When Céline Chuang sent us an earlier version of this text for our “Correspondents” open-access online series, we thought that it was impossible not to also publish it as part of this issue. Describing the grounded solidarity between the legitimate sovereigns of Turtle Island’s land and the “diasporic descendents of the displaced,” she invites us to read ourselves and our relation to the land through the meridians of Chinese traditional medicine.
On a day in February close to the Lunar New Year, I decide to walk to Chinatown. The rare sunlight tastes like spring and the snowdrops are nodding upwards from wet dirt. Over the course of the pandemic, I have been turning my attention to my non-human neighbors and their unhurried ways, and on the way, I notice the brimming tulip shoots, the red speckled branches still plump with winter’s berries. Here on unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territory, the abundance of growing things and their attunement to non-linear time remind me of deeper definitions of place that underlay the city — the land’s memory, the land’s spirit. Indigenous knowledge keepers and matriarchs have taught me how relationship tending, ceremony, and marches disrupt the artificiality of cityscape borders and urban delineation, the mechanisms of spatial power.
Neoliberal zoning policies, anti-poor park infringements meant to police the spread of tent cities, these are overlays of dominance built on soft soil, on wisdom immemorial and undefeated. Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson speaks of Indigenous nationhood as “a web of connections, an ecology of intimacy”(“I Am Not a Nation State,” 2013). In the swelling we of the awakening — we, the racialized settlers, we, the diasporic descendents of the displaced — I’m learning to breathe to the beat of older loyalties.
As I approach Chinatown’s fraying edges, my breath stutters. Our Chinatown, like others, has felt the toll of Covid, even after the initial panic (and the spectre of yellow peril) receded in fervor. Under lockdown a year into the pandemic, the acts of collective support seen in early days — organized group dinners at Chinatown restaurants before the virus was widespread, solidarity walks like the ones planned by placemaker Jay Pitter in Toronto — are no longer possible. I prepare myself for the shuttered restaurants, the quiet sidewalks, the crushing throng of for-lease signage and shiny bougie storefronts, even as I feel my heart expand with the familiar scent of fish and herb and smoke, the swaying Lunar New Year lanterns, the sight of accidentally-sartorialist seniors in their multi-layered clothing, pushing grocery carts and wishing each other “Happy New Year.” Chinatown contains the multitudes of me, an English-speaking child of the Hakka-Hokkien diaspora; it is an off-highway haven, a hometown for those of us who dwell in the in-between spaces, or, in Kai Cheng Thom’s words, places called no homeland. Chinatown is a living temple where I’ve shared congee with Indigenous Elders and popos (grandmothers), a sacred site of intergenerational encounter, a gathering place where meridians converge. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), meridians are a vast network of pathways that encompass the mind, emotions, and spirit in an intercommunicating, interconnected whole through which qi (life force, animating breath, spirit) flows. Meridians map us through movement.
If we are made of and through movement, orienting through meridians is ancestral reclamation, decolonial anti-cartography: like the plants and the Elders teach, honouring life (qi) as inherently interconnected. Tending to blockages, which can cause ill-health, is integral to practices of traditional medicine like qigong and acupuncture; expanding the scope to spatial terms, meridians compel freedom of breath, bodies, migration, the living world. Meridians contradict carcerality. That which walls off, constricts and confines (borders, police, prisons, punishment) must be abolished for transformation to occur and for us to be whole and well. Ancient Chinese tradition termed the earth’s energy veins as “dragon lines,” what other mystic traditions call ley lines. I’m interested in applying these modalities of animate constellations to bodies in space, as interrogation of colonial-capitalist control, and in zoetic resistance. After all, bodies are sentient and social, and the agency allowed them has political ramifications. Take, for example, how the barbed notion of trespassing has been weaponized against Indigenous youth, or injunctions as a legal mechanism for the state to systematically scoop First Nations land rights.
In late February, a group of Indigenous youth called Braided Warriors occupied several office lobbies of corporations insuring the Trans Mountain pipeline (TMX). In assertion of Indigenous resurgence, they sang songs, held a ceremony, and read excerpts from Arthur Manuel’s Reconciliation Manifesto, a 2017 treatise which details the false reconciliation of Canada’s settler-state and its ongoing strategies of dispossession. The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) made violent arrests as the warriors were occupying AIG Insurance in a downtown Bank of Montreal building — the same building where staff called the police on a grandfather and granddaughter from Heiltsuk Nation, who were handcuffed after trying to open a bank account. Braided Warriors documented the arrests on social media, including footage of officers throwing youth to the ground and dragging them by the hair. Braided Warriors later posted on their social media that “VPD need to understand that indigenous youth holding ceremony on their ancestral territories, in the lobby of a building operating on unceded land, is not ‘trespassing.’” The warriors, undeterred, escalated their actions. In response to the harsh jail sentence of an Indigenous Elder and longtime land defender on the frontlines of the TMX fight, they blockaded the Port of Vancouver, and later, the railroad. Their embodied presence and reclamation of space rupture the fabric of the city’s status-quo, a refusal to be erased and a rallying call for Indigenous self-determination. In enacting resurgence through song and ceremony, the youth are invoking multidimensionality and the implicate order, a flight path out of a colonial reality. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes this as biiskabiyang in Nishnaabewin, a reemerging and returning (As We Have Always Done, 2017). The settler state reduces such acts as inconvenient interruptions — and criminalizes them as containment strategy — but the youth are tuned to something far stronger and older than property lines, zoning boundaries, or even colonial normativity. In alignment with a network of relations — the native plants, the medicines, the microbes, all of the land, sovereign and unceded, thrumming with life — they are practicing freedom, world-making.
