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An interview with author Grace Lin

On November 18, 2021 during an Instagram Live “Garden Story,” Lily Nguyen, Education Specialist at KidsGardening, interviewed Grace Lin about her experience gardening and growing up, and how her experiences shaped her work as a children’s book author. The following transcript of the live video recording has been lightly edited to be reader-friendly. 

Two square photos of women, one photo on top of the other, a screenshot of an Instagram Live

Lily Nguyen of KidsGardening (top) and Grace Lin (bottom)

[00:00:42.930] - Lily - Introduction 

Hello, everyone. Thanks for being here today. My name is Lily, and I'm an Education Specialist with Kids Gardening. We have here today, Grace Lin. She's an award winning author and illustrator and also the host of a podcast called Kids Ask Authors. And she's also the author of an amazing book called The Ugly Vegetables, which I have read as a garden teacher with my students. We're here to talk to her today about her experience gardening as a kid and just her experience in life and how all of that shaped her work as an author and illustrator.

A screenshot of Grace Lin holding up her book The Ugly Vegetables
[00:01:38.850] - Lily - What is your favorite childhood garden memory?
[00:02:03.810] - Grace - Her mom’s Chinese vegetable garden 

What is my favorite childhood garden memory? That is a good question. My mom is actually quite a gardener. She actually studied Botany before. She was my mother. She has always had a big love of gardening. And I can't remember ever having a time when I was a child where she was not out in the yard doing something. And I remember her digging and digging, and I remember her planting. I remember her weeding. I remember her doing all those things... I can't really think of which one is my favorite memory.

I do remember very vividly - which is why it's in this book - my mother growing Chinese vegetables in her garden. I don't want to give away my age, but this was quite a long time ago where we lived in upstate New York. At the time, there were no Chinese grocery stores. So any of the more unusual vegetables that she was used to cooking with, she had to grow herself. And I remember all the other neighbors were growing tulips and daffodils, and she was planting these strange seeds and they were starting to pop up, and they looked like grass.

And I was like, mom, why did you plant grass in the garden? And only later she explained to me they were not grass. They were a special vegetable called “Jiǔcài”, which is the Chinese leek. But I didn't really believe her. And I only really believed her after she harvested it and cut it up and used it in our food. Like, oh, okay, they're like onions. But I do remember that pretty vividly, like this curiosity of, like, “Why are you going grass, Mom?”

[00:04:11.330] - Lily

That's awesome. Yeah, I can definitely relate to just growing up and being influenced by the things that my mom brought to the kitchen and how it shaped my palette. So related to this, what kind of food are you most passionate about?

[00:04:33.710] - Grace - Her love of dumplings 

So the food I am most passionate about probably is dumplings. I love dumplings, and I especially love dim sum. I know it's not really related to gardening so much, but it is related to Asian cuisine. I love dim sum. That's been the hardest thing during this pandemic is not being able to go someplace, go to a dim sum restaurant. I'm just so used to that busy dim sum atmosphere. They actually don't have too many of these places that carts anymore, but the places of the carts and all the people and the laughing and the yelling and all the talking. I really miss that. And I hope we can get back to that soon.

[00:05:15.590] - Lily

And you have a book about Dumplings, too, right.

[00:05:18.120] - Grace 

I have many books about Dumplings. I have a book called “Dimsum for Everyone,” which is all about Dimsum. And I have a middle grade novel called “Dumpling Days”, which is all about my first trip as a child to Taiwan and how I ate my way through Taiwan. Mainly dumplings.

[00:05:53.490] - Lily

That is awesome. So I love how your life experiences have really shaped your writing and your work as an author and speaking about both of these worlds, gardening and cooking and food and how they're so intertwined. As much of our audience relates to gardening and being a garden educator, what inspired you to write The Ugly Vegetables? Was it a specific memory that you have or an encounter?

[00:06:28.650] - Grace - Feeling embarrassed as a kid

Yeah. That's a great question. And it is really very much based on a memory of my mom. Like I said, I can't remember a time when she wasn't gardening and she's still gardening now. And I remember very specifically how she would grow Chinese vegetables in her garden while everybody else in the neighborhood grew flowers. And I used to be very embarrassed. It just seemed like we were growing these weird lumpy vegetables, like some strange long purpley things and yellow bumpy lumpy things and things like curved and curled and things while everybody else is growing these like beautiful tulips and roses, impatiens.

I remember feeling a little bit embarrassed - because I've talked about this many times in lots of my talks - about how where I grew up in upstate New York, we were one of the very few minority families that lived in the area. So all during my elementary school, I was the only Asian girl in my elementary school except for my sisters. And so having my mom grow these “weird” Chinese vegetables just seemed like another thing that was making me and our family strange. And at the time, like I said, I was really embarrassed.

