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Learning Food Sovereignty From My Chinese Mother

Nine year old Celine and her sister Sarah making dumplings with family in Ningde

When we were visiting Mami’s adoptive family in China, we experienced their Ningde food system for the first time. Ningde is a coastal city in Fujian, China known for their seafood abundance. We visited family friends scraping lakes with fish boats in rubber suits that covered their shoes. Their nets clawed into the waters, suffocating the creatures glittering under the winter sun. One of the Uncles shook a silver fish in the face of Sarah, my third sister, “Kě'ài ma?”

She flew behind Mami, horror dripping down her face.

That night, the Uncles and Aunties drowned the fish they caught in scallions and soy sauce. They tasted like Sarah’s screams. I stopped fighting with my sisters to eat the jelly-like eyeballs.

I also remember rows and rows of bushes, green fields stretching across the horizon behind one of the relatives’ houses. Monoculture.

Mami’s adoptive mother, Wàipó, had a house of cold cement floors and an outhouse that was always flooded. Geese were packed inside wiry cages in an underdeveloped courtyard. Wàipó stopped us from going to that side of the courtyard; she didn’t want us to trample her greens. However, when our little cousins chased each other between the beds, she let them.

I was nine years old and did not know that Mami spent her first eighteen years laboring on this farm that never belonged to her. She did not receive any wages. She was not allowed to go to school. Numerous Asian immigrant families in America use their children as workers, but laws forced them to compensate their children with fair wages and working hours. But there were no laws in China at that time that could free her from this farm servitude.

The shapes and smells of the farm are foggy in my memory. I asked Mami, “What kind of cài did you grow?”

“Broccoli, green onions, too many vegetables. I haven't seen them in a while, I don’t remember… Napa cabbage, bok choy, water spinach, eggplant, garlic chives, cucumber, watermelon, strawberry. They planted teas too, like jasmine tea,” Mami said.

Though I wanted to learn more about her experience in China with various eco-agricultural farm practices I learned from college classes, I could not properly translate my questions into Mandarin for her to answer, even with Google translate and Wechat.

I remember the strawberry fields though. Two of the many Uncles we met—one with the same birthday as me—brought Sarah and me to the strawberry fields. I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting someone to barge out with a gun like in the American movies, but nobody stopped us. The Uncles lit cigarettes while we stuffed our faces with strawberries, our fingers stained with red satisfaction. Mami did not scold us for ruining our dinner like the time we went with the neighborhood children to the orange trees on the hill and came home with citrus smiles. She trusted these Uncles, even when they kept asking for more and more American dollars that she did not have.

As I was very shy back then from a lack of confidence in speaking Mandarin, I did not ask a lot of questions. I never asked where the food came from or where the waste—the chewed up sugarcane fibers littered in the crevasses of the street—went. From picture books and nursery rhymes, I assumed everything came from seeds and farms. I never thought food systems could be different. I did not know I would never have the opportunity to go back there, to find answers to these questions again.


Mami escaped to America when she was eighteen on a boat with nothing but the clothes on her back. Floating around Los Angeles, from San Gabriel to El Sereno to Van Nuys, Mami dreamed of a garden. She married our father, Dadi, for her green card and had four daughters, but did not have any space to grow. When she finally settled in Lincoln Heights, she looked at the balcony of our third floor apartment and knew it was the best she could make do. It was naked when we moved in at the start of my first grade. Over time, our little feets stopped frolicking on the balcony. Roaches scurrying around scared us, but Mami did not let us kill them. For good luck, she said.

Over the years, Mami took us to Chinese farmers markets in parking lots in the 626 area. While Esther, my fourth sister, squirmed in a stroller, we flaunted our bowl cuts and trailed after Mami in Asian farmers’ markets. Sometimes, she gave us Abraham Lincolns for sugar cane juice or boba. We bickered about who drank it last, how it was my turn. We were too young for phones, but knew where Mami always was.