Further east in Secwepemc territory, the Tiny House Warriors are disrupting the TMX construction route by building tiny homes on their traditional unceded land. Freedom fighter Kanahus Manuel is unstaunched in her fierce safeguarding of the land, drawing from the deep wells of its power in equilibrium with her ancestors. She writes, “I breathe in freedom and liberation with every breath. I swim the cold creeks and rivers and connect with every molecule. We are not separate [from the land] but the same.” In Wet’suwet’en territory, Karla Tait, Anne Spice, Fredu Huson and the other matriarchs protect the yintah. Their refusal to surrender, and subsequent arrests by Royal Canadidan Mounted Police a year ago birthed #ShutDownCanada, which propagated solidarity actions across Turtle Island and globally; striking photographs from the time captured show red dresses swaying, land defenders drumming, the sacred fire burning. The red dresses represent the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the indivisible logic of gendered violence, man camps, and extractive industry. North, in Treaty 8 territory, Dunne-za and Cree leaders are renewing resistance to the Site C dam. Construction has already stripped medicines from the Peace River Valley and clearcut old-growth boreal forest, threatening thousand-year-old hillside wetlands, treaty rights, and burial grounds. This area is one of the last intact mountain ecosystems — which are also called “the mother of rivers” — heartland for West Moberly First Nations, and home to a crucial wildlife corridor travelled by birds, caribou, and bears. If the qi of the valley is forced into stagnation, how will the land breathe? Asian aunties-in-movement Rita Wong and Hiromi Goto have spoken to how love for the watershed buoys their advocacy against Site C. They are listening to the river’s voice and those who have swum in its music for generations. Rita writes, “the land will have the last word, on its own time.”
I think of Turtle Island, the true name for North America; land as living organism. I remember the turtles of East Asian mythology: ancient beings like Ao, the giant marine turtle living in the sea at the formation of the world, and how turtle shells are considered sacred, used in traditional divination. The impossible migration of sea turtles and their natal homing, or ability to return back to the beach where they hatched, years later, crossing thousands of miles. Biologists have postulated that these magnificent creatures navigate with awareness of the earth’s magnetic field, like platypuses, salamanders, and bees. We are made of movement: and here, homing on Turtle Island, our central responsibility is to our hosts, in deep relationship with — and in struggle with Canada over — their homelands. The constellations we co-create, the ley lines of story, migration, and land-based resistance, serve as meridian forms mapping flight-and-return: away from settler innocence and the carceral state, toward free-flowing qi, decolonial futures. I have been reading Roxana Ng and her work on decolonizing pedagogy grounded in TCM principles, and she reminds me that organs are not described “by physiological processes and functions but also in terms of its orb — its sphere of influence” (“Decolonizing Teaching and Learning Through Embodied Learning,” 2018). We are an interconnected body. Articulating accompliceship, embodying solidarity with Indigenous land defenders is breathwork: they are the ones traversing the frontlines to protect our inevitably interconnected earth, the dream-holders righting the balance, naming and confronting the apparatus that steals life. Theirs are the drumbeats to breathe to, the leaders worth our collective loyalty.
I enter Chinatown, on a block where gentrification is in full swing, and remind myself to inhale. I’m remembering the recent attacks on Asian seniors and how watching the videos felt like a physical blow. I notice a white woman coming towards me, clad in activewear, and as she passes me, I hear a snippet of her phone conversation: she is planning a yoga class, and proposing a sunrise salutation to start. I almost laugh. It’s one of those crystalline moments that localizes the dynamics of power and privilege, like a pressure point throbbing under the surface of the skin. This quadrant of Chinatown is where Vancouver’s Black community, Hogan’s Alley, was demolished for the Georgia Viaduct, where rabid gentrification is (re)displacing low-income Chinese seniors and Indigenous residents from the Downtown Eastside, where the palimpsest of racialized communities and their organizing nonetheless perseveres. Into the midst of this strolls colonizer karen, appropriating an Eastern spiritual tradition while exemplifying how, as adrienne maree brown and others have said, whiteness will kill to keep itself alive.
The Atlanta massacre and attacks on our Asian elders have been distillations rather than aberrations, as mainstream media narratives have posited. I call us into a natal homing that honors the grief and rage and channels them into breath, force, movement: propelling our collective fight, fearless flight-and-return. I call us into a radical tradition that acknowledges racist violence beyond individually enacted bad behavior: as it is, comprehensively sustained by a white supremacist settler-colonial state that upholds some lives as more grievable than others. I say this not to diminish the importance of mourning these visible acts against our kin. I want to bring anger as fuel to the invisibilized acts: the anti-Blackness hiding in plain sight that Desmond Cole describes in The Skin We’re In (2020) and what Glen Coulthard calls “colonial governance through state recognition and accomodation” in Red Skin, White Masks (2014). I call us into noticing and tending to all our relations — Chinatown popos, warrior youth, wild yarrow, ruby-throated hummingbird. A meridian modality means music, movement, pathway, possibility, and we have generous teachers. From Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territories, from diaspora, from Chinatown, from my own body, I am inviting the emergence of our interconnection. I am reminding us to breathe. ■