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My arms ache to hug my son back in China. Growing microgreens gives me hope

This First Person column is the experience of Jinsha (Lisa) Yao who lives in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

For the past two years, instead of taking care of my son, I’ve poured all my energy and love into taking care of millions of tiny microgreen babies.

My 12-year-old son is stuck in China; I’m stuck here. I owe him millions of hugs. It breaks my heart. 

But each time I feel lost, it’s the greens that heal me. Growing these greens for friends and the farmers’ market is the way I find the peace and hope to keep going.

One time last fall, it was almost noon by the time I got downstairs to the grow room to rinse the seeds because I was hours on the phone with Global Affairs Canada.

“Ka-ta!…” the sound of breaking glass shook me from my daze. I found myself holding what remains of a mason jar. Glass pieces and sprouts were all over the sink, counter and floor — glass fragments so small, they were clear powders sparkling everywhere on the granite countertop. 

It was hard to tell what was what and I felt so dizzy. My heart felt like it just shut down and I thought, what a mess?! What am I going to do? 

Actually the mess is in my head.

A portrait of a smiling woman.
Jinsha (Lisa) Yao lives in Harvest Hills, Calgary, and grows microgreens in her basement. It’s what keeps her going as she struggles to get a visitor’s visa to be reunited with her 12-year-old son in China. (Submitted by Jinsha (Lisa) Yao)

I stood there, then started to slowly pick up big pieces of glasses. A heart-shaped fragment caught me by surprise. The lentil sprouts on the glass heart looked so fresh.

They were living strong despite what happened. Tears flooded my eyes. I carefully picked up all the sprouts and transplanted them on a microgreen tray. In a week, the lentil microgreens looked like a little forest.

My husband and I moved to Canada from China in 2005 with our six-year-old daughter and five years later, my son Louie was born.

He is a miracle. Louie was born premature at 24 weeks and weighed only 655 grams. Our first cuddle had to wait for 37 days. He stayed in intensive care for exactly 100 days and was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy. It felt like the sky was falling.

We brought Louie to Shanghai after his first birthday. For complicated family reasons and the hope that he could get specialized medical treatment, Louie stayed behind with his grandma and auntie in China. 

For years, I visited as much as I could. Louie is a sensitive, smart and handsome boy. Sadly he is still not able to talk, sit, walk, or feed himself, and he needs 24/7 care. 

He was scheduled to receive a special treatment in April 2020 at the children’s hospital in Shanghai with a team of doctors from Israel, U.S., and Canada. But the pandemic disrupted those plans and threw us in limbo.

Lentil seeds on top of a heart-shaped fragment of glass.
A few lentil seeds on a heart-shaped fragment of glass brought new hope to Jinsha (Lisa) Yao on a difficult morning. (Submitted by Jinsha (Lisa) Yao)

The door back to China just shut down. Louie can’t travel on his own; there is still no way we can go and bring him back.

I started gardening that first spring of the pandemic. I grew so many vegetables in raised beds and on my balcony, I surprised myself. Meanwhile, a secret garden started in my basement. On cold snow days, looking at the magical microgreens dancing under the lights, showing their abundant colours, I feel so warm and amazed.

More and more racks, trays, soils, and seeds kept getting added; I just couldn’t stop.

My hope is that Louie will come back soon, that I can take care of him and grow fresh microgreens at home to balance our life in a better way. My endeavour might not ever become a serious business to make money, but it definitely a happy therapy of sharing.

When the little forest of lentil sprouts are ready, I harvest them and pack them in specialty salad mixes with other microgreens, edible nasturtiums and pansies. I share them with friends and through monthly microgreen subscriptions. 

Microgreens and edible flowers in a plastic container.
Vibrant green and bright colours bring joy to Yao. (Submitted by Jinsha (Lisa) Yao)

Fresh. Nutritious. Tasty. Colourful.

We are still hoping for visitor visas to China. Still no one knows when the pandemic-related delays will really end. 

For now, I look at my plants, which have their own growth cycles. It’s a reflection of our life. 

The amount of care you give affects the growth with surprises and joys in return. We have a long way to go with Louie, but growing microgreens will help me be there for him. 

I believe every seed can grow, some with special care. Live, love, life — I will live naturally, accept the flow and believe my son and microgreens are both growing healthier and happier everyday.

Telling your story 

CBC Calgary is hosting a series of in-person writing workshops all across the city to support community members telling their own stories.

Check out our upcoming opportunities at cbc.ca/tellingyourstory.

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