By Victor Tong
Nagong’s garden was the eighth wonder of the world: part jungle and part cornucopia, bursting with heavenly fragrances and colors. Taking up every inch of his garden were his troops: deep red tomatoes hanging from trellises, burgundy eggplants jostling for sunlight, and bok choy in a war
of attrition with the treacherous leeks. I cannot remember a day from my boyhood when Nagong, my grandfather, was not outside among his vegetables, trimming, watering, and tsk-tsk-ing the recent damage done by raccoons and other nasty nibblers.
I suppose that if this stubborn old man had not been kept back in Hangzhou, China because of COVID-19, I would be able to find him in his usual domain – here in Vancouver with us. He probably would have made my spring break much busier: instead of my relaxing and snoozing on
our patio chaise lounge, he might have even insisted I conduct the orchestra of his gardening tools and protect his lush property.
It was the garden that connected Nagong to his new land. He immigrated to Canada from Hangzhou, China in 2006. The fresh breeze and the smell of soil always reminded him of his youth when he worked on a farm during the Maoist Sent-Down Youth Movement back in the 1970s. Four decades later, he stood in the soil of another continent. When he first arrived in Canada, his current garden was an empty suburban yard in Vancouver. Ever since, he has devoted endless time and energy into making his garden a wonderful work of art.
Nagong visited China in early 2020 and was supposed to return to Vancouver before I returned from my boarding school in Massachusetts. However, my mom decided that he should stay in Hangzhou in order to limit the risk of Covid-19 infection. Instead of being in the next room, my
grandfather was now an ocean apart. And we were in the midst of a pandemic. When I FaceTime him, the structure and details of his face are often distorted by delayed connection and blurred by misaligned pixels.
I can still recall the uneasy frown that my mom was wearing when she first updated me on Nagong’s return flight, which of course had to be postponed. The days slowly drifted into weeks, and time itself seemed to slow to a crawl. My daily activities became an endless cycle. For hours on end, I swiped through my phone to check the news.
Global Deaths Pass 100 000.
I kept scrolling.
US Coronavirus Cases Top 1 million.
My stomach tightened.
Canadian COVID-19 Cases Top 50 000.
My eyes stung.
I sat for hours with my eyes fixed to the screen, unconsciously anxious. Meanwhile, Nagong as a young man silently looked at me from the framed picture sitting by his seat at our dinner table. His solemn expression contrasts with his jovial voice and cheery laugh whenever he calls me Little Doughnut. (I was a chubby kid.)
Outside the window was Nagong’s once verdant paradise. It looked neglected and overgrown. Robust vines and ripe vegetables were now replaced with browned stalks and rotting stems.
One day my mom sat me down beside Nagong’s picture. “Victor! Stop using your phone! Those articles won’t ease your anxiety!” She then poured me a piping hot cup of pu-erh tea,
“But I feel like everything is out of control. Nagong is halfway across the world. How do we know if we will ever see him again?” I sighed.
My mom took a sip. “Don’t you know what Nagong has lived through? What he has survived?”
Unpacking the stories of Nagong was like soaking dried pu-erh in water: warm, gradual, and bitterly soothing. When Japanese soldiers came through Nagong’s hometown of Xiaoshan during the war, this tough child, guarded by my even tougher great grandmother, submerged themselves
for hours in a koi pond in order to save their lives. Shivering from the cold and wet until the troops left, they stayed alive by breathing through hollow reeds,
“The troubles didn’t end after the Japanese left,” she took another sip. “The Chinese civil war resumed. Nagong watched his best friend Shi Bogen die before his eyes when he was your age. Shi Bogen was brutally beaten by a senior Kuomintang officer in broad daylight.”
Whilst trying to envision the turmoil of a past that I knew nothing about, my eyes strayed to the mess in his garden. I then had an odd impulse. I would restore the garden –section by section—for my Nagong. The man staring at me with his fiery eyes would not want me to give up. If anything,
Nagong would want me to look on the brighter side.
I then set to work. I cleared the mess of intrusive weeds. I pulled out stubborn dandelions, whose golden crowns mocked me as their stubborn roots clung onto the damp soil. I used a garden fork to turn the soil, exposing the rich ground underneath. I tended to the garden every day because it was within my realm of control, in an otherwise uncontrollable world. Toasted by the sun at the centre of this growth, I once again felt connected to Nagong –my nimble grandpa, a bookish, solitary person with the strength of a man half his age. Gardening made me feel that I could give
life to an otherwise neglected piece of land, and that I could extend my love and care across the ocean.
After three months, Nagong’s garden started to change. Tomato plants timidly revealed their green stalks from the soil, baby eggplants lounged in the sun, and tiny bok choy plants sat at peace with their leek friends. Last month, Nagong inspected his garden over FaceTime and his face beamed
with happiness. As he saw me proudly standing next to the garden, his wrinkly smile made my heart swell up and forget about the chaotic world around me—where insurmountable obstacles may threaten to overwhelm us, but which can also inspire us to create a crop of hope.
About the author:
Victor Tong is a rising junior at Phillips Academy-Andover. He enjoys writing about family and identity, particularly while he listens to tales from his grandfather and reflects on his own experience as a first-generation Chinese immigrant. His favorite writers include the likes of Sherman Alexie and Ted Chiang, who have inspired him to find his own writing voice. Victor also enjoys snowboarding, travelling, watching Tarantino films, and competing internationally in debate.