Family Portrait: Eric Cheung

If you’re breathing a little easier these days, you might have Eric Cheung to thank.

Cheung is the senior attorney and program manager of the Clean Air Council and is the former coordinator of the Greater Philadelphia Clean Cities program, which promotes alternative-fuel vehicles. I put down my inhaler long enough to talk to Cheung this week.

PGN: So how did you get to work today? EC: [Laughs.] I rode my bike. I pretty much ride it everywhere.

PGN: Are you from Philadelphia? EC: I grew up in the King of Prussia area and went to Upper Merion High School. I just moved to the city three years ago, but I’ve lived in the suburbs most of my life.

PGN: Where did you go for higher learning? EC: I went to Villanova for undergrad and studied accounting and then went to University of Chicago for law school.

PGN: What did your parents do? EC: My father was a chemist and my mother did financial work. Originally she was a forecaster and then she became a CPA. I have a brother who lives in Delaware and he’s a computer engineer. PGN: What traits do you think you got from your parents? EC: I think I ‘m socially outgoing like my mother. My father is an obsessive recluse and my brother is pretty shy too. My mother is more outgoing than I am but I’m the next most sociable in the family. I can’t think of anything that I got from my father.

PGN: What’s your ancestry? EC: My parents emigrated from China.

PGN: Did you play a lot with your brother as a kid? EC: He’s seven years older than me, so we weren’t around each other a lot socially. But I really looked up to him. He helped me with my homework and I always felt that he understood things better than I did. I might get an A, but I always felt that he actually understood the work. I remember in physics having a teacher that wasn’t good at explaining things, so I’d cry to my brother and he’d make it clear.

PGN: What did you like to do as a kid? EC: I was a bit of a loner until high school. I used to collect toys. I had a hodgepodge of figurines that I’d play with. Masters of the Universe, Star Wars figures and Transformers would play along with Garfield and the Smurfs. I would create a fantasy world where all the toys would get along. I didn’t really socialize much. I talked to people in school, but I wouldn’t go over to people’s homes or anything like that.

PGN: How did you blossom? EC: I met a guy in high school who had a better understanding of social friendships who really drew me out. He’d call me just to talk, which felt really weird to me at first. I wasn’t used to people calling or wanting to hang out with me, but he was persistent and after that I began to open up to people. I joined the track team and really got into extracurricular activities.

PGN: What were some of your activities? EC: I did everything. I finally came out of my shell and was really empowered to do everything. I always got good grades but now I started to pad my résumé for college. I participated in choir, orchestra, math club, academic decathlon, cross-country, the environmental club, you name it. I was the valedictorian of my class. It made me feel good about myself but at the same time it was one of the most difficult times of my life. It was a terrific workload to take on. I’d routinely go to bed at 2 a.m. and be up at 6 a.m. When I went to Villanova, it was actually a break, it was so easy in comparison. Law school was a different thing: For the first time in my academic life I felt that, at my best, I was only in the middle of the group. It was a good growth experience. It taught me to enjoy learning instead of just focusing on the grade.

PGN: So how did you end up as an environmentalist? EC: Chicago University was a great law school but it focused on getting people into lucrative law firms after graduation. There wasn’t much focus on public interest, so I worked at a law firm for a year because I didn’t know what else to do. It didn’t work out, so I decided to follow my heart and choose the area I wanted to focus on. I always was interested in the environment and wanted to lend my skills to the cause. It’s funny: The nonprofit community is very informal and in some ways hidden from sight, so it was kind of hard to figure out how to get in. It’s mostly through networking. I called the Clean Air office out of the blue and talked to [executive director] Joe Minott and asked him what opportunities were available for someone with a legal background. About a month later, I went to a Clean Air Council 5K run. I wanted to run for the cause and I thought it would be a good networking opportunity. Joe saw me and told me he might have a job for me. And here I am.

PGN: So, changing gears, do you collect anything? EC: I used to collect stamps, but I’m not very active with them anymore. I have a problem getting rid of things, though, so I’m a bit cluttery. I’m into horror and fantasy, so I collect things that are related, whether it’s comic books, music or figures.

PGN: What’s your most prized possession? EC: Back in ’96 I got an appointment book. I would write in my meetings and things that I was doing. I kept the first one because it was a ‘Garfield’ book and I loved the little comic strips inside. As they started accumulating, I enjoyed having a reminder of what I’d been doing at a particular point in time. Now I kind of use it as a journal. I don’t write thoughts down but keep track of what I’ve done each day. If I’m going through something troubling, I can look back and say, “You’ve been through this before and you got through it.” As time passes, I’ve learned that there’s nothing that bad that you can’t get through.

PGN: A fond childhood memory? EC: I loved going to Disney World with my family. I liked Tomorrowland and later the Epcot Center and the Journey Into Imagination attraction. Before my mother died, I took her back to Disney World. My favorite ride now is the MGM [now Hollywood Studios] Tower of Terror. I don’t remember a lot from my childhood, but I remember it as a good time. I think it was a time when I was at 100-percent happiness. But that is balanced by the fact that your expectations were low back then. It’s weird. Since then, I’ve experienced the death of a parent, lost loves, lost dreams, and yet have had first kisses, new accomplishments, new complications and challenges. I often wonder which was the better place, but I think the best time after all is right now. The high points aren’t as consistent, but they’re more intense and meaningful.