Her favorite stalls reminded us of picture book jungles. Towering. Cordate leaves. Tubular flowers we have never seen. Their bright colors and good postures seemed to perform a plant pageant. We watched Mami graze the leaves like brushing water for dumpling folding. Mami imagined each potted plant in our Los Angeles third-storied balcony. The price tags never stopped her. She strutted to the seller, her Cantonese clanky in our Mandarin ears. The sellers often were shocked we all came from the same mother. We drifted into nearby stalls, embarrassed at her aggressive bargaining voice. Then, Mami called us over. She beckoned us to hold Esther’s hands as she set the giant potted plant in the stroller, into the Honda Odyssey, and through the elevator to our third floor apartment balcony.

When I was in high school, her boyfriend at the time gifted her potted dragon fruit cacti—an army of infant cuttings. Mami learned from his garden to crave abundance and self-sufficiency. Over time, her balcony of smelly flowers became a garden of gnarly cacti, spiderwebs, and makeshift trellises. Mami loved them because they were easy. She threw food scraps at their bases and in the summer, our apartment balcony was the envy of all Asian immigrants.

I remembered how she screamed at Dadi for forgetting to water them during her week-long disappearances to China or Fresno. Every summer, thousands of dragon fruit dangled like shiny dollars on a money tree. Our Asian neighbors grew green, begging for cuttings from her to start their own gardens. Their fruits never were as plump nor as abundant. They didn’t fill bowls of food scraps for their cacti. They didn’t demand their ex-husbands prune their plants. They did not let the roaches and spiders roam for good luck.

When I gifted her the vibrant red azaleas I thought she wanted, she sent me a video of their full bloom. Loud and rejoicing. When I came home, they were shriveled in the back of her garden. I asked her, going on leadership retreats, to babysit my panda paw and split rock succulents, but they turned black and brittle like marshmallows hovering over a bonfire where everyone’s eyes were closed, singing, thoughts caught from other priorities.

Most people in our neighborhood, Lincoln Heights, were immigrants growing their own gardens in the spaces they had. Some were lucky to find backyards and patios to transform. Some, like Mami, had balconies. They yearned to establish roots, having something familiar to feel like home. Only creating their gardens could bring the self-reliance, security, and pride they were looking for. If there was a community garden in our neighborhood, I know they all would have flocked to it.

Even outside of Lincoln Heights, in other ethnic enclaves, like Santa Clara Valley, Chinese immigrants began to create their own narratives through their farms.

“Nobody taught us how to grow things. Everyone already knows because their family already knows. It's all family knowledge,” Mami said. Throughout my interview, she answered with such swiftness, such certainty, her confidence radiated. Even when the apartment management sent us notices forcing her to trim her dragon fruit cacti for fire hazard prevention, she was proud of her development of food sovereignty. She denied any influences from others and denied asking for help if any problems arose, “There are no problems. If I like the thing, I would know what to do. Like if I like a meal, I would know how to cook it.”

However, I could not feel full from our conversations. Besides the language barriers, I could not reach out to extended family members I met before in Ningde because our parents have chosen to alienate ourselves from them due to financial conflicts. Losing access to my roots, I could not explore the wealthy information about my family’s participation in food sovereignty. Growing up in Los Angeles, it felt like the knowledge was so close and so far at the same time; urban spaces tended to distance consumers from food systems. Yet, I felt that we were alone. It hurt to write empty handed.


Growing food in such a small space could not possibly be sustainable for one family of six. Mami was the primary caregiver of our family, giving her the role to determine how we consumed. I remembered how she would drive ten miles into the 626 area to purchase affordable Chinese ingredients. When she allowed my sisters and I to tag along despite bickering about everything, we would play rock paper scissors to determine who would be cursed to push the shopping cart. She did not let us choose anything, but on good days, she would let us pick out one snack each. We bounced behind her; we helped her unload.

Mami is not a cheapskate but she considered coupons and weekly deals when deciding what to buy. If something non perishable that she uses often was on sale, she would purchase several more quantities of it and store it in the nooks of our apartment. Food stamps supported her. Every room has some sort of abundance. She preferred this sense of food security over our American definitions of comfort. She made it a point, throwing away our couch and building piles and bookshelves to store more nonperishables. The TV was also buried behind boxes of food. Stocking up on cultural ingredients that she was taught to value was how she defined food sovereignty.

