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Dear Jambolan Tree (A Letter from Võ Hải)

Are plants, foods, and seeds mainly commodities, to be bought, sold, and used without regard for their histories and contexts?  Can we talk about “diversity” while ignoring diaspora?  

We’re delighted to begin our month of The Lies That Build Empire with this letter, tender and astute, from engaged Buddhist Võ Hải to a beloved tree: the Jambolan, also known at the Jambul tree.  (Originally published on nước mắm cá.)

Hải counters the empire-building, historically amnesiac lies undergirding the corporatized food system by rooting himself in a deep love and appreciation for food and the stories it holds.  If, as dharma teacher Larry Yang notes, mindfulness is actually inseparable from loving-kindness, Hải’s letter reminds us that loving attention can move us to learn.  To investigate history, to recover legacies of diaspora erased or sanitized in a dominant culture, and to find ways of protecting and honoring the earth and its beings, ourselves included.


Chào cay trâm mốc/Dear Jambolan tree,

I hear from a Vietnamese elder in the town that I grew up in in the US after the diaspora that you are a rare species in this, to you, foreign land. I also hear that your leaves and branches get cold and shiver in the winter compared to sweating and basking in the glorious humidity of the east of Asia, where you grow abundantly and are not so rare.

I, too, shiver in the winter. There are many of me’s that grow abundantly and are not so rare in the east of Asia, too. Like you, this land is foreign to me. We are part of the diaspora together, me and you, trying to find home, trying to evolve and ground our roots, making sense of it all.

So just like how I get excited when I meet other Vietnamese in the diaspora, I get excited when I find rarities like you. That same elder has birthed from one of your seeds more of you, planting one of you in a public sidewalk — to share the prosperity and to heal ecosystems while also resisting the corporatized, industrialized, globalized food system.

This corporatized, industrialized, globalized system doesn’t want you — your prosperity, your healing. Over 90% of seeds — the very substance that begins to give life, life — are controlled by a few companies that’re changing how you prosper, how you heal — changing the very things that make you, with the help of the sun, water, biodiverse soils, and other plants and animals — your fullest self, that make you beautiful, that make you, you.

How can this food system feed the world when it favors monopolies — the growth of only a few crops (wheat, corn, and soy to name some) — but the world is home to an abundance of life and diversity? I find irony.

I also find the touch of your leaves gentle like a plum tree, the smell of your bark a bit milder than an oak’s. I’m excited for you.

Kind and gentle cay trâm mốc/jambolan tree, I have yet to taste your fruit because you have to yet to blossom. I am patient. I read your fruit gifts bare sweet, bitter, astringent, and acidic tastes. I want to reciprocate — a give-and-give cycle that I find in all of life — give to your nourishment and growth with the hopes that you will give more life to other plants and animals. Is this what raising and/or helping raise children is like?

I hope to be more rooted like you someday, to take care of more of you, to return to that mindful and manifesting bliss of prosperity and healing. I’m doing that by reclaiming land for you and your fellow siblings to grow your next generations, collecting seeds of you and your fellow plant friends, and stewarding soil that you call home, nourishing you every moment of the day.

Mến và hoà bình/Love and peace,
Võ Hải

Hải Võ là người Mỹ gốc Việt. With ancestry in present-day Việt Nam, Hải was raised in Southern California, by way of birth sponsorship in Iowa, by way of refugee camps in the Philippines. Hải, a queer-identified second-generation Vietnamese-American helps organize youth (food) justice initiatives. Hải is passionate about traditional food(ways), (e)advocacy, popular education around food sovereignty, and returning to Việt Nam in the very near future. @nuocmamca.

[Top photo by Hải Võ]

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