But now, looking back, I realized all those things that I was so embarrassed about are actually things that I really cherish. 

Two photos, one of Lily smiling and one of a photograph of an adult and a child.

This is a real photo. This is a real photo of me and my mom in her garden. So I painted a little picture of my mother and I in a garden, and I had sent that out as a sample of my artwork to publishing companies all over the country. And one publisher, an editor at that publisher, contacted me and said, “I really like your new sample, do you have a story that goes with this sample?” And I said, “Yes, I do,” even though I didn't at the time. But that story was the story of my mother growing Chinese vegetables in the garden. And that's what became my very first buzz, the ugly vegetables.

[00:09:02.730] - Lily - Bitter melon

That's an amazing story. And just as you were talking about those bumpy, lumpy vegetables, I was reminded of my mom's cooking. I'm Vietnamese, and she would always make bitter melon soup. And it was just so bitter. And I was like, why would you eat this?

[00:09:25.290] - Grace - A “bitter” quote

I remember making something similar. I was like, this is like eating a rubber band. It is so interesting. I still have not acquired a taste for it, but I remember very vividly my parents serving that at the Autumn Moon festival and all the kids being like, gross, but all the adults loving it. And I remember very vividly my father saying: “You only appreciate bitter melon soup after you have tasted the bitterness of life.” And now, as an adult, I have tasted the bitterness of life, and I still don't like it.

[00:10:17.850] - Lily

Haha, that’s awesome. I love that quote! And I also think that food is so interesting because it's so much shaped by our perceptions and just our environment; what we grew up around. And the same thing can be said for books and their influence on kids and how it can shape their worldview. So I do want to ask you about that. But bringing it back to ugly vegetables, is there one uncommon ugly vegetable you think more people should grow and cook?

[00:10:56.610] - Grace - Her top ugly vegetable pick 

Okay. So the one everybody always goes to is that bitter melon, Kǔguā. But I don't think people should grow that one because I think that's an acquired taste, and I think it might turn people off. But I do think after you have tried various Asian vegetables, to move on to [bitter melon] - that should be the pinnacle. Like, move up to the bitterness. 

Starting out, I would start with the Zhōngguó huángguā”, which is basically the Chinese cucumbers, very much like the cucumbers we get at the grocery store all over the United States. But instead of being smooth and straight, it's kind of curved and it's got little bumps all over it. But there's a flavor to it that it's similar, but like, better than a cucumber. Like, I guess, an American cucumber because it's crispier. And I want to say fresher, but it might just be fresher because I always got it out of the garden, but it was just crispier, and there's a slight flavor to it that just feels fresher than the cucumbers get in the normal grocery store, because the cucumbers we get in the grocery stores are from all over the United States, they're fine, but they are a little bland, whereas the Chinese cucumber, I feel like, has a distinct flavor.

[00:12:17.920] - Lily

I've tried it. I've never grown it before, but I totally understand what you mean about that, like, more fresh. I think it's the texture, the consistency.

[00:12:28.790] - Grace

Yeah. It's like a crispy cucumber. It's kind of like the difference between, like, a honey crisp apple and, like, a normal Macintosh or Red delicious. And the Macintosh is fine. But when you have that honey crisp apple and it's super crisp, you're like, oh, this is what I like my apples to be like.

[00:12:52.230] - Lily

Yeah. And that really mirrors the beauty of diversity and gardens and also just celebrating diversity in general. And that relates to my next question: What is the significance of passing traditions and cultural practices down from our elders and ancestors?

[00:13:14.430] - Grace - How food transcends time, history, and generations

So we're talking about food and we're talking about gardening. But I think food is one of those wonderful things that really connect us to our past. And not only does it connected to our past, it makes the past present, because when you eat the recipe of your grandparents, it's almost like bringing their essence into the present. Or you eat the thing that you ate when you were younger. The magic thing about food is how it really interconnects all of us, the past, the present. It's a story without words. And it's a story without a narrative. That's what food is. And gardening is just taking that one step further. 

Like when you grow the same food that your grandparents grew and then you eat it, it's just bringing that past into your present. And there's such a significance in that because I had this interesting conversation about what culture is. One definition of culture is basically a celebration of overcoming obstacles. So many generations starved, and they figured out how to plant these foods, and they celebrate now because now we know how to overcome the obstacle of starving, because we know how to plant food. Those are the things that we have to remember that so many people, especially our ancestors, suffered for and by kind of taking those traditions, those practices and keep doing them today, it's a celebration. It's a memory. And it's a continuation of our culture.