PGN: How was coming out? EC: I think I always knew since grade school. I remember wanting to hang out with boys all the time. In high school, I was so focused on academics I pushed it aside and was essentially asexual. I didn’t have a real experience until I went to Chicago. My best friend there noticed that I never dated or talked about girls and just came out and asked me if I was gay. I normally would have avoided it, but I just decided there was nothing to lose and I said yes. He was really cool about it and after that I told all my friends. It was a good experience. When I moved back home, I got involved with someone who wanted me to move in with him. To go back a bit, when I was in undergrad, my mother had a stroke. It was severe and initially she needed help with all functions and I had to become a caretaker. At the time, she’d been pushing me to become an accountant. As she got better she told me that the stress from work and the pressure she put on herself had caused the stroke. She told me that all she wanted was for me to be happy. That freed me to go to law school and to be true to myself. When I came back to the Philly area, I lived with my parents while working at the law firm. It was tough because she relied on me a lot, but I really wanted to move in with this guy. I knew I needed to tell her why I was leaving. Her initial reaction was denial. [Laughs.] She tried to tell me she loved her girlfriends too, so maybe I was just confused. I knew it wouldn’t be a major problem once she understood; it was just a matter of the initial shock. I remember watching TV with her as a child and there was a show on with a girl who’d been thrown out by her parents because she was gay. My mother turned to me and said, “I would never do that to my child.” So although I knew she might not be happy about it, I knew it wouldn’t be catastrophic. After she passed away, I read her journals. There were a lot of entries where she prayed to God that I would find a girl and settle down, but she never expressed it to me. My brother was fine with it; he had enough of his own stuff to worry about. My father was a different story. After my mother died, he became even more of a recluse than he had been. He joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so when I eventually came out to him, he had a very negative reaction and basically disowned me. That was almost three years ago. So I’ve pretty much created my own family with my friends.

PGN: The best part about saving the earth? EC: [Laughs.] I think I’m so focused on the work that I do, I almost forget about it. My title is senior attorney, but like in a lot of nonprofits, you do what needs to be done. I help with bookkeeping, programming and other mundane stuff. I’m not out there like Erin Brockovich slaying corporate giants. But indirectly, by helping the organization thrive, I’m having an impact on the environment. And I do a lot of program work. For example, right now I’m working on reducing diesel emissions. I do enjoy it when I get to do outreach and speak to people directly.

PGN: And like President Obama, you could have used your law degree to make lots of money but instead chose to use it for public service. EC: Yeah, he was actually my professor in law school. I never expected him to be president, but he definitely stood out. He was different from all the others, which is why I sought out his class.

PGN: Different in what way? EC: Most of our professors were older, conservative white guys who’d been scholars for years. What was memorable about him was that he was so much younger than the other teachers, but his knowledge was on par with them. He was a state senator at the time too, so I thought maybe he was just doing it for PR or whatever, but he really knew what he was teaching. He also brought in racial and other perspectives that the other teachers didn’t have. He was a demanding professor too, but it was fun. I never saw the oratorical skills he displayed in his political speeches, though. He talked a lot like he did in the debates, very thoughtful and deliberate. Though he did drop some Ebonics one day, which was a riot. Unfortunately, I had to drop out of his class. I got viral meningitis, went into a coma and nearly died.

PGN: Yikes, what happened? EC: I think I never learned my lesson in high school. I overachieved there and carried it on in graduate school. I formed a running club, I became an editor at the school newspaper, I was involved in the environmental group at school, just a whole lot of things. I got sick and didn’t allow myself the time to recover. I had a regular virus — it might have just been a cold — but because I was so overextended, my immune system was weak and the virus got into the fluid that surrounds the brain. I was in my dorm room and took a nap and I didn’t wake up. A friend of mine, whom I was supposed to have dinner with, got worried when I didn’t show up. He heard me in my room groaning and when I didn’t answer the door, he got the fire department to knock it down. I was in a coma for one or two days. He was supposedly straight but we started dating after that. He was my first crush. PGN: That’s pretty drastic just to get your first kiss. Thinking of romance, what’s the last card you’ve written or received? EC: Well, as far as romance goes, I’m single, but I like to send my friends cards. I sent everyone a Valentine’s Day card this year. You know, the tiny little cards you used to get in fourth grade. Something nostalgic.

PGN: Last movie you saw? EC: I just saw “Revolutionary Road” and it really made me think about things. What I was kind of trying to say before was that, as I’ve gotten older, I realize that your priorities shift. Before law school, I wanted to be a writer, but sometimes life intervenes and you change what’s important to you. For me, I don’t obsess over the future anymore; I just think about what is going to make me happy day to day. I saw my mother stress out over things so much that she made herself sick. And to what end? Instead of enjoying life, she became trapped in her own body and was miserable. I don’t want to do that to myself.

PGN: You mentioned Obama bringing a racial perspective to law. How has being a minority affected you? EC: My parents are from China but I was born here. I don’t speak any Chinese, because like a lot of minorities, they felt it was more important to adapt and speak English to their kids. The only Chinese I know was from taking a class in college. They didn’t really give us any culture at home and most of my friends were white. I know that I look different, but I didn’t grow up with Chinese culture. I wish I had learned more about it from my parents.

PGN: What’s the hardest part of being an environ-mentalist? EC: The hardest part is getting people to actually make changes. Everyone is for the environment: You’re not going to find someone who says they’re anti-clean air and water, but the hard part is actually doing the things that will make a significant difference. We’re really going to have to make changes in our behavior and lifestyles to mitigate the impact we’ve had on the earth and to stem global warming. We’re very gadget- and consumer-oriented and that uses a lot of energy. On the other hand, I don’t like when environmentalists are too hardcore. To some, it almost becomes a religion and they become very judgmental. If someone states that they carpool, they tell them they should be riding a bike. I believe we should be positive and supportive of what people are trying to do. If someone drives an hour to work but buys a hybrid car, that’s at least one step in the right direction. I’m an incrementalist in my approach. I teach what I can and lead by example. I’m a vegetarian, mostly, and ride my bike everywhere, but I’m not always as good as I should be about recycling. We can all do better, but as long as we get the information out there, we can start making wiser choices and start turning things around.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected] .