The Colour of Jade

Posted by Claudia Li & filed under Identity, Sustainability Issue 2014.

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One of my first memories as a kid was running into the backyard as a five year old, finding my Ah Poh (maternal grandmother) ankle-deep in the dirt humming Hakka folk songs and tending to a vine of tomatoes. I remember staring at her with curiosity as she looked up at me with her wrinkly grin and straw-woven hat tilted to the side. They say smell is the strongest sense—and it must be true—because every time I get a whiff of vine-ripened tomatoes, that memory resurfaces. Looking back, I’ve realized that this was the first moment I learned that food comes out of the ground. Ah Poh also took me to Chinatown every weekend to buy fresh choi at the local markets, teaching me the different names of not only the produce, but also the names of the grocers who she always greeted with boisterous conversation. It felt like she had a community.

That’s what she spent most of her time doing—growing and gathering food to feed and nourish her nine grandchildren. For me, memories around family and the meaning of culture has always centered on food.

Last year, a few friends and I started our new nonprofit, hua foundation, which works on bringing together heritage and environmental action. We started talking about our connection with food and how our decisions—beyond shark fin—affect the planet and our relationship with each other. We started asking ourselves: How do we figure out a way to bring the idea of “good food” back to our community? Where are we going to find organic bak choi? We thought we would start with planting as a way to convince our community that they needed to start growing and knowing their food better.

But I thought about the tomato story, and how my elders reminded me that growing our own food is nothing new in my family. My Ah Poh is Hakka, a Chinese subgroup originating from northern China. Known as the “gypsies of China”, they were often persecuted for being considered lower class and poor. This is why a lot of Hakka ended up migrating down to southern China, where my Ah Poh was born. The flip side of this is that the Hakka are known to be a people of resilience, surviving by learning how to build homes and grow food wherever they ended up going. This explains why my mom and Ah Poh have green thumbs.The truth is that basic concept in sustainability, particularly growing and being connected to food and through food, is not new for many communities or cultures. Take a walk in the alleyways of east or south Vancouver, and you’ll see that a lot of newcomer communities are growing their own food. They don’t do it because it’s the cool new trend or necessarily because of the planet, but simply because it’s been a way of life.

Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit a green thumb and I didn’t get a chance to learn food-growing traditions from my Ah Poh before she passed away. Because my elders grew up struggling, they always emphasized education and getting a secure job as a top priority. It wasn’t until I started learning about environmental issues that I realized self and community resiliency (e.g. growing food, knowing your neighbours) also play an integral role in our quality of life.

How do we retain that traditional wisdom and knowledge? How do we get it back?

As the industrialized food system further sterilizes the food we eat and our relationship with the people that grow, deliver, and sell our food, it’s important—now more than ever—to brainstorm new ways of creating a food system that’s good for our health, families, communities, economies, and ecosystem. This is one of the goals with our new Choi Project. We’re reconnecting youth to the traditions of good food through intergenerational cooking workshops, passing out free Seasonal Choi Guides, and working with a Chinatown greengrocer to create bilingual labeling so it directs more youth—and business—back to family-owned operations.

The biggest lesson we’ve learnt from working on shark fin and now food literacy/security issues is that there is a lot of wisdom, knowledge, and richness that exists within traditional cultures and communities when it comes to sustainability. In the environmental movement, we’ve gotten used to telling people what they don’t know and how they could be better, but we have yet to tap into the things that people already do know and harness that knowledge for a healthier society and planet. Given the growing diversity of our communities in Metro Vancouver and Canada, we need to create a philosophy of exchange that truly empowers communities to take action for a more sustainable future.

Claudia Li is a Global Ashoka Fellow and a first-generation Chinese Canadian. She is the co-founder of the nonprofit hua foundation, and started Shark Truth in 2009. 

This piece was originally published in the Georgia Straight.

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