This I Believe

Jimmy - Ithaca, New York
Entered on February 17, 2007

I believe in accepting help graciously. We receive help at the same time as we give it.

In their mid-thirties, my parents emigrated from Taiwan to New York with no English skills and started bussing tables in Chinese restaurants. For years they lived off instant noodles to save money. One sunny June day my father announced that he bought the neighborhood diner with their entire savings. “You just pour coffee all day and make money!” My mother burst into tears.

At 6 am the next day, the first customer came in. “I’ll have two eggs, over easy.”

My mother smiled back and acknowledged the coffee maker respectfully.

Word got out about the new management; business was horrible. Only the elderly locals would occasionally show up, out of sloth or sympathy, to endure my parent’s bad coffee. My parents were proud people and struggled to make ends meet. Some days they didn’t have a single customer. My mother called her parents in Taiwan and they tried to convince her to return. “At least let us bring the children back until you have your feet on the ground” they pleaded. They had been in America for one year. Then one day, seeing my mother trying to work while my sister and I played unsupervised and barefoot in the snow outside the store, an elderly customer grabbed a spare cooking apron and went behind the counter. “Over-easy means you flip the eggs when….”

One by one, customers started showing my parents how to cook their favorite meals. My parents made sure to be quick learners. Deviled eggs, Belgian waffles, Spanish omelets—my mom couldn’t pronounce them, but she could make them. The customers started returning to teach, and then share life stories and the food. Word got out, and within a year, the diner was a very popular. Customers baby-sat my sister and I while my mother tended to the store. Financial success allowed my parents the unheard-of good fortune to buy a restaurant in the suburbs. On my parents last day working at the diner, the locals threw a surprise party and brought their kids and grandkids. Thirty years later, my mother still tells fond stories about each one of the customers and what they liked to eat for breakfast..

The beauty of accepting help is that it gives someone the incredible gift of trust. And when you invest something so sacred as trust you are asking someone to rise to the occasion, and I believe people do not take this lightly. Accepting help lets someone in and allows them to show their best and feel appreciation for it.

I believe that people’s gratefulness is a profound privilege to behold. I’ve learned that the difference between a setback and a stepping stone in life can be as small as the act of accepting a kind gesture from a stranger, and that we receive help at the same time as we give it.