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Roots Before And After

Two thoughts shadowed Friday morning. What would I write for a blog post this week? What would I do with the bushel basket of parsnips freshly dug? The first question had haunted me all week; the other had haunted me all winter. One was rooted in not having enough; the other was entrenched in the worry of too much.

The second question was the most quickly answered. Despite the heavy load provided by my father’s strength and care, first steps and next steps were obvious. Each parsnip needed to be washed, tops discarded, peeled, and then prepared for storage. And the blog? A beginning, middle and end was not so forthcoming. Still, the past year had taught me to recognize the value of silence, at times the world’s and at all times my own. The methodical action of prepping a bushel of parsnips provided a necessary pause of pressing noise and the space to invite another’s voice.

Recently the Hmong experience rose into mattering through the work of my colleagues across the state. I had been slow to listen, not seeing the community within my community. At a local NAACP chapter meeting, a member stepped forward sharing her own ignorance of resources for East Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi-American Heritage identities (APIDA). We all paused unable to funnel a trickle of relief into the current revisiting of ignorance and violence. I stared down at the steel pot my dad had brought inside from an outside corner. I would fill it with discarded pieces of roots; Guatemalan women I had known might have filled it with leaves wrapped around steaming tamalitos.

Even before Guatemala had firmly twisted the idea of speaking in strings around my own identity frames, I had examined Hmong story told in cloth on university walls. Beyond aesthetics and vague memories of a few nutmeg brown faces among my middle school peers, their stories had remained unheard. I waited for story to emerge and Kao Kalia Yang spoke, “Lasting change cannot be forced, only inspired.”

The Latehomecomer began with a traditional story of where babies come from. According to the Hmong, babies watch from clouds, needing convincing to be a part of the earth. The unborn and the unseen are watching. Their words as water vapor are in fact above me and around me, building towards release. APIDA is a vast umbrella, but even a categorization like Hmong is not large enough to capture the rain of experiences nor the cycling of oceans this ethnic minority crossed for their survival.

My act of listening seemed a small drop and somewhat only, lonely not enough to penetrate already cracked ground. Roots cracked ground too. So, did the act of removing them. What about the after? I stared at the ‘after’ of roots in the basket at my feet. Parsnips would take all morning. I borrowed the e-audio book version. Believing one does not have anything to say is not the same as the acknowledgment of the power in not saying anything. This is the universe seeking balance. Others’ clouds are bursting with much to say and no space in which to say it. I pressed play.

As a cultural beginning of the diaspora of stories, of language and of a people, the author detailed the women’s rebellion of hiding language in flowers only to have the language lost among the flowers, as a people lost among the jungle, and ways of being lost among the babies who did fall to earth deciding to be caught in grandmother’s arms. Human story is one of roots before and after.

Parsnips are tubers. Roots. What many don’t realize is that it is customary to harvest parsnips in spring. This means these roots watched as the garden was harvested in summer and tucked away in autumn. My father, the attentive gardener covered the parsnips with straw as protective bedding. Winds whispered. Snow fell. The earth warmed again. In spring these parsnips may have believed they were safe and the roots they had pushed wide and maintained would remain in the cracks in the soil they claimed. When the ground thawed, Dad thrust a shovel’s sharp edge around them, both with intent and lack of care. Some roots broke in the ground, unyielding. Dad succeeded in removing most parsnips. He washed the harvest in cold water spray and carried them into the house.

In this harvest, I heard a short history lesson, “Hmong were refugees from China and then from Laos, then from Thailand and finally the United States.” Somehow, I no longer held vegetables, but bodies.

I observed myself from above, perhaps alongside the unborn, roots before, the author described atop clouds. I cut the parsnip tops off and then the ends. I scraped away skin darkened by dirt and birth and any other half formed roots. Holding the ‘clean’ parsnips in my hands I sensed the lives sewn into story cloth which also watched their fibers peeled away.

Kao Kalia Yang’s mother dreamed of education.

I thrust my knife down.

Her grandmother clutched a medicine bag. Other women cuddled starving children.

I chopped and slid off skin and hairlike roots unformed. First, pasts and then futures are tossed away. They do not go silently but scream slightly against the steel pot. In full headed parsnips more difficult to break apart, I hold the memory of elders and so much life already stored. I pressed with all my weight and rock the blade back and forth, so much that its dull edge damaged my hands too. My force forward ended with slender and staunch yellow cream shapes jumbled together across the counter.

Slowly, I sectioned these bodies apart. To be stored, to survive at all, each parsnip must be a certain size, more or less the same. Roots. No one parsnip was affected the same by my knife, but each misshapen form is now less. After.

The strain on my finger again recalled the mother who wanted to learn to type. She most likely never felt the blister of even a pencil against her finger where my knife rested. Instead, air that should have been used for those words was trapped in bubbled skin along her feet from desperate walking, pausing only to mend a dress as best she could.

First history fibers, and then acts of stringing together survival, became fibers that slowly rip to shreds. Yet, there was another after, an act that quickened over time and by time. I assembled my food processor and machine run blades stripped even more fibers away from places no human eye could see more could be lost. Systematic actions shred until I have bags of light, white pieces, tubers easier to manage and to form. I flattened the bags and stack them atop each other in my freezer. These transparent bags served as new cities. Unseen boundaries. And ultimately frozen places like Wisconsin and Minneapolis. Like my middle school. Longer lives, but cold ones. What seed would want to take root, if it felt this after?

Three hours later, the author’s story has barely started, but my work with the parsnips is complete. When I started, I had believed I would be proud of my accomplishment. Now finished, I stared down at my hands, stained into a brownish orange. But the stain isn’t new. This coloring had first darkened through truths told in graduate school and Central American classrooms. Like water steaming through concrete fighting its way back to the clouds, these truths came back to me. My words existed inside varying cycles of other people’s storms.

Storms may be destructive and cause for fear, but water also brings new life and words of hope, “I loved the idea and power of a journey from the clouds. It gave babies power: we choose to be born to our lives; we give ourselves to people who make the earth look more inviting than the sky.” Perhaps, if stories of babies upon clouds hold true, recycled earth mirrors water. Regardless of season, all energy and story will be returned together, roots before and after; and my role in this blog space and all others, is not one of generating words, but sharing them.

The NEA Big Read is The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang.



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