Growing up in Texas among a large Asian American community, I remember many family friends with extensive backyard gardens that produced fruit and vegetables like choy sum and tatsoi. Even after I moved away, my parents would tell me about so-and-so stopping over with sweet potato leaves from their garden or dropping off oranges.
I never thought much of it until I began to take walks in my current New England neighborhood. I often see the same Asian woman planting almost every square inch of her yard, back and front. I’ve watched her for years now, bent over the curb, practically on the street tending to plants, putting up trellises and watching melons hang off her metal fence. And while this may seem notable, having an extensive home garden is not uncommon in the Asian American community.
For many Asian immigrants and refugees all over the United States, and probably the world, it’s a way of regaining control over one’s diet, preserving one’s culture and growing food that reflects it.
“In U.S. history, gardening and gardens have served as a political act and place.”
Backyard and rooftop gardening have come back en vogue as millennials fill their apartments with plants and Americans think more about climate change and where our food comes from. There’s a name for people who choose to use their backyards to grow produce: kitchen gardeners.
This has been happening for a very long time in Asian American communities, explains Nina F. Ichikawa, a writer and interim executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute. From the Chinese gardeners who established Chinden Boulevard in Boise, Idaho, to “the use of traditional Chinese grafting techniques that enabled farm foreman Ah Bing to cultivate the now ubiquitous Bing cherry in the late 19th century,” Ichikawa says the contributions of Asian farmers have been “integral to the development of American farming since the beginning of our time in the U.S.”
However, people of color are often left out of the dominant narratives about U.S. agrarian history. “Xenophobia and white supremacy continue to capitalize on people of color to exploit their labor on stolen land and then chase them out of this country,” wrote Leslie Wiser, a first-generation Chinese-German farmer who owns and runs Radical Family Farms in Sebastopol, California, on the border of Southern Pomo and Coastal Miwok territory. “This is unfortunately a constant and unwavering American value that continues through the centuries.”
Thus, cultivating a kitchen garden becomes a significant rite of passage that’s almost subversive in nature ― it involves digging into the ground to mark not only a physical place but to grow what one is familiar with.
“In U.S. history, gardening and gardens have served as a political act and place,” said Roy Vu, a history professor at North Lake College in Irving, Texas, whose work has delved into Vietnamese Americans’ home gardens.
Vu says that one of the many reasons kitchen gardening is common in Vietnamese and Vietnamese American communities is that “for Vietnamese refugees, before their exodus, many of them had their own kitchen gardens in Vietnam and were taught by their parents and grandparents how to garden. While resettling in the United States, they resumed this practice of gardening their own produce, in part, to preserve and maintain their foodways.”
The way we eat is intrinsically linked to the way we define ourselves. Arriving in a new place, thrown into unfamiliar situations and faced with constant pressure to assimilate, members of Asian communities have had to learn to adapt quickly. Growing food we don’t often see in larger grocery chains and then cooking familiar dishes is a radical act of cultural preservation.
One avid kitchen gardener, Fu Shing, decided to start growing his own backyard garden in 1993, three years after moving from Hong Kong into the home he purchased outside Houston. He started his garden for practical reasons: He wanted “to block the morning sun.” He also made sure that he “planted only fruit trees because ... we can enjoy the fruits but also the fragrance of flowers before they bear fruit.”
He purchased his pomelo (Chinese grapefruit) and fig tree from a greenhouse, but most of his garden came from his community of friends. When he expressed interest in growing his own home garden, others offered advice and provided plants and seeds. He had a feng shui expert friend locate trees from acquaintances in Chinatown, and he was able to acquire loquat, persimmon, guava and a mandarin orange tree.
Some elements of the garden have changed over time, but the idea of gardening for others to cultivate community has not. Shing told HuffPost that the mandarin orange tree was “growing too big, running into the back fence, so I had to take it out a few years ago” but he replaced it with a Chinese herbal tree that his friends introduced him to. The same friends also brought him perilla (shiso) plants that have taken over one side of his garden, and he has also shared his own seedlings and plants in exchange.
Shing told HuffPost that friends still bring him plants or, one winter, a glut of kumquats that his wife put in syrup, and he has shared persimmons and pomelos with his neighbors. His loquat tree bears fruit that he preserves to make teas, and when he had his mandarin tree, he’d dry the peel to give to friends with sore throats and coughs.
“My hope is that because of what we are growing on our farm ... folks will feel fiercely proud of their identities and use food and farming as a tool to explore it.”
“In the Asian community, it seems the elders and their gardens are where most of the wisdom and knowledge is held about the cultivation, growing and seed saving of heritage Asian crops,” Wiser told HuffPost, adding that she has received seeds from acquaintances and customers “who are passing the seeds from their parents and friends down.”
“Some seeds have traveled from abroad and have been adapted to our North American climate and that is all happening in backyard gardens,” she explained.
This act of community is not lost on Asian Americans who are running larger farms for wholesale. Wiser wrote: “Radical Family Farms speaks loudly to a likeminded community of people, chefs and restaurants - we have all [been] searching for each other - and through Instagram we are finding each other. Asian Americans on farmland, queers on the land - rural spaces are not generally safe, welcoming, or where you would typically find the communities I belong to.”
She added, “I envision more Asian Americans finding agriculture as a viable career path. I envision more Asian American led restaurants and chefs using Asian American farmers to supply their menus with local Asian heritage produce. I envision a lot more Asian American folks making the connection between identity and food and a longing for home that we were never quite able to have due to assimilation. My hope is that because of what we are growing on our farm and through the chefs/restaurants we are collaborating with, a lot more Asian American folks will feel fiercely proud of their identities and use food and farming as a tool to explore it.”
Wiser coined the term “identity farming,” which she defines as “putting [a] unique cultural heritage at the forefront of what crops I put into the ground and what community I am committed to building up around the farm.” Her specialization in Asian heritage vegetables is an intentional move to amplify these cuisines in the mainstream market.
Asian American kitchen gardeners are doing something similar by growing what they want to eat but can’t necessarily find at the store. In thinking about his own relationship to kitchen gardening, Vu recalls that after his family resettled in the U.S., his parents planted okra, persimmons, mint leaves, chili peppers and more, but he “neither understood nor gave much thought as to why they would grow opo squash (trai bau) and peach trees.”
It was only as he grew older that he saw his family sharing their produce with others in their community, who grew produce like choy sum, bitter melon and winter gourds in their own backyards. He remembers this occurred at a moment when his family was struggling financially.
“My parents were always willing to literally share the fruits of their labor to others,” he said. “So what was their reward? For certain, my parents take great pleasure and a little pride watching their herbs, vegetables and fruit trees grow ... gardening gives them a greater sense of our mother country.”