Courage Misunderstood

My friend Y once told me that he had traveled to Russia and Ukraine to run his small business of selling household goods. That in itself is not terribly uncommon since I heard of Asians businessmen carrying goods to Russia to sell and carrying Russian specialties back. So I asked him if he’s afraid since he doesn’t know Russian or any Slavic languages. He’s a type of person who would not bother to learn a new language. How could he communicate? I was curious. “Afraid? No. Of course not.” He brushed my question aside. I thought to myself that he’s really courageous. I would be scared if I go to a place where I don’t understand what people are talking about, let alone do business there. How did he deal with the language barrier? My friend Y didn’t want to elaborate on his Eastern European adventure and I didn’t press him.

For years my friend Y ran his little store in a shopping mall right off Route 1 in New Jersey. Then several months before the pandemic, Y’s competitor in the same shopping mall convinced the mall administration that he could open one more store and one more kiosk, in addition to the one store he had already been running, while paying higher monthly rent. The mall obviously took his side and consequently kicked my friend Y out. I knew all these because I helped Y translate. At the time, he was devastated. His ex-wife and his daughter were living in the West Coast, and he was satisfied with his yearly visit of one month or so. He told me that small businesses face much more fierce competitions in there and he’d rather run his business in the East Coast. Now that I’ve experienced the lockdown and its death blow to small businesses in shopping malls, I have to say Y’s losing his store last summer was a blessing in disguise.

Then it suddenly dawned on me that Y’s just as normal a person as me, not more courageous. How come I had not realize it before? When he was in Russia, he must have somebody to translate for him, just like in America. Y’s being able to run a business in New Jersey without knowing more than “hello” or “bye bye” is less a testimony of his audacity than a demonstration of the helpfulness of people in the community. People would buy groceries for him each week. He doesn’t understand English at all and cannot possibly pass a driver’s test. People would drive him to Flushing for a real good meal on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter when the mall is closed. People would run errands for him big and small. Without the help of the people surrounding him, he wouldn’t have survived for more than 16 years here running his little store.

Instead of admiring Y’s courage, I should admire the kind-hearted people.