Vinh Khang Herbs & Ginsengs was located in New Chinatown in the Richmond District. During all the years we'd been visiting San Francisco, I never knew such a thing as "New Chinatown" existed. I was used to the overcrowded bustle of the "old" Chinatown that attracted tourists and film crews, but New Chinatown was different: it was quieter, cleaner, less grandiose--but the area was more diverse than its name hinted. The stores were a mix of Chinese, American, Vietnamese, Burmese, Irish, and more. It was as if this "new" area of an old city existed to catch the outcasts from the places they once called home. Would it catch me too?
The second we entered Vinh Khang, the mixture of pungent herbs hit me and I gagged. It was bitter and sweet at the same time, claustrophobic all around. I wanted to turn around and leave, but Mom guided me toward the tall glass counters.
Half of the tall store was devoted entirely to drawers of various plants and herbs. Two middle-aged Asian women worked efficiently, scooping contents from the drawers onto rows and rows of pink butcher paper. They barely stopped to read the labels of the drawers, they just knew what to grab. One by one, the women would pick up the papers filled with herbs and dump the mixtures into plastic bags, tie them shut with one quick gesture, and packed the bags away into larger plastic grocery bags. Neither women blinked an eye as they worked.
Across from the women was an assortment of people waiting for their orders. Some were waiting to see the doctor, and when it was my turn, I walked to the back and sat on a stool as Mom spoke in rapid Cantonese with the man behind the counter.
Doctor Tony was an old Vietnamese man with dry, bony hands and gray hair. He spoke three languages, one of which was broken English. There was nothing remarkable about his appearance, though I wasn't sure what I was expecting. Was he a shaman? A magical healer? I wasn't sure what being an "herbalist" actually entailed.