Mami was never against fast food, especially since a lot of the fast food restaurants accept food stamps. I remember Mami driving by the Jack in the Box door and we would scramble to the cashier with a long order. She encouraged us to order at least two meals so she does not have to worry about us getting hungry. Then, she sat in the van, waiting for us. We went out often especially if her boyfriend at that time would sponsor our extravagant dinners at the Kami Buffet, Red Lobster, Pho Filet 2, or Au79.

Mami encouraged us to eat school lunches because we qualified for free lunches. She did not see it as necessary to make food for us, even if the school cafeteria served us sad, processed Western meals. When we had potlucks or parties, she would fold a thousand dumplings or cool a vat of fried rice. She smiled whenever I requested these dishes and offered to help.

In high school, when my sisters and I started watching Nerdy Nummies, How to Cook That, and Sorted Food—Youtube channels focusing on Western food, we explored more than the snack aisle. We placed all purpose flour and baking powder in the shopping cart. The oven that our parents had always used to store pots and pans came out of retirement.

“Nǐmen làng fèi qián,” Mami joked, but the disappointment when my sisters and I gravitated towards Western cuisine was loud.

These pandemic days, my sisters who are still living at home tell me that Mami goes grocery shopping without telling them. They are tired of the tomato eggs, the pork stir fry, the tilapia steamed in soy sauce and ginger. Their dinner tables look like the food Snaps from my friends quarantining with their Asian parents. The iconic plastic food cover glimmers in every photo. They cover giant pots of phở and chǎofàn. Mami wakes up early to mass produce, leaving out food to eat throughout the day. However, my sisters turn their noses. They want avocados, McDonald’s, and onion bagels. When I took a pack of avocados back to Santa Barbara, one of my sisters sent me twenty three fat paragraphs of her anger and the reasoning behind her anger of depriving her of such Western wealth.

Living in the very white, very affluent Santa Barbara, where Asian supermarkets have little variety of overpriced goods and do not accept food stamps, I could understand Mami’s disappointment. They were subscribing to the capitalistic phenomenon of how brand names were replacing family recipes. They forgot their privilege of living in the diverse city of Los Angeles. They do not know that in a few years, when they leave the nest, they will regret turning their noses at how Mami defined their cultural food systems.


When I told Mami I became plant-based flexitarian in December 2018, she was concerned. She came to visit me to bring me my sister’s car so I had easier transportation to commute to my new job. She brought a cornucopia filled with ingredients cheaper in Los Angeles: Chinese cauliflower, scallions, cabbage, etc. She also gave me three packages of frozen salmon and a huge bag of lobster. Along with the groceries, she brought some salmon fried rice, bok choy stir fry, and steaks that she cooked before coming.

“You are too pale, your complexion is too sickly. Eat more meat.” She scolded in Mandarin. But when I translated the conversation to English, I thought she said I was ugly and pale for not eating meat. Living in Isla Vista, I went to the beach often and had a job outdoors. I did not understand why she was pointing this out while my sisters stayed at home, losing color from the dark, since the pandemic started.

Richard, my housemate, is an international student from China and helped me transcribe the very bilingual interview with Mami, joined us for dinner and said, “Giving food is how Chinese moms show love. All the nagging, she hasn’t been in the proximity to be a real parent, she is basically doing it all now.”

I cannot find the Chinese words to express my appreciation for her efforts to ground me in my Chinese roots through food. I want to be part of this generation of Asian-American youth reclaiming our culinary heritage through food. That is why I wanted to be an environmentalist.


“When you are older and have your own house with a garden, will you hire me to take care of it?” Mami asked.

I shook my head. I wanted to be like her one day. I wanted her to have a garden made by her, selling the vegetables we cannot find at the grocery stores in our neighborhoods at mini Chinese markets. I said, “How about I’ll buy you your own house with your own garden one day instead?”

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