[00:15:29.670] - Lily - Culture speaks to the resilience of people 

Yeah. I agree with all of that. And that's such a great explanation. And I love your definition of culture just speaking to the resiliency of people and passing the wisdom that is learned down through all of these different ways and celebrating it through food and of course plants are connected to that as well.

[00:15:59.830] - Grace - Books and food connect generations 

Sorry, I was going to say I love books, and obviously I do books, but I think food and books are similar in how they can take the path to make it present. They can connect generations, all those things. The reason why I like books is because it's less ephemeral, like food disappears into your stomach. But they're both very important, I think. But that is why I do so many books about food.

[00:16:32.050] - Lily

Yeah, I love food, too. So speaking to the themes that are interwoven within your books and things that you've spoken about in lectures and your Ted talk, for example, why is it important for you to be an advocate for diversity, particularly in childhood education?

[00:16:58.390] - Grace - Not having enough “mirrors” growing up

Okay. I talked a little bit about growing up in upstate New York and basically being the only Asian students in my elementary school except for my sisters. And that gave me a really weird sense of identity. And back then, like I said, I don't really want to give away my age, but it was a long time ago, and one of the ways that adults dealt with race back then was by not talking about it. So the school actually came to my parents and asked them, “Please don't speak to them in Chinese because that will delay their language skills.” Whenever the subject or the topic of my race came up in any kind of conversation in school, it was always quickly shut down.

This is not to blame any of the adults in my world. It was just a different way of how we thought things would work. Like, I know now the adults felt like not talking about it was better. They felt like that's how we create racially blind kids, kids that don't see color by not talking about it. But as the kid that was of color that didn't feel good to me, I never felt colorless. Instead, I kind of felt like I had this very shameful secret that everybody knew.

But it was so shameful that not talking about my race became something to be ashamed of. And that was something that I carried with me throughout my whole childhood. It was only until adulthood that I slowly started to change that array. And one of the reasons why it was so easy for me to be ashamed of my heritage was not only did no one ever talk about it and shut it down when it was brought up, it seemed like there was nobody that looked like me anywhere.

I said, this was a while ago, but there's nobody that looked like me in the movies. There's nobody that looked like me on TV. It's better now, but there's nobody that looked like me in magazines. There was nobody that looked like me in the books I was reading, and I love books. And I was reading like the Narnia books. I was reading fantasy books. I was reading books with mermaids in it and unicorns like books where the impossible could happen. But even in those books, anybody who looked like me, I did not exist. There was no Asian in any of those books. You could find talking cats faster than you could find a book with an Asian character in it. And that just kind of all added to this kind of self. It felt like a sad thing. But the self hating feeling I talk about so much, I'm sure people might just get sick of me talking about it when I talk about windows and mirrors of books - where a book is a window and a mirror.

It can show you the world and the world outside of yourself as a window. But it can also show you a reflection of yourself, just like a window. If you stand at the right angle, you can see a reflection of yourself. I strongly feel that all kids need both. You can't just have all windows. You can't have just all mirrors. It's detrimental because you need to have both because the windows give you the empathy to understand other people, to recognize that the world does not revolve around you, that we are part of the community.

But the mirrors - that's what I lacked as a child very strongly. The mirrors. That is the sense of self worth that I did not have as a child, that sense that I could be a hero in my own story, that I had power over my story, that I could be someone important. And that's something that I did not have when I was a child and something that I really had to come to terms to fit with as an adult.

[00:21:35.610] - Lily - Her struggle with her identity as a first-generation Vietnamese-American 

I really appreciate you sharing all of that and all the reflection that's gone into your lived experience and how you use your artwork and your writing to connect with kids and to help create both windows and near opportunities for them. And just hearing you share all of that, I relate so much because I'm a first generation Asian American, and I had a different experience growing up because I grew up in Houston, which is one of the most diverse cities in the US, and just didn't think very much about my race and being Asian, and my parents never taught me how to speak Vietnamese, so I didn't really connect to my culture that way. And it wasn't until later in life, where I lived in South America for a few years in a very homogeneous culture, and I just stood out like a sore thumb, and people pointed it out all the time. And like you, I had somewhat of an identity crisis. I was like, wait - I'm Asian! And they would call me “Chinita” - which is like, socially acceptable there to call people by their perceived appearances. But that means, like, Chinese girl. I was like, wait, I'm Chinese?! I didn't know that!

And really, what I wanted was for people to just understand that people can come from different places in the world, and we all have our differences. But at our core, we are human and we can share commonalities, but also we should celebrate our differences, too. And so I have one final question I want to ask you in relation to this: How can Asian American kids specifically learn to embrace their culture and ultimately practice self acceptance and what role can the Guardian have in this?

