Dr Cyren (Asteraceya) Wong talks to us about finding his place in nature.
Most people know me as “Dr Cyren (Asteraceya) Wong” of Naturetalksback, but I did not always go by this name. I started coming out to my family and community at the age of 14. I believe they have always had my best interests at heart, but the pre-existing norms and values of our society got in the way and only succeeded in pushing me to a point where I felt effectively estranged for years. By the age of 16, I believed that I could only be happy if I was like “everybody else”. There were always expectations that I have never been able to fulfil which have always instilled within me a sense of profound inadequacy, anxiety, and insecurity. Giving myself a new name was a powerful reminder that I am my own person, and all I had to do was be able to live up to my own expectations.
As queer people growing up without queer role models, we are always looking for a sense of direction and purpose. What makes sense to us and grounds our lives are often so very different from those of heteronormative folks. “Family”, “Legacy”, and “Security” can all look very different when viewed through the lenses of lgbtq+ lived experiences. This is especially the case for those of us unfortunate enough to be living in situations (familial or socio-political) that are actively detrimental to our identities and wellbeing. Snow White, a character from one of my favourite TV Shows once said; “believing, if only in the possibility of a happy ending, can be a very powerful thing”. Fairy-tale idealism aside, a happy ending is a metaphor for hope. Happy endings motivate us to plan for the future, to live beyond the day-to-day. But growing up and being constantly reminded that the possibility of achieving certain life goals (which are freely available to everyone else) are not even accessible to you is enough to make anyone lose the will to thrive.
It was in observing nature, and following in the footsteps of giants like Dr. Jane Goodall and Sir David Attenborough, that I finally found that missing piece that made life make sense. The interconnectedness that is embedded in nature; in food webs and life cycles, and in the evolutionary tree, gave me a sense of belonging and security that I could not find among my peers. I realized that what we have come to understand as lgbtq+ identities are not all that uncommon in the natural world, and that it is all part of the wonderful display of diversity that is life itself. The thought that we are all genetically connected to one another, was a relief and a reminder that I was not alone and that I had a place and purpose in life even if it existed beyond my immediate social group. By appreciating the mechanisms of nature I understood my place in the world, and in coming to this realization, I found a new sense of direction and purpose. It was then that I decided to dedicate myself and my life’s work towards the study and protection of the natural world.
I began my PhD in 2013, where I soon relocated to the rainforests of Peninsular Malaysia for research. There, I was eventually adopted by a woman by the name of Long Baru (also known affectionately as Wah Uji) who was a member of the Indigenous Semai tribe whose ancestors are among the first humans to arrive in Southeast Asia. Although I was concerned at first, my queerness was never an issue for Wah Uji or her community. Gender and sexual identities had very little to do with roles in traditional Semai society, and people were categorized based on “those we can trust”, and “those we cannot”. As such, by taking me on as her foster son, Wah Uji not only welcomed me into her home, but into her community as well. This arrangement opened doors to various pathways of knowledge and wisdom I would have never dreamt of learning otherwise. While there, I documented many indigenous methods of natural resource management, and also their narratives surrounding their interactions with native flora and fauna.
I learnt that valuable knowledge on the ecological processes of the rainforest are embedded within the epistemologies of indigenous people. “Respect”, for example, is a central tenet of Semai custom. And I learnt that various actions pertaining to the preparation of food that are normalized in modern society are actually “disrespectful” when viewed through Semai lenses. For example, the Semai believe that killing or trapping animals in excess – even for the purposes of “storage” – is disrespectful and taboo. The farming of wildlife, or even the slaughter of animals in large quantities, is also not permitted. Additionally, food animals (particularly those of mixed species) should not be kept together (if alive) or slaughtered in such close proximity that their blood or excrement could mix.
Some animals, like flying foxes (a large fruit bat) are so associated with these taboos that they are given the name “Bah Penali”, or Mr. Taboo, and avoided altogether unless necessary. For the Semai tribe, failure to comply, is to incur “badi” (the animal’s curse), which Wah Uji explained can bring forth ecological disasters like “plagues” or “disease”. The influence of “badi” on the Semai community cannot be understated. In fact, some people would rather starve for the day than risk incurring it. The Semai believe that it is every individual’s responsibility to maintain the wellbeing of the entire community for once incurred, “badi” cannot be easily lifted. In serious cases, “badi” can also spread and afflict the entire community. I believe that this is something that we, the rest of the world, have been experiencing for the past two years.
Because of their close interactions with wildlife, it is arguable that indigenous groups have always known about the potential for zoonotic outbreaks to occur. Though not necessarily phrased in the same way, many of these groups have also responded to this threat with various strategies (enacted as indigenous customs and beliefs) that mitigate the conditions for zoonoses. I believe that the methods employed by many local conservationists are too prescriptive and do not fully account for the needs and perspectives of forest-dwelling peoples. Many of the narratives of indigenous people are often summarily dismissed as nothing more than silly superstition. But the rainforest is a living environment for the human communities that continue to inhabit them, and the intimate awareness of indigenous people to some of these changes make them valuable allies in our fight not only to conserve biodiversity and the environment, but also preserve human health.
I completed my PhD in 2017, and am now a head of my own department at the Malaysian branch of Australia’s second largest university. Although I do not do much research with the indigenous community these days(some of the recent projects I’ve been involved in are on urban pollinator conservation, the effect of regular insecticide fogging on non-target invertebrates, and bats), I still feel a strong sense of responsibility to my foster mother and her people and use my platform as an activist and educator to continue championing for their rights. I now go as Dr. Cyren in both my professional and personal circles, and I am a lot more confident these days. Although I had a rough start, I finally feel like I am where I’m supposed to be. I find support in my amazing partner whom I now live with, I am mending my relationship with my family, and in my research and work with nature I can finally find a sense of purpose, identity, and most importantly community.
If you enjoyed this blog, check out some of Cyren’s latest works: