Fifth Post: The Zhongli Oregon Garden

Fifth Post: The Zhongli Oregon Garden

Have you taken the chance to visit the new village, recently unveiled at the Portland Japanese Garden? I read a pronouncement that claimed, with the addition, the garden is more authentically Japanese than any other outside of Japan. If such bold claims of cultural authenticity interest you, then you may also be interested in visiting another garden abroad created by an authentic Oregonian. Could this be the most Oregon garden in all of Zhongli?

I live and work at the Hope Workers’ Center in Zhongli, Taiwan. Among the center’s other functions, it offers a shelter for migrants to Taiwan who have been abused in the workplace or are victims of human trafficking. The shelter’s residents usually stay for several months until their grievances reach conclusion in the labor courts and they can either be transferred to a new employer or sent home. During the day, I work in the center’s office learning labor and immigration law from caseworkers, and my living accommodations are in the same building. I live in the center’s shelter with about 60 Indonesian, Filipino, and Vietnamese migrants, eating and cooking in community, teaching English, playing table tennis, and, as of about 10 days ago, gardening together.

During my last two years in college, I grew a Portland garden in my backyard, where I raised potatoes, carrots, marigolds, some narcissus, lots of ferns and groundcover, and an ornamental cypress tree–don’t tell our landlord that I excavated lawn to build half-raised beds along the back fence. I had a lot of fun planting and sustaining that first garden, and so I was eager when one of my coworkers wondered whether we could viably plant a rooftop garden in the styrofoam boxes he had grabbed from the local vegetable market’s discard pile.

Dreaming of a rooftop-to-kitchen produce pipeline and an activity to keep the residents of our shelter busy, my boss and I dashed off to the nearest nursery. I wasn’t very helpful in choosing from Chinese-labeled seedlings, but I was very proud of myself when I recognized the vines of bitter gourd. The climate is northern Taiwan is sub-tropical, and I realized how different the array of suitable plants is from Portland’s colder, dryer environment (Portland sees less than half the average rainfall of Zhongli!).

Arriving back to the shelter with 80 seedlings, I recruited as many of my co-residents as wanted to garden with me. Within an hour, we had claimed a corner of the building’s flat roof for pots of okra, chili pepper, eggplant, gourd, a variety of kale, and cherry tomatoes.

Okay, so maybe the Zhongli Oregon Garden is less ornate than its Japanese brother in Portland and shouldn’t elicit the same entrance fee, but this garden has proved educational in a number of ways that I value. While it’s true that many hands can make work both light and speedy, it may not be a goal of this work to be efficient. Many of the men and women who live in the shelter spend great portions of time frustrated by the monotony of waiting for their labor cases to proceed. I’ve been working with the legal caseworkers in my office, seeing how they pursue speedy verdicts to help stymied workers, but Taiwan’s methodical court system often leaves its plaintiffs waiting and workless for months. In the same way that my garden in Portland granted me a satisfying outdoorsy purpose on lazy Saturdays during college, the Zhongli Oregon Garden has become a source of healthy support for workers while they await the opportunity for a next assignment. As our garden continues to mature, you will not find a single errant weed poking up from the styrofoamed soil; the men take their commission as gardeners earnestly.

Though I have claimed an exclusive-Oregon influence about our rooftop garden, Indonesian, Filipino, and Vietnamese gardening hands have all had greater influence than mine, and I have felt the benefits of the garden’s inclusive soil. While we are lucky not to have any real conflict between the various residents of our shelter who hail from disparate homes, there is a default disconnect between many of us. Most of the Indonesians speak very little Chinese and no English; the Vietnamese often speak a lot of Chinese but no English; and while the Filipinos nearly all speak English, fewer speak Chinese. I really enjoy the communicative empowerment I feel when I garden with the Indonesian men and find myself understanding every gesture, feeling a togetherness borne of our shared space. From the first potted seedling, gardening has been a communal exercise and a name like “Zhongli Oregon Garden” belies the international gardening effort that has contributed to its success.