from each other either. One weekend we went to see Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland at SilverCity… and the rest is history.
I now know she'll watch anything featuring the Rat Pack or Audrey Hepburn, and her favourite documentaries are Chasing Coral and Tapped. She's not a big reader but she loves Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and "any non-fiction biographic-type female power book."
In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that Eileen Chen is my best friend … and a force to be reckoned with. Highly conscious of her surroundings, her favourite place is in nature without the mosquitoes. "I don't really have a personal philosophy in life other than 'be nice to other people' and 'try to create less waste,'" she tells me. She holds a bachelor's in Environmental Science from the University of Windsor and attributes her passion for the environment to learning about its importance to society in school from a young age.
Keep reading to learn more about the world according to one sassy environmentalist.
RS: How did your upbringing affect you?
EC: I grew up in an odd environment and I can't describe it all in words. I can say that, growing up in an immigrant family, there were tons of challenges between Chinese culture and adapting to the Canadian culture. I've never found a true sense of belonging because my parents were not able to relate with me growing up and that affected my mental health (and caused some heat between them). My parents weren't overly environmental.
RS: What gets you down?
EC: I can always complain about overconsumption or that people don't even recycle. But what gets me down is myself sometimes. I am always so hard on myself. "Am I doing everything possible?" I love to be productive and I love to feel wanted and do a good job, but sometimes I get down and I shut down. I don't really know how to explain it but I address it as mental health.
RS: What are your self-care strategies?
EC: To get out a funk, try something new. Nothing crazy like meth. Just try a new food or a new experience! I like going on hike that my friend Marié made me scale the escarpment for. I also like to unwind lying in my bed. As I'm getting older, I even find enjoyment in organizing my room and doing laundry.
RS: What do you think young people need?
EC: The opportunity to express themselves through different avenues. I like to believe that everyone is creative whether it be in a nice little free library to read and write or free studio space to practice art. I once went to a free sewing class and I adored it. It was so nice to get the basics and get going on a project.
RS: You're on a thrift kick lately.
EC: I have recently purchased some tentree items. I'm starting to get into some new ethical brands. I am trying hard to stay away from fast fashion and I look at items from Reformation, People Tree, and Brave Soles. I've recently purchased a pair of sandals from Brave Soles. They make the shoes from recycled tires and locally sourced leather. They have been my summer staple for many outfits!
RS: What do you study at Niagara College?
EC: Environmental Management and Assessment. I'm pretty passionate about garbage and the diversion and management of waste. So far it’s been really rewarding.
RS: How did you get into waste management?
EC: When I worked at a local municipal recycling center. Being in that environment and teaching children about the importance of recycling sparked my interest in waste and how much of it humans are producing. The life cycle of a product also interests me - from how it's engineered to its purpose and how we dispose of it.
RS: These are not often things people think of.
EC: Out of sight, out of mind. But that "out of sight" is in the sight of marine animals, causing climate change, and affecting other nations.
RS: Tell us what a waste audit is.
EC: A capture of the amount of waste an institution makes in a set period of time (usually a week). All “waste” gets put into different categories. In Ontario O.Reg. 102 is the guideline for waste audits in the IC&I (institution, commercial and industrial) sector. Some of the categories include organics (a big portion of waste), recycling, paper, electronics, clothing, just to name a few.
RS: It's plain to see that people don’t recycle.
EC: You can tell just by the amount of plastic bottles and aluminum cans in the garbage. People will throw anything into a black bag and be done with it. Doing a waste audit is depressing for me. If one institution is creating all this waste, multiply that to the rest of Ontario! Stats say that North Americans produce around four pounds of trash a day per person.
RS: Damn. What's your daily life like?
EC: Right now, my week consists of eight classes, one internship and two part-time jobs. I'm frustrated at school because there are so many things due, but I know it will be worth it at the end.
RS: In university, it was more theoretical; in college, it’s more practical?
EC: Do I wish that I went to an institution that combined both? Absolutely. Is that an option in Ontario? Not that I’m aware of. So here we are; after a university degree and a college certificate, I am finally somewhat ready for the real world.
