Small businesswomen with big heartsNo matter how tough life gets, a warm heart makes the world a more livable place. It doesn’t require a large donation to a charity or volunteer service; everyone can find something nice they can do for others in their daily lives.
Small acts of kindness accumulate and change the world. Does this sound like a hard job? Well, meet a couple of women who are healing the world in just this way.
On a cold winter night in December 2003, a pojangmacha, or outdoor food stall, in Ilsan, Gyeonggi province, was still open at 2 a.m.
Park Eun-yeong, 32, the owner of the stand, was finally wrapping up her work. She usually closed her tent around midnight, but it was the end of the year, when a lot of people stay out late.
As she was cleaning the tent and putting away the remaining tteokbokgi, or rice cakes in red pepper sauce, and sundae, Korean-style sausages filled with noodles, a high school girl came into the tent and asked, “Do you still have tteokbokgi?”
Her cheeks were bright red from the cold wind. Ms. Park couldn’t resist her smile. She turned on the stove again and reheated the tteokbokgi.
“You are out so late,” Ms. Park said.
“I was on the way home after studying,” the girl replied.
The girl said that even though there was a shorter route home, it was too dark and scary for her. So, she took a longer route, past Ms. Park’s food stand.
She said excitedly that it was the first time she saw the stand still open. The girl’s name was “Bo-ram,” and that was how Bo-ram, 17, and Ms. Park met.
The stand’s closing time was changed to 2 a.m. Even though Ms. Park had almost no customers after 1 a.m, she felt she couldn’t close her stand earlier, knowing that Bo-ram would have to walk on a dark street.
Ms. Park’s legs felt numb after standing for 14 hours cooking on the street, but seeing Bo-ram talking about her daily life over tteokbokgi was like a painkiller. Even when Bo-ram just passed by the stand, saying a brief “Hi,” it warmed Ms. Park’s heart.
She particularly felt warmth toward Bo-ram because Ms. Park was the mother of a 7-year-old boy, whom her mother was caring for while she worked. She had opened the stand after her husband, 42, went bankrupt.
A year passed since the first meeting between Bo-ram and Ms. Park. One day, a middle-aged woman visited her stand.
“Thank you so much for your kindness to my daughter. I bought this for myself... and for you, too,” said the woman.
She gave her a foot massager, on which Ms. Park could stand while she worked.
“Your legs will feel less tired,” the woman said.
Bo-ram, who took the college entrance exam, doesn’t drop by the stand at night any more. She sometimes visits during the day to say hello.
But Ms. Park still keeps the dark street warm and bright, and her tteokbokgi hot and fresh, for there might be another Bo-ram who is afraid of the dark.
“Happiness is contagious. If I make someone happy, he or she will make another person happy,” she said.
Ms. Park’s dream is to open a nice daycare center for busy mothers. Until then, her tteokbokgi stand will light the street until late at night.
Meet Kim Ip-bun, 50, who sells sandwiches in Naebalsan-dong, western Seoul.
She has a pretty, contagious smile, but when asked to pose for a photograph, Ms. Kim hides her face with her hand and says, “I’m not much of a model for others.” But she seems to be the only one not to know how great she is.
Running a small food shop near an elementary school, Ms. Kim specializes in homemade sandwiches and tteokbokgi, or spicy rice cakes, a classic Korean street food. In her small store, Ms. Kim has only a couple of tables, but a generosity that embraces everyone.
While selling her sandwiches, she keeps an eye on the children to see if any of them want one but cannot afford to buy it. If she happens to spot such children she makes sure they have enough sandwiches to eat to their hearts’ content ― for free. After she took care of one little boy, who lives with his grandmother, each time she saw him, the grandmother came to the store one day and said with gratitude, “Are you selling sandwiches for the sake of my boy?”
Ms. Kim is busy when the children finish school and stop by her snack bar on their way home, so busy that she does not tend the counter, trusting her customers to put what they owe in a small cup for coins.
One sandwich costs 500 won (50 cents) and Ms. Kim does not particularly care whether her customers pay or not. “I cannot stop a child from eating one sandwich only because he doesn’t have money,” Ms. Kim says.
Her trust is sometimes challenged by some customers, like Noh Jeong-hwa, an 18-year-old girl who left without paying one time when Ms. Kim was absent. Ms. Noh did it on a whim, only to regret it later.
She came back weeks later with double the amount of money she owed for the sandwiches, and gave a sincere apology to Ms. Kim, bowing deeply. Ms. Kim smiled her warm smile again and said, “I actually saw you running away and it made me worry that you might trip and hurt yourself.”
She can’t make money this way, and that’s a fact Ms. Kim is well aware of.
“I don’t know how badly I’m doing, since I don’t quite settle accounts,” Ms. Kim says. “But it’s still worth doing it, because I have my neighbors who always come to my rescue, like one saying, ‘I happened to buy too many apples, so take some.’”
Of course, Ms. Kim is not taking the trouble to sell sandwiches only to while away the time. She used to be an average housewife infatuated with soap operas, with a husband who worked at a bank. But once her husband quit his job to start a business, which went bankrupt, Ms. Kim decided to do something for the family. And she ended up at the sandwich bar.
“Selling sandwiches has taught me to appreciate my life, my husband and my neighbors. Only now do I feel happy to be alive,” she said.
by Lee Hoon-beom, Namkoong Wook
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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