A personal essay on inherited knowledge and making use of what you find.
Earlier this year, I moved out of home into a really cute flat in Sandringham. The windows don’t quite shut when it rains, their timber frames swollen with dampness, and there’s no insulation. It’s very much a student flat, but I love it.
When I came home late from work on my second night here, I discovered a magical chai van. Chai Wala Bhai sits at the end of my street and Chris Bhai always greets me with a smile. His South Indian breakfast foods and midnight tea hangouts around the van are a staple in our community.
The three cats who live down the road always greet me when I come home from uni. Our neighbour diagonally to our left always has the best music taste. It’s a doof of jazz and funk, intermingled with native birdsong from 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 tactical move to avoid going for each other’s throats in the middle of cabin fever.
This meant sprinting to keep a two-metre radius around bike riders, dodging casual tennis matches being played across the white lines in the middle of the road, and nodding to the teddy bears keeping watch on windowsills. As we always do, however, we got distracted along the way. The first night brought us a large mirror, saved from a lonely curbside. It’s now sitting in the lounge – wiped and disinfected, of course.
The second night we came home with a dozen feijoa, little ones abandoned on the ground. Better in our puku. 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 one from the top of the tree. God, that night’s stir-fry tasted extra special.
On the third night we abandoned the whole concept of trying to beat our personal best five-kilometre run time. We set out with cotton bags and went on a hīkoi through the neighbourhood.
We’d never take more than just enough for us two.
I’d grown up with feijoa, plum and orange trees outside my childhood home, so that was my area of expertise. Bronnie, on the other hand, managed to spot all the fig, olive and lemon trees. I couldn’t even begin to tell them apart, following her excited pointing with “Huh? Where?” We’d teach each other which ones were ready, which ones needed a bit more sun. And we’d never take more than just enough for us two. Other than a bit of gentle trespass to nick the neighbours’ fruit, 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, exploring and building your personal map. It made me miss the familiarity of my childhood home. Getting lost and wandering were among my favourite activities. Probably not the smartest hobbies to have as a seven-year-old. Luckily, Ah Ma was with me.
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. Then we would 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 nimble little hands too, so she would lift me up and get me to help her fill a crinkled reused Pak’n’Save bag with kumquats from the trees surrounding the Browns Bay Foodtown carpark. 金橘 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 jasmine, 菊花and 百合. Good for coughs and chills.
I used to cringe all the time when my Ma would go on about qi and traditional Chinese medicine. I wished 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 as a remedy. Stewed bitter dandelions straight from the garden (or the park near Sherwood Reserve).
My mother learnt from her grandmother, who learnt from her grandmother before.
When I get a bleeding nose, it’s because I’m 上火. My qi is on fire, and I have to immediately eat green lentils and 百合. When I’m on my period, I have to drink goji berries, ginger and date soup, being careful not to 着凉.
My mother learnt this from her grandmother, who learnt from her grandmother before. I didn’t even realise I believed in all this until I moved away and lived in a house with people from different cultures. Fulfilling every daughter’s worst fear – I’m turning into her. As well as sharing these remedies with my flatmates, I also got a taste of my own medicine when my flatmates started giving me their own traditional family remedies, like turmeric and milk for a cough.
Of course, knocking back ginger and lemon tea is not a replacement for seeing a medical professional. I’ve had my fair share of arguments with my parents, insisting that “Green lentils aren’t going to stop my nose from bleeding right now!” or “Qi gong isn’t going to fix my depression and anxiety!” Traditional medicine can be rooted in a history of misogyny, old wives’ tales, and belittling of women’s pain and health.
While traditional medicine has its limitations ... it’s also been a way of reclaiming the female body and self.
However, in traditional China, these old wives tales were often the only access women had to healthcare. The only doctors were male and while they also practised traditional Chinese medicine, were restricted in their capacity to examine female patients. Questions related to sexual health and reproduction were extremely uncomfortable for female patients to answer, due to cultural taboos. This often led to inaccurate diagnosis. Other than in 妇科, gynecology, the female body was secondary. Pregnant women would be seen by a midwife, 接生婆, usually an older woman in the community who drew from personal experience. Therefore the knowledge of the female body, wellbeing and childbearing passed down from grandmother, to mother, to daughter was invaluable. So while traditional medicine has its limitations, upholding notions that our only purpose is to reproduce, it’s also been a way of reclaiming the female body and self.
As I shared this inherited knowledge with Bronnie, she was reminded of a book she had read about rongoā Māori by Rob McGowan. Throughout the book, Pa Rob 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. The mātauranga you gain from living, breathing, listening to the ngahere. 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.