RS: So what's in your future?
EC: Finding a job and somewhere to live that is preferably not with my parents. And probably some more waste audits.
RS: Are you anxious?
EC: It's challenging, sending resumé after resumé hoping someone will see it and hoping that someone will call you back. It’s like adult job dating. Have I gotten ghosted by a recruiter before? Yes. Did it feel good? No.
RS: Something that people never believe when you tell them?
EC: I was born in Anshan, Liaoning, China but I immigrated to Windsor Ontario when I was 7 years old. Probably due how I act and speak. I find it funny when I meet Chinese people who only came to Canada for university. They think that I can’t speak Chinese and that I am a “CBC." That stands for Canadian-born Chinese but I like to think of it as China-born Chinese. People always tell me, “You have great English.” And I think to myself, was I supposed to have an accent or something? It’s a weird cross-cultural thing.
RS: So you speak English and Mandarin fluently.
EC: Mandarin was my first language but after being in Canada for so long, I consider English the one I'm most comfortable with. There are some words that I cannot pronounce properly like worm (the little creature) or Thorold (in Niagara Region). I dabbled in French a little bit in uni but that's slowly dying … I'll definitely give French more love in the near future.
RS: Another thing people don’t believe is that you have naturally curly hair.
EC: I don’t know where it came from. I just remember I had straight hair when I was young and the next thing you know, I had these curls! Shocker because Chinese women don’t normally have curly hair.
RS: And you always get “You’re in a sorority?”
EC: Yeah. Why is that a shock? I loved Greek Life, I made some amazing friends and had a lot of fun. I worked hard in school and put in a lot of volunteer work. Living outside of Windsor really makes me think how much fun I had while I was there.
RS: I agree. Best concert you've been to in Detroit?
EC: I loved seeing Regina Spektor live, she has a great voice. I’ve actually seen her twice. I’ve been to some amazing concerts with you, Rach. Remember when you bought me tickets to Arcade Fire for my birthday? I still remember our outfits! And one time we bought tickets to Vampire Weekend and you couldn't go so I cut out a picture of you to bring with me to see them.
RS: It still kills me that you did that. What would you recommend to people visiting Windsor?
EC: Most of the restaurants in Walkerville. Favorite pizza and wine is definitely Wineology! I love going there with girlfriends and in fact Rachel, we’ve been there multiple times! Definitely check out Taloola Café for some good coffee, sammies, and dessert. I love most of the food places near the University (Wyandotte West). Who doesn’t want to feed lazy, broke university students?
RS: Of course, let’s not forget the famous shawarma places.
EC: Yes! And check out Basil Court for basement Thai food! I am definitely a Windsor advocate. Maybe not as vocal as some of the hardcore Windsorites out there but I believe Windsor has the potential to prosper.
RS: You really appreciate Essex County too.
EC: Not everyone knows this but the county has tons of wineries. We had the most delicious sangria at Viewpointe!
RS: What were your favourite places when you visited France?
EC: Annecy or Antibes. I love Annecy because it's not full of tourists like Paris and it's got a small town charm. Plus you can rent a cool paddle boat to go out to see the mountains. I love love love Antibes for its beachy vibes, very calming, and there was real sand (unlike Nice, which was all rocks, no thank you).
RS: Which is ironic because you love rocks.
EC: I went on a class trip to the Grand Canyon and, let me tell ya, it was grand. I was amazed by the rock formation and all the ages you can see from different periods. For a student who took so many geology classes in undergrad, that was definitely on my bucket list, and I can't believe i lived it.
RS: I was so happy you got to go! What are your favourite rocks?
EC: That’s a hard question. I just like rocks. Anything from beautiful granites with shiny quartz and feldspar to limestones with the possibility of finding a fossil (very common in the Niagara region). I like rocks that sparkle and have a nice cleavage!
[Note: Cleavage, in structural geology and petrology, describes a type of planar rock feature that develops as a result of deformation and metamorphism. The degree and rock type determines the kind of cleavage feature that develops. Generally these structures are formed in fine grained rocks composed of minerals affected by pressure solution.]
