Wednesday was one of those glorious Autumn days – sunny and cool. I decided to take a break from my desk work at Touchstone and walk the greenway. It’s not the first time I’ve done it – I’ve been frequenting it quite a bit lately.
Normally I’m tagging along with a native Chinese speaker from a modern foreign-languages class at Lehigh University. The students and their professor, Dong-Ning Wang, are facilitating our efforts to story-gather from some of the recent influx of Chinese visitors—most of whom do not speak much English, if any. My part in this is to smile, look friendly, and offer encouragemet to the students. I smile and use my one word of Chinese: Ni hao.
During my breath-of-fresh-air moment, I strolled along the greenway without purpose other than to enjoy the moments outside the office. As I strolled by them, many of the Chinese parked at benches along the way greeted me with broad smiles and waves and greetings of “hi” and “thankyou.” We’re discovering that it is the pretty much the same men (and a few women) who come every day for a day-trip outside of New York City. They are mostly retired from work and enjoy spending the day in what they call the beautiful country of Bethlehem.
I finally found a free bench in the sunshine and parked myself there for a little breathing in and breathing out. That is when I noticed a man who sat apart from the rest. I didn’t recognize him from previous walks. He crouched at the edge of a parking lot, arms encased in purple rubber gloves. There was a pile of orangey-yellow smush at his feet and sheets of newspapers spread out in front of him. I approached to try to get a better view.
I approached slowly. I finally stopped about 5 feet away. He kept working, intently watching his hands. Without looking up he spoke to me. Ni hao. I greeted him back in my mangled version of his language. Nee-how. At that he looked up and smiled. I smiled back.
He then began to talk, and it was clear I didn’t understand a word of what he said. So he pointed to the tree overhead. A ginko tree. He pointed to the fruits at his feet and showed me how he smushed them with his hands – working the nut of the fruit around and around between his fingers to free the last bit of pith. When he had a few handfuls of nuts, he spread them out on the newspapers.
I must have looked a bit baffled. He patiently rose and picked up a nut, found a large rock and worked at smashing the nut to reveal the pure essence of “ginko” inside. It stank. But it clearly was worthy of all of his efforts. It dawned on me that ginko is part of some of the traditional Eastern medicines that have finally made their way into mainstream American drugstore shelves.
Here was a man, all the way from China, who came to Bethlehem and recognized a powerful resource growing in our back yard. He was taking the nuts back to New York City with him to sell to the medicine makers there. Sometimes it takes a complete foreigner to appreciate something we might all take for granted. And I didn’t need to understand a single word he said to realize that.