Sowing the seeds of belonging: My father's garden was the place I was safe and welcomed

As a Chinese Canadian girl growing up in a majority white suburb, this sense of acceptance was hard to find elsewhere.

As a Chinese Canadian in a majority white suburb, this sense of acceptance was hard to find elsewhere.

(Photo submitted by Melissa Lem)

When I was a kid, our backyard garden was one of my favourite places in the entire world — not my mother's thorny rose garden with its ladylike blooms arranged among white patio tiles, but my father's vegetable garden, which lay beyond the apricot, plum and pear trees in an organized jumble that sprang brand new from the soil each spring.

As I sprawled in the grass, watching keys twirl down from maple boughs, I would hear my father humming. Hymns and Chinese television tunes rose from behind dense walls of foliage as he tied, trimmed and ferreted out stones. My mother said it meant he was happy.

The author’s father in his garden. (Photo submitted by Melissa Lem.)

My father's garden made me happy too, especially when the world outside conspired to make me feel otherwise. I had what I consider to be a typical childhood for a Chinese Canadian girl growing up in a majority white suburb of Toronto in the 1980s. I was perpetually at the head of my class, fluent in piano, and drilled daily on filial piety. And because of my foreign appearance and values, other kids made it clear I did not belong. Freckled boys yelled mock Chinese words across the sidewalk, stretching up the corners of their eyes with their fingers. Blond schoolgirls with pink-sneakered feet ruthlessly voted me out of their inner circles at recess.

We rarely spoke the word "racism" in my family. Instead of talking these incidents through, we willed them gone with our silence. Yet at times, I sensed their stains on my parents' personalities too. My kind, patient, five-foot-nothing mother would turn into a tiger when teenagers mocked us on the street. Once, we watched from our minivan as my father disputed a parking spot with a woman, whose smug final barb was "Go back where you came from." The memory of his sudden fury as he shouted back "Your kind doesn't belong anywhere!" still tightens my chest.

But in our garden, I always felt safe and welcomed. The spotted ladybugs and white moths hovering among bright yellow bok choy flowers didn't care what colour my skin was. The dung gwaa (winter melon), zit gwaa (fuzzy melon) and crocodile-skinned fu gwaa (bitter melon) destined for my mother's daily broths were grateful for my visits with the watering can. Even though I would complain bitterly about having to eat a plateful of pungent gau coi (garlic chives) three times a day at the height of summer, I marvelled at how much edible life grew there.

Our garden also helped connect us to our community, present and past. Gooseberries and red currants grew beside goji berries. Cherry and beefsteak tomatoes bent over the earth beside thickets of Chinese parsley. When our cellar shelves overflowed, my mother would dispatch us to our neighbours' doorsteps with bags of produce, triggering friendly battles between families striving to outgift each other. Not only that, but my father's garden was also a transitional space where he could sow his culture and history into new ground while creating a sense of ownership and belonging, just as researchers have described in other immigrants who garden.

Top: The author in a community garden; Bottom: The author’s son (right) and friend. (Photos submitted by Melissa Lem.)

This longing for connection and belonging has turned my eyes toward nature, wherever or whatever it may be, my entire life. I can still remember the wonder of looking up past shadowy treetops to a star-filled sky during my family's first camping trip at Bruce Peninsula National Park. I can still taste the fresh mesclun I picked from my hospital-garden row in northwestern B.C. to de-stress on the walk home after emergency shifts. Through the pandemic, our collective ache for a sense of rootedness is part of what sparked a gardening boom across the country — and filled my windowsills with rows of shoots and sprouts again after a decade of not planting a thing.

Last month, my six-year-old son spent a sunny Saturday meticulously pressing tomato, basil, sage and cilantro seeds into tiny paper pots. Two weeks later, we trundled our new seedlings up the hill to his best friend's house, where they trowelled them into his backyard garden. As I watched them plant and play, I thought about how gardening had cultivated their connection — the very kind that had eluded me as a child. And I gave thanks for the sense of belonging that bloomed for me in the green spaces of my childhood, and which, growing in my son's heart, is creating safe and joyful spaces for him too.

Dr. Melissa Lem is a Vancouver family physician, director of PaRx/Park Prescriptions, an initiative of the BC Parks Foundation, president-elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, and clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. Follow her tweets about health, nature and the environment @Melissa_Lem.

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