Backyard Farming

I call them backyard farmers, but they probably don’t agree with me. It’s popular among Asian immigrants in New Jersey to engage in backyard farming every year. I even know a couple who don’t live in a house and don’t have a backyard to grow their produce. What do they do? They rent a plot from Rutgers University for $25 a year to grow half an acre of vegetables from May to October.

It’s an arduous task. The seeds have to be bought and planted. The Asian grocery stores here sell cucumber, loofah, long bean, and even winter melon seeds. The cucumber has to be the kind with little spikes on the dark green skin, not so prickly to bleed your hands, but rather gentle barbs to tickle your fingers. The inside is so crispy that you can hear the crunchy sound when you take a bite. The loofah is the most popular since it is quite expensive and non-fresh from the store. Planting is the first step. What follows are months of labor and vigilance. Fence has to be erected to fend off rabbits and deer; frames to be constructed for tomato vines to climb; fertilizers are bought and deployed. There are also various tools to dig, till, twist, rake the soil for the best planting condition.

Once I was staying in a place in upstate New York. The couple I was staying with had a backyard more than an acre, on which they grow cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions, leeks, and several other items as well. The couple invited me to go to the backyard to pick vegetables to make salad for dinner. They are very proud, sort of a back to nature kind of style for them. I had no interest in their backyard farm, but I had to accompany them, offering my compliments and pretending that I envy their food, self sufficiency, organic life etc. I feel myself so fake. Why can’t I just say I have no interest at all in planting, farming, or harvesting?

When I was in high school, we were sent to a village not far away from the big city for two weeks. Our whole class of 50 or so students lived in two separate farm houses, one for boys and one for girls. It’s the harvest season and the rice field is endless. The farmers didn’t really want us there since we didn’t know how to do things. Harvesting rice with a sickle is not as easy as we tend to think. I couldn’t advance even three feet within half an hour. It ended up that I had to give up my sickle–a big curvy knife–to somebody more skilled than I was. The most menial job was assigned to me–to pick up the stalks with grains and yellow hulls that were left in a harvested field.

The farmers worked from dawn to dusk. They didn’t go home for meals. The whole village became a collective unit with only several older women cooking for the whole village. They cooked and delivered the meal to the field. At the end of the day, the villagers were not going home to take a rest. They continued to get the crop husked on whirring machines at a corner of the village. Then the husked rice were laid out on the ground to dry. They worked all night, taking turns to go back home to sleep. The machines never stopped for one minute. This went on for as long as it could last. Rain is the biggest enemy for the harvest season. All stalks that have been cut down need to be husked and dried before the rain come. In the subtropical region it is hard to find a whole week without rain and things need to be organized well and executed efficiently and swiftly.

I really admired these farmers and their hard work, something that I can never do. When we went back to school, I submitted my homework assignment on the backbreaking work of the villagers. My teacher disliked my essay and criticized me for being too negative, which I vehemently denied.

Things I Want To Do But Can’t

Such a beautiful day today that one just wants to go out and walk about, but instead one’s stuck here staring at the computer screen. Sunny, a few clouds floating decoratively, 72 degrees, humidity not too high to mess up the hair and not too low to dry up the skin. There are only ten to twenty days each year in New Jersey that the weather resembles that of the California coast. Today is the day. It’s a day that makes one hate to be sedentary; it’s a day that makes one understand why some people would rather be homeless in California than toilers in New Jersey. I’ve only been to California several times and each time stayed for a short period. However I can say I don’t really like Santa Monica beach that much–too clean and too orderly as if I could smell the sanitizing detergent. Venice beach is much more lively and diverse, with a whiff of danger in the air. Pitch a tent on Venice beach and watch the crashing waves and reckless surfers all day long.

I want to finish this book today, but I know I can’t. The name of the book I don’t want to mention even if the author has died several years ago. I hate myself when I’m being too critical. I will feel much better if I just give up, but my habit of finishing everything I’ve started forces me to continue. So I continue, but not without bitter resentment. The book is killing me. I feel like being constricted by a python slowly and mercilessly without the hope of escape. Yes, the book is as long as a ruthless python–almost 400 pages and I still have 100 pages to go. To a slow reader like me, 100 pages take an agonizing eternity of time to read. The plot and the characters are made deliberately depressing. Pages after pages of depressing descriptions without respite. I have to say the life of this main character Lung is really not that bad at all and I don’t understand his antagonism against everything and everybody in his life. Why? His parents are unlovable. Somehow they fit in every Asian stereotype I’ve ever heard–they are bigots; they want to fix a wife on him; they treat son and daughter differently; their English very limited; their concept of milk restricted to powdered coffee creamer; their idea of food oily and even unclean. His wife foists a child on him and forces him to marry. His employer–the ladies in an up-scale club of some sort–treat him with benevolence mixed with racial prejudice. After describing his father as such an unlovable, uneducated, stubborn laundryman without taste bud for food and without skills to deal with people, the author suddenly starts to talk about his father’s beautiful dancing steps and his love affair with a local woman. Doesn’t he know that most readers are women who want to read love affairs of likable and lovable people? I admire his independence of will. He doesn’t wish to cater to his audience.