[00:23:56.650] - Grace - Tend to your kids as you would your garden 

That's a good question. I personally think that kids will come to it. Okay, so let me backtrack a little. I do get this question quite often, usually from parents from immigrant parents. Like, what can I do to get my child more Chinese? What can I do to get my child to be Chinese or Vietnamese? What can I do? And there's two things I want to touch upon and what I usually say to these immigrant parents. And I'm like, I have to tell you something. Your child was born here in the United States. 

Your child will never be Chinese. Your child will always be Chinese American. And I know that is hard to understand sometimes, but they will have a different experience and a different identity than what you have. But that doesn't mean it's bad that it's actually better because they can take all the great and wonderful things of your heritage, of our heritage, and they interweave it, and they make it alive and they make it alive in this present day. There are so many times, especially in my own family, where I have elderly relatives who are here in the United States, and they look at our culture like it's this treasure that needs to be protected, and it's almost frozen in time.

Right. And I keep trying to tell them our culture is not a treasure that's frozen in time. It's a seed. Our culture is a seed. And you have planted the seeds of your children here in the United States, and it is going to grow and it is going to change and adapt. But it will still be alive, and it will become something probably even more beautiful, more flourishing, better than you expected if you let it. If you nurture it. So in terms of gardening, for me, I feel like I came to that conclusion because of all the time, I've seen my mom in the garden and seeing how when plants don't do well, we don't blame the plant and say, “You stupid cucumber, why can't you grow?” No. You move the cucumber to a place that has more sun, you nurture it. You figure out what is best for that cucumber to let it flourish. And I think that is how we have to think of our culture; of our next generation of kids. We are planting the seeds of our culture, like my parents are planting the seeds of their culture to me, and I am planting the seeds of my culture to my daughter, but we have to try to help it flourish where it is and not try to keep it where we originally think it should be.

I think that is probably how I see how we can use gardening in terms of our culture. Like, I hope that as a metaphor. I don't know if that made sense, but I hope that it did. I might have gotten a little off track there. 

[00:27:44.800] - Lily - Plants, like kids, are their own thing

So I think what you're saying is that as a parent or an educator, by just sharing the culture, you're inherently planting those seeds. And just like any garden, it adapts and it evolves in the environment that it's in, and it inherently just can learn to thrive. And you can, as a gardener, help it flourish. But ultimately it's its own thing.

[00:28:20.100] - Grace - Sharing diverse books with her kids 

Exactly. Yeah. And I think that's how I feel about our tradition in terms of culture. We have to flood our kids with diverse books. I flood my kid with all of my books about Asian culture. If she picks them up, that's great. And I'm so ready and able to talk to her about it. If she is not ready to do it, then I just wait. And I think that is the key. No kid does well when we force them, just like no plants does. You get the idea.

[00:29:07.570] - Lily

Yeah. That's a great way of looking at it and a beautiful metaphor. I have loved our discussion today and want to thank you again for joining in this. We've highlighted a few of your books - The Ugly Vegetables is great if you're a garden teacher and then, of course, any of her books are fantastic. And she has books for all different age and grade levels. She also has a podcast that she does. Grace, do you want to share about your podcast?

[00:29:47.240] - Grace - Kids Ask Authors Podcast

I have a podcast. It's for kids. It's called “Kids Ask Authors”. Hopefully you probably all know what a podcast is, but just in case, podcast is a radio show that's on the Internet. And my podcast is called Kids Ask Authors, where a guest author and I answer one kid question a week. And it's always about books or writing or reading or drawing. And so any kid that has any questions [can ask them]. Usually, if they have questions for me, I usually point them to that podcast. And so kids can submit their questions. And kids also have book reviews on there. So it's just a fun podcast that I hope kids I love more kids to discover.

[00:30:31.340] - Lily

Link: https://www.kidsaskauthors.com/ 

Is there anything else you would like to highlight?

[00:30:40.110] - Grace - “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” Calendar 

I'd love to highlight because it's getting close to the holidays, and you probably all know that you probably have heard all about the supply chain issues and stuff. So do your Christmas shopping or your holiday shopping early. So I just thought I'd throw a little plug in that I have “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” 2022 Calendars as well as personalized autographed books available through the Eric Carl Museum gift shop. So the calendar is exclusive through there. So if you're interested in that, please stop by there.

[00:31:20.450] - Lily - Closing 

Perfect. I'm going to wrap this up. Thanks again to everyone who stuck around for this and joined in for our interview with Grace. Feel free to check out her work and her website: https://gracelin.com 

She has some really cool activities and you can see and learn about what she's up to there. Thank you so much for joining us today, Grace.

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