a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
A human being is like a plant, my grandmother has always told me. The root of a plant is thick and runs deep into the ground. Peony, for example, has a root of almost six inches. Unpleasantly looking its roots may be, they are something that peony flowers can never detach themselves from. Thankfully nature has evolved itself to present only the flower’s prosperous outlook to the world that, unless excavated by a botanist or a gardener, the tedious roots will never be revealed to the eye. My grandma insisted that plants never lose connection with their roots, no matter how tall they grow, and no matter how far their seed flies. From the frailest flowers to the grandest trees, nothing can survive without being nourished and stabilized by the root, unwavering in any weather.
It has been twelve years since my grandma moved from her small village in Inner Mongolia to Beijing, the most populated and prosperous city in China. She lived in a city where goods can be bought at the tap of the finger, yet she would still wake up at 5’o o'clock just to be the first customer in the stench-infused morning markets. She always chose Taosu, a traditional Chinese biscuit, and the saltiest Mongolian milk teas over the neatly packed Oreos and the newly brewed coffees from Starbucks. Even after sixty years, she would still hum the tunes of the People’s Liberation Army with her Taichi companions every morning. These were her roots. Roots that she constructed her whole world upon. Roots that she would never detach herself from.
I have never believed in my grandma’s paradigm. The notion of being chained by your own roots terrified me, not that I did not like my roots, but because I always wanted to embrace something fresh, something new.
To me, the dark, obsolete roots running underground have never had beauty comparable to that of the newborn buds or the vibrant shooting stems.
My elementary school teacher taught us that we should be like stems that can endure the harshest winters and grow in the most beautiful summers.
The day my family and I moved to Canada, I nervously held my mom’s hand while the customs at the airport checked our passports and piles of study permits. When we stepped out of the plane, I told my mom to stop speaking Mandarin to me, and from then on, I readily embraced Canadian culture, striving to be a part of a community that had charismatic beauty.
Yet the hardest part was adapting to the cold, Canadian winters.
It rarely ever snowed in Beijing, so when it snowed 20 cm in my first winter in Ottawa, I found the world that only lived in books and newspapers came alive, and for the first time, tangible. Yet walking in the thick snow-covered roads was never as pleasant as watching snowflakes solidifying into beautiful shapes on the window. I remember the nine-year-old me screaming at my dad, who always walked me home from the small public school, because the snow would flake on my boots that were too thin to prevent the cold from penetrating through my sock and biting my toes; because the wind would ruthlessly hit my face until it becomes numb but flush with a hue of rosiness.
My mom’s friends told her that immigration is like an uprooting experience. You move to another environment that is not your own. You speak a language that is not your own. No matter how many years you settle in that environment, no matter how hard you try to call it home, you will always be a foreigner and you will always be seen as a separate community.
I guess they have never heard of plasticity. The American Scientist magazine explains that with plasticity, all organisms can react to variations in their environment, undergoing reversible or irreversible changes. This occurs in plants as well. The stem of the plant grows and allows them to survive in all ranges of environments, and unlike roots, they are always exposed to everything above ground - while they obtain nutrients from roots, they also absorb sunlight. That’s why in many circumstances, flowers can still survive when they are detached from their roots.
Adapting well to the Canadian environment has always been my pride. I learnt how to ski, bought magazines that taught the best Canadian poutines, and found a sense of belonging in my new community. I believed that I could just be a native, with new skills and recipes.
Three months into my first winter, I would readily open my palms and let snow fall into them. I would walk home from school, almost immune to the wind, joking with my best friend when it was cold enough for us to see our own breaths in the air.
When we first came to Canada, my mom read me a book that she borrowed from the Public Library near our small apartment. It was about Botanics, and on it, there was a neat illustration of the anatomy of a tomato plant. I was greatly intrigued by the way it explained nodes, little points where branching twigs and leaves originate. The node is what makes flowers interesting to look at - they are not just a single, straight line but have leaves that branch out. They are the places where branches diverge.
Since 7th grade, I became extremely aware of my Chinese identity. When my friends asked me if my parents cared a lot about my grades, and if I was the best at math, I found myself straying away from the sense of warmth that merging always gave me.
I would tell them that I have parents who cared about progress rather than grades, that I enjoyed books more than equations, and that I liked Taylor Swift just like all of them. I have always been a part of them.
Yet no matter how much I tried to persuade them that I was one and the same as all of them, I was always seen as the one who branched out while the others grew together. They loved me to be on their sport steams and diversity presentation groups. They loved to lay their eyes on me, expressing so much interest in the way I live and the food I eat.
Only because I was different enough.
Three years ago when I flew back to Beijing in the summer, I found myself struggling to converse in a language of my own and to understand a culture of my own. I felt like a stranger to the bustling city. I was still addicted to Chinese dramas and enjoyed sweet and sour pork more than anything else, but I found myself losing connection with my elementary school friends, the way people buy food without saying “thank you”, and the Macdonald that had porridges and Chinese bok choy with the burgers on their menu.
Amongst all, I got irritated very easily when my grandmother’s family relatives, visiting from Inner Mongolia, asked me, “Isn’t Canada very very dangerous?”
Sometimes I rolled my eyes at them and my grandma would shout at me and tell me to respect them because they are my elders. I became so tired, feeling almost offended, of the way that they said “Canada? That’s too dangerous there - I will never let my children go there.”
So I grew farther and farther away from my roots. I wanted to belong somewhere but I couldn’t. I wanted to attach myself to something so that I didn’t have to constantly struggle to define myself and to be asked “so you are not born here?” and “so you did not study here?” over and over again.
I wanted to be a native to one community, but I became a foreigner - physically in one place and mentally in another.
Maybe, after all, my grandma was right - roots are important. It doesn’t matter what type of soil they originated from. What matters is that they are where you find your past; they are indispensable parts that construct who you are. Walk past any flower and appreciate and exclaim at their vibrant colours and dynamic blooms, but roots are parts that people never see. If you are patient and observant enough, you will see that roots can change, only not as rapidly and discernible as the length of the stem, the shape of the leaves, and the hue of the petals. In fact, all
changes are inseparable from the nutrients and the support from the root that can maintain stability and growth just in any type of soil.
Next time, when you plant a flower, don’t cut its root, just because that is where each lively, elegant bloom uniquely stems.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.