I moved out of home into a really cute flat in Sandringham at the start of this year. The windows don’t quite shut when it rains, there’s no insulation, and it’s very much a student flat. But I love it. I came home late from work on my second night here, and at 11:30 PM discovered a magical chai van. Chai Wala Bhai sits at the end of my street and Brother Chai always greets me with a smile. He is a staple in our community with his South Indian breakfast foods and late night tea hangouts around the van. The three cats who live down the road always greet me when I come home from uni. And our neighbour diagonally left always has the best music taste. It’s a doof of jazz and funk, intermingled with our native bird call in the bush separating us.
When self-isolation started mid-March, my flatmate Bronnie and I set a goal to go on runs (okay, walks) throughout the neighbourhood. A smart move so we didn’t go for each other’s throats in the middle of cabin fever.
This meant sprinting to keep a 2m radius around bike riders, dodging tennis matches across the white lines in the middle of the road, and nodding to the teddy bears keeping watch in the windows. However, as we always do, we got distracted and the first night brought us a large mirror we found on the curb-side. Wiped and disinfected of course, and now sitting in the lounge.
The second night we came home with a dozen feijoa, abandoned little ones from the ground. Bronnie had also yanked me to a stop and hoisted me up over the fence at the local Bowling Club to nick a couple of limes. “$50 per kg!,” she yelled, as I grabbed onto a fat round green punch of zest from the top of the tree. God that night’s stir fry tasted extra special.
The third night, we abandoned the whole concept of trying to PB our 5 km run time. We set out with cotton bags, and went on a hīkoi through the neighbourhood.
I’d grown up with a feijoa, plum and orange trees in my childhood home, so that was my expertise. Bronnie on the other hand managed to spot all the fig, olive and lemon trees. I can’t even begin to tell them apart, following her excited pointing with ‘Huh? Where?” We’d teach each other which ones were ready, and which ones needed a bit more sun. And never more than just enough for us two. A bit of gentle trespass to nick the neighbours fruit never hurt anyone. Plus, we were still complying with all the guidelines of our government sanctioned walk.
It’s a learning curve when you move into a new area, and it made me miss the familiarity of my childhood home: South Auckland and the North Shore. But onwards and upwards to exploring and building your personal map. That was one of my favourite activities. As a 7 year old, I’d spend hours memorising the garden. Ah Ma would show me all the nooks. I’d follow her to the park: Ah ma ready with an old kitchen knife to dig up baby bamboo shoots. She said my young eyes were better at spotting them. And then we would then squat in the laundry room, her showing me how to peel the dry husk to reveal the supple tender bamboo in the middle.
I had little nimble hands too, so she would lift me up and get me to help her fill a crinkled reused Pakn’Save bag with kumquats in the trees surrounding the back of Browns Bay Foodtown. Jin Ju is best eaten fresh, or stewed and candied into a tea for coughs. I can tell you exactly which walkways around my childhood home had bushes of lavender, ju hua and bai he. Good for coughs and chills.
As I shared this inherited knowledge with Bronnie, she was reminded of a book she had read about rongoā Māori by Rob McGowan. The mātauranga you gain from living, breathing, listening to the ngahere. Throughout the book, Pa Rob’s reiterates that a person can only tell you so much. If you get to know the trees and the plants, they will tell you everything you need to know. And the importance of respecting the tikanga of rongoā Māori. For example, saying a karakia – whatever that means to you in your language – before harvesting.
I used to cringe all the time when my mother would go on about Qi and traditional Chinese medicine. I wish I could just chuck back a Panadol and climb into bed when I had a cold. But you don’t fight your Chinese Mother when she gives you foul smelling tea to wash it down. Stewed bitter dandelion straight from the garden (or the park near Sherwood reserve!). When I got a bleeding nose, it’s because I’m 上火. My Qi is on fire, and I had to immediately eat green lentils and bai he. When I’m on my period, I have to drink go ji berries, ginger and date soup, being careful not to 淪졸, and have too much cold QI.
I didn’t even realise I believed in all this until I moved away and lived in a house with people from different cultures. I used to scoff at everything my mother said to me, and now I’ve turned into her. I also tasted my own medicine when my flatmates started giving me turmeric and milk for my cough.
Bronnie would go tramping with her granddad. He’s originally from Aberbeeg, Wales but spent most of his life in the Wairarapa, and hunted deer in the ranges of the lower eastern North Island. He taught her that you could eat the ends of supple jacks, like asparagus. Also to look out for tutu as it’s poisonous. And that a certain fine moss is an indicator of air quality. Oh and Bushman’s friend is good toilet paper.
My Ba would take me to the markets, his parents (my grandparents) were sweet potato farmers/ theatre performers (thanks to the cultural revolution) and he taught me to pat watermelons to listen to their bellies. And oranges with the largest bum holes are the sweetest.
This is all knowledge passed down from generations.
When discussing generational knowledge and traditional medicine, it’s important to note the Wai 262 report from the Waitangi Tribunal. This affirms the Crown’s responsibility in respecting and supporting Māori knowledge and intellectual property. The connection to nature, and the connection rongoā practitioners have to the whenua.
It makes me wonder about the place of big pharmaceutical companies exploring the Amazon rainforest, and the exploitation of indigenous knowledge for the ‘greater good.’ It makes me wonder about the highway the local government chucked through my family village shrine in Longyuan, Fu Jian. It makes me wonder about balance, and all the physical, cultural and spiritual parts that make up home.
Even in writing this piece, I had to call my Ma for the names of the plants. I can recognise them from memory, from my walks with Ah Ma. As she rattled off the names, she also started chastising me and told me she found a lot of baiguo (really good for when you have yellow phelgm) in the bushes at Browns Bay carpark and they are drying in the sun.
“Can you come eat this weekend?”
I remind her of the rāhui in place. She asks if I’m eating fruit and vegetables and I tell her we’ve started curing our own olives. The whole process will take exactly four weeks. Maybe I can show her when it’s ready?