Chi­nese fam­i­lies of Yale grow a gar­den, tra­di­tion

The Progress-Index - At Home - - HOME GARDENING - Michel Melia

“The sun is shin­ing. I’m sweat­ing. It’s good. I am happy.” —63-year-old Zhang Zaix­ian, of Bei­jing, who helps tend Yale’s herb and veg­etable gar­den.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A once-va­cant city block at the north­ern edge of Yale Univer­sity now teems with ex­otic herbs and veg­eta­bles, tended care­fully by a com­mu­nity of gray­ing peo­ple from China who are here to look af­ter grand­chil­dren as their own chil­dren cul­ti­vate ca­reers at the Ivy League school.

In the trel­lis-filled gar­den, a patch­work of small lots that are passed from fam­ily to fam­ily, they find friends, a rou­tine for daily life in new sur­round­ings and fa­mil­iar veg­eta­bles that are fresher than any­thing they find in lo­cal mar­kets.

“The sun is shin­ing. I’m sweat­ing. It’s good,” said 63-year-old Zhang Zaix­ian, of Bei­jing, who was wa­ter­ing chives one day as her grand­son at­tended preschool. “I am happy.”

The ur­ban gar­den be­gan tak­ing shape a decade ago, a prod­uct of the ex­pa­tri­ate com­mu­nity that has sprouted along with soar­ing num­bers of stu­dents from China.

About a quar­ter of all in­ter­na­tional stu­dents at Yale come from China, which has be­come the big­gest source coun­try by far for in­ter­na­tional stu­dents in the United States. Yale, which in 1854 grad­u­ated the first Chi­nese per­son to earn a de­gree from a U.S. col­lege, had 680 in­ter­na­tional scholars, 516 grad­u­ate stu­dents and 58 un­der­grad­u­ates from China last year.

The gar­den­ers come from a mix of ur­ban and ru­ral ar­eas and abide by a few un­writ­ten rules. Fer­til­izer is al­lowed, but pes­ti­cides are for­bid­den. Re­move wa­ter­ing cans and clean up in the fall. Find another fam­ily to work your patch when you leave New Haven.

Zhang, whose daugh­ter earned a Ph.D. in China be­fore com­ing to do re­search at the Yale School of Medicine, said she had never done any gar­den­ing at home in China’s cap­i­tal, where she had a ca­reer keep­ing sta­tis­tics for in­dus­try and the navy. Zhang’s health had been wan­ing be­fore she first came to Con­necti­cut, in 2009, but she said tend­ing to plants each day un­der smog-free skies has made her feel re­newed.

The gar­den suc­ceeds, she said, be­cause the gar­den­ers be­long to an older gen­er­a­tion that has pa­tience.

“Young peo­ple don’t want to do the la­bor,” she said.

All the plants are ed­i­ble. They in­clude va­ri­eties of beans, scal­lions, toma­toes and cilantro that they eat or use to sea­son dumplings and other dishes.

The pro­duce, grown from seeds found in New York City’s Chi­na­town and some lo­cal Asian mar­kets, is shared with other Chi­nese fam­i­lies that live in the com­plex of two-story apart­ment build­ings across the street from the gar­den — even if they choose not to do gar­den­ing them­selves.

“I wasn’t farm­ing any­more in China. Why should I do farm­ing here?” said Wang Lunji, 65, from An­hui province in eastern China, where the land he once worked was plowed un­der for de­vel­op­ment. Wang, whose son stud­ies bi­ol­ogy at Yale, said he nev­er­the­less ap­pre­ci­ates the veg­eta­bles shared by his neigh­bors.

Yale owns the land, which had been over­grown be­fore a few fam­i­lies started the plant­ing, and Yale grounds crews have pro­vided com­post to help the gar­den­ers. The only is­sues, they say, have been oc­ca­sional theft or van­dal­ism.

In at least some cases, gar­den­ers have sus­pected each other when plants have gone miss­ing. Vet­eran gar­dener Guo Zhi­rong said one plant that dis­ap­peared would not have ap­pealed to Amer­i­cans.

“Some peo­ple are from cities and don’t know how to grow plants,” he said. “Maybe they just said, ‘Wow, so beau­ti­ful,’ and they took it away.”

Wang Nairu wa­ters plant in a gar­den, in New Haven, Conn. The once-va­cant city block, on the north­ern edge of Yale Univer­sity’s cam­pus, where his daugh­ter is a post­doc­toral stu­dent, has been trans­formed into a gar­den of veg­eta­bles and spices, tended...

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