RS: You also went to Colorado.
EC: Hiking up the Rocky Mountains and getting to see the Garden of the Gods was pretty sweet. The Southwest has some great rock formations and the desert is just so darn cool!
RS: You have a bit of an unrequited love affair with nature.
EC: I love the nature but it doesn't like me back. I'm allergic to everything out in the wild as well as dust inside the house too. I love going on fun hikes and to see scenery. Moving to Niagara has made me more appreciative of all the great hiking places around the region.
RS: What about camping?
EC: I like camping but with decent amenities like running water. I once tried to go out "real" camping and I was miserable. Shitting in the forest while contemplating how many mosquitos have bitten my ass is a different sensation from booking a camp site at a provincial park. The issue is you can't be loud at night and there are usually always family around. I recommend private camp sites that allow more freedom.
RS: When do you feel most comfortable?
EC: When I'm in PJs on my bed, preferably in a face mask. I like to dwell by myself in my room (preferably with some nice munchies and a funny movie or binging a Taiwanese drama) and cry myself to sleep. I feel comfortable with my friends and familiar people but I can also feel really comfortable in a room not knowing people. I guess it's just how the day is and what I'm feeling that day.
RS: You know how to work a room. You're always trying to make people laugh.
EC: I find that laughter is not the best medicine but it sure helps a gloomy ass day.
RS: When was the last time you felt truly happy?
EC: Most days I'm happy. I'm happier when I stay off social media because that allows me to avoid comparing my life to others. Definitely better for my mental health to take breaks from society and just unwind and unplug.
RS: What websites do you visit besides social media?
RS: Where do you volunteer?
EC: Conservation authorities because they do environmental protection outreach. You can find me volunteering for local clean ups and hopefully running them in the future. I used to enjoy volunteering for places that raised money and then I found out that they were too capitalist for me and that money is not often going to what they say it's going. I will always be there if I can volunteer for some kind of environmental event. That's my shit.
RS: Can you comment on the current state of Ontario politics?
EC: I honestly can't even. I hate Doug Ford and I hate Ontarians for electing him as our leader. I think he's doing a lot of damage.
RS: Do you wish the Green Party had more say?
EC: Of course but people are not ready for that nor are they informed of what is to come. i mean i'm not a political person but I definitely have a better sense now that I am voting and really care about some of the issues. Who knows, maybe I'll run for city council one day and see where that takes me.
RS: I would love to see you on city council.
EC: I believe to be able to make big changes it has to come within the system. As sad as it is, the government doesn't work for us, they work for themselves.
RS: What else do you find deceiving in our world?
EC: I find everything deceiving. You'll never know the real answers to anything.
RS: Does capitalism affect you?
EC: Everyday because I work in retail. I see overconsumption and materialism first-hand. I used to sell makeup, skincare and bath items. Now I sell purses. What's the difference? Nothing. I actually hate the general public. The reason why these stores do so well is because people are BUYING. People are spending money that they don't have and they are basing their lives off of materialistic gain. Do you really think that a purse is going to make you seem like you're rich because you got a name brand that was made in China with poor labour practices and horrible quality cowhide? Psh, give me a break.
RS: You don't believe in retail therapy.
EC: I don't believe in retail therapy anymore because it does not address the root cause of why you're upset. If anything, it makes you fall into this downward spiral and that unhappiness is going to continue. The world is unjust and we already know this.
RS: So you're changing your own behaviours.
EC: I personally don't think that the world is going to change, but I can change my own behaviours to help myself save money and concentrate on more experiences. Money is always going to be a way people label themselves.
RS: Would you describe yourself as minimalist?
EC: I've really been into the idea of minimalism. I am not a minimalist by any means but I think the idea helps us differentiate [from capitalist values] to live a happier life. Anyways, I could go on and on but at the end of the day, what am I doing to not contribute to capitalism? Can I quit my retail job? No, because I need the money.
RS: But you can reject it by not buying into it.
EC: Yep, that's just my two cents.