When Bronnie was younger, she would go tramping with her granddad. He’s originally from Aberbeeg, Wales, but spent most of his life in the Wairarapa, hunting deer in the lower eastern ranges of the North Island. He taught her that you can eat the ends of supplejack 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 also makes for good toilet paper.
Ba taught me to pat watermelons to listen to their bellies
My Ba would take me shopping with him at Countdown, Albany Pak’n’save, and the Brown Bay Sunday farmer’s market. His parents (my grandparents) were theatre makers/sweet-potato farmers (thanks to the cultural revolution). When we visited them in China, we would go to the village shrine and pray to the only deity that mattered to farmers: 土地公, god of the ground and soil. And later, to the only one that mattered to migrants far away from home: 妈祖, goddess of seafarers.
Ba taught me to pat watermelons to listen to their bellies and that the sweetest oranges are the ones with the largest bum holes.
This is knowledge passed down from generations.
When discussing generational knowledge and traditional medicine, it’s important to consider the context Aotearoa sits in. The Wai 262 Report from the Waitangi Tribunal affirms the Crown’s responsibility in respecting and supporting Māori knowledge. The connection to nature, and the connection rongoā practitioners have to the whenua. But how is this adequately protected when we have a system that upholds individualism, Lockean ‘fruits of labour’, and capitalist understandings of property? How does kaitiaki fit into this?
It makes me wonder about balance, and all the physical, cultural and spiritual parts that make up home.
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’. Who is privileged enough to be part of this ‘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. That make up wellbeing.
The Mataatua Declaration on Cultural and IP rights of Indigenous Peoples was released in 1993, and maintains that Indigenous people are willing to offer knowledge “to all humanity provided their fundamental rights to define and control this knowledge are protected by the international community”. Yet with the status quo, this right to define and control is not met.
Mauri attached to rongoā can become misplaced when varieties of plants are commercialised. Commercialisation on a grand scale is of particular concern, as this knowledge is considered tapu (sacred) and only passed on to a select few.
According to Hirini Clarke of Ngāti Porou, mānuka honey was traditionally used by Māori for oral infections, upset tummies and hakihaki. Now, however, mānuka honey is exploited internationally, with German researchers claiming to have isolated its main active compound in 2008, without any acknowledgment of mātauranga Māori. And while there has been slightly more protection with the successful trademarking of ‘mānuka’ honey in 2018, Māori continue to be left out of conversations of mātauranga issues. The Māori advisory committee for patents can only advise, and only at the request of the commissioner.
Legal changes mean nothing if they don’t actually empower Indigenous knowledge and identity.
According to intellectual property lawyer Lynell Huria, New Zealand’s legislative processes for protecting Indigenous IP are at least as fragmented and ad hoc as Australia’s, with the Copyright Act currently being reviewed in isolation, as is the Plant Variety Rights Act and aspects of the Patents Act. There needs to be a holistic overhaul of New Zealand’s innovation system. But legal changes mean nothing if they’re not backed up, for example, with continuous strengthening of te reo and education campaigns on the harms of cultural misappropriation. Legal changes mean nothing if they don’t actually empower Indigenous knowledge and identity.
According to Professor Graham Hingangaroa Smith, “Māori people live in a situation of unequal power relationships with a dominant Pākehā group,” so when knowledge becomes commodified, Māori knowledge is particularly vulnerable.There is an imbalance of knowledge, power and economics between Pākehā, tangata whenua and tauiwi.
I write about memories of finding food with Ah Ma as a child with both sweetness and sadness, as Ah Ma is no longer in New Zealand with us. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling ashamed when I would go out scavenging for fruit with my grandmother. She saw it as important to not let things go to waste, “It’s not like anyone else was noticing the weeds!” But I wished we could buy real fruit. Only the apples inside Foodtown had the Yummy stickers on them that we were collecting at school, and I wanted to get praised by my primary-school teacher for helping us get PE gear. The cheap bruised ones at the Chinese supermarket didn’t even have stickers!
Back then, I would have never dared to tell you that the head was the best part of the fish, especially when you cooked it down to a milky soup and ate the soft bit in the cheek. The cheapest cuts of pork meat and bone, especially the marrow, were also my favourite – so much fun to eat! I would have never told you this.
Even in writing this, 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 Ma rattled off the names, she also started chastising me and told me she found a lot of 银杏坚果 – good for yellow phlegm – in the bushes fringing our family coffee shop. She’s now drying them in the sun.
“Can you come eat this weekend?”
I reminded her of the rāhui in place. She asked if I’m eating fruit and vegetables, and I told her my flatmate and I had started curing our own olives. The whole process will take exactly four weeks.
“Maybe I can show you when they’re ready.”
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.