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January 30, 2020


As Chinese New Year approached, I decided to buy an assortment of moon cakes to serve to celebrate. The varied flavors were unique—something you might never experience unless someone offered you the opportunity. I love moon cakes and was thrilled to pass on the experience.

I was waiting on line at a small store in Chinatown that looked like it was from a different era. It was filled with cookies and cakes made fresh to celebrate the New Year. On one side of the room there were stacks of boxes, empty boxes that tilted precariously in tall columns along the walls. Glass cases separating us from the workers ready to help us were packed with layers and layers of unusual selections made with ingredients I’d never heard of.

A wood shelf extended out from the counter to accommodate the overflow of food and customers. And standing discreetly in front of this work area was a lean, tall man who was wrapping moon cakes in bunches of four and placing them in one of the boxes in front of him.

As I mentioned, moon cakes come in different flavors and this young man would grab four different cakes between his pinky and his thumb and place them onto a stack of waxed paper. With his other hand, without an extra gesture or hesitation, he’d start turning the paper around the cakes. He’d wind and fold until the cakes were perfectly packaged and then with one motion he’d place that package into one of the empty boxes and, with the other hand, grab four more moon cakes as he had done before.

He repeated these precise movements over and over again. Mesmerized, I couldn’t stop watching his hands. They danced: move, turn, fold, and place, until each box was filled. Then he’d turn, close, and place the box on top of a different stack of filled boxes on his other side.

Slow, rhythmical, his actions were so lyrical that it seemed as if he was following an internal song that was only visible in the ballet with his hands. What he was doing no longer had anything to do with wrapping cakes. I simply could not look away. 

When it was my turn in line to place my order, I chose red bean paste, lotus seed, and green tea moon cakes. But as I walked out, I couldn’t help but look back at the young man. His movements hadn’t changed, but from this different angle I could see his expression. His face was tranquil, so at peace in what seemed like trance.

He had found a way to take a routine, repetitive, task that would have been mind numbing for most of us and perform it as a meditation that allowed him to be in what seemed to be in his own state of ecstasy.

The tasks before him were set; there was nothing he could do but accomplish them; that was his job. But what happened in his mind was entirely his choice and it appeared that he was in paradise. It was an important lesson I was glad to learn.

What about you?
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