After getting some opinions from a friend, I realized rather quickly that my ancient raised bed wouldn’t be able to grow much. It received sparse sunlight and was beginning to rot away already. As such, we decided it’d be best as a compost pile.

While I was reluctant to spend much money on my garden at first, plants are actually quite expensive, and I ended up spending about a hundred dollars without too much to show for an end result.

To decide what to plant, I ran through visual memories of my time at the Huntington. What did I miss most? What would be both ornamental and practical in my garden? I wanted something that would brighten up my day while also providing something useful. Vegetables were out of the question, as neither of my parents were eager to tend to them in my absence. I needed to find something that would simply survive without much care after being established, lest I want to return to a wasteland of weeds in a few years’ time. My options were limited to trees and shrubs.

I originally played around with the thought of a new fruit tree. Plum or apricot perhaps? These would be easily preserved and I’d have some use for them besides snacking on them. But I had four pear trees in the yard already. Another fruit tree wouldn’t add much visually. In the meantime, I tossed a garlic bulb into the ground and watched it sprout. At least that was a success.

A few days passed and the chayote I dropped into the ground developed tendrils which strangled its neighbors. I made a mental note to not plant anything around it.

All the while, I did some research online and decided: I’d plant osmanthus. It seemed like a hardy shrub which would produce fragrant blossoms, and I could harvest them to make desserts or osmanthus tea. And with that, I impulsively went to the local nursery to get two of them.

It was only after they were in the ground that I realized I had gotten the wrong kind of osmanthus. While they were osmanthus in English, they weren’t the 桂花 I was expecting. They were 刺桂, a prickly version of osmanthus which—while fragrant—wouldn’t produce an abundance of flowers for me to harvest. But hey, at least the leaves were attractive.

The next day, I went to another nursery and came back with a true osmanthus fragrans as well as a camellia sinensis plant. While I hadn’t planned to plant tea, I decided while browsing that my backyard would be home to various plants which could produce tea, and of course I would have to have the true tea plant to complete the set.

I came up with a list of plants I would want. Now that I had camellia and osmanthus, I would need mountain hydrangea 山紫陽花 and chrysanthemum to finish my preliminary backyard tea garden. Although a few hydrangea had come in, the variety I wanted—prized for its sweet leaves and hardiness—was nowhere to be seen. I’ll have to check back in the coming weeks. Chrysanthemum will have to wait until later in the year, or so an employee told me.

In summary, my garden currently features osmanthus heterophyllus ‘goshiki’, osmanthus fragrans, and a Korean variety of camellia sinensis. By the end of the year, I hope to add hydrangea serrata ‘amagi amacha’, as well as chrysanthemum morifolium.

Quarantine has been an exercise in my ideal lifestyle, aside from my job (which is unlikely to get better any time soon). My days are spent gardening, experimenting with new recipes, and cleaning around the house. Every so often, I remind myself to do a bit of light reading, practice some calligraphy, and slowly prepare my application materials for graduate school. Oh, and of course, I punctuate my day by drinking tea. Sure, there are a few adjustments I could make. I could certainly wake up earlier, or I could be a bit more regimented in my schedule, but in quarantine I feel like my sense of time is looser than it ever has been.

Gardening brought me closer to a personal sense of time as I notice how morning showers give way to afternoon sun, or how every week brings in a new combination of weather and warmth. At the same time, I’ve also jolted awake multiple times in the past week after forgetting which day it was and whether or not I had an early-morning meeting scheduled, which showed me just how much days of the week have blurred and time has faded into abstraction. In this temporal abstraction, I feel that this loss of arbitrarily named days of the week is not necessarily a hindrance. If anything, it has redirected my attention to observing the seasons as a way to tell time. Weather has gone from being a topic of small talk to an everyday consideration because it determines whether or not I should water the plants, or if I need to check on the worm bin, or if I should bring some of the succulents inside.

Life has changed due to coronavirus, and while it has certainly led to social isolation, I am glad it has also given me the opportunity to reconnect with my own backyard.

However, the prospect of a sedentary home-bound life as a new norm looms ahead, and I know I’ll eventually have to reestablish myself and balance the arbitrary cycle of weekdays and weekends with the realities which happen moment by moment.

There are still plenty of side-projects I have yet to start and plenty of things which will keep me busy in the coming months. As strange as it sounds, I feel like I’ve become comfortable in seclusion. It also feels a bit nicer if I romanticize it and envision this as the life of a recluse living in a hermitage on some distant misty mountain range. Powell Butte isn’t particularly misty, and it surely doesn’t have much to offer in terms of elevation, but I can always imagine it as being a picturesque landscape.

Working It Out

The past two weeks have been incredibly challenging.

This is not directly due to life in quarantine, but rather due to life at a less-than-ideal workplace. In the meantime, daily lunch (and sometimes dinner) chats with my Japanese classmates, the steady rhythm of tea classes and discussions, as well as sunny afternoons in my garden have kept me afloat.

Without delving into the nitty gritty details of workplace conflicts, I want to take some time to reflect very broadly on the emotions and lessons that have weathered me recently.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from this ordeal is that my ideal workplace is not defined necessarily by the prestige of the position or company, but rather by the social environment of those around me in the office. And while my current pay grade is embarrassingly low, I wouldn’t mind it quite as much if I had supportive leadership and feasible projects. I’m reminded of my summers interning at various monasteries for the mere exchange of food and shelter.

Working at the temple was no easy feat. It involved early mornings, late nights, barely any time to shower or do laundry in between, and the occasional all-nighter as we prepped for special ceremonies, meticulously arranged fruit on a platter, and finished proofreading extensive translation projects. But despite all of this, I was happy with the work, and I enjoyed the environment.

Thinking back to my time at The Huntington, when I spent a summer researching and translating Chinese poetry, I would say that is still my favorite job. There I worked in an office with people who loved to chat about classical literature, East Asian design and aesthetics, and combined their mastery of niche knowledge with kindness.

And so, as I look for other jobs now, I am not looking for something that pays a lot, nor am I looking for the name of a prestigious company. I am open to anything, and really, what I want to know is everything that happens behind the job ad. What is their office like? How collaborative is the environment? How transparent are different groups towards each other?

Perhaps two years ago, my former college advisor said to me , “Andrew, you could survive with close to nothing.”

And although I know I can always survive with next to nothing, I want to be able to thrive with next to nothing. Financially, I don’t feel particularly burdened, although each time I get paid my mom laughs at how she makes more washing dishes. To thrive though, I know I need to work in a space which is collaborative yet efficient, critical yet kind, ambitious yet realistic.

Without these traits, I simply feel like I would be working to survive, rather than working to grow.

And I sure hope there’s some growth after everything has been worked out.