Won is a 72 year-old man from South Korea. He lives a couple blocks over and he is a garbage picker. His appearance is a little rough and he takes a long time to make a point but he is wise. Wise like you would expect an elderly Korean man to be. Philosophical and emotional. He came into my yard and purchased a steel tool cabinet that I had marked for $10. We settled on a price of $5 and he said he would be right back. Before he left, he told me a story about good people vs bad people. I was kind of busy and didn't have time to give him my full attention but that didn't seem to matter to him. He eventually finished his story and left. I am sparing you the details because A) I don't remember most of them and B) I don't want to bore you.
He came back late in the afternoon to grab his cabinet and I was helping a neighbor kid patch a flat tire on his bike. He waited patiently and seemed to enjoy watching me help this kid out. I love working on bikes and had all the tools needed to perform the job so I didn't mind at all. The garage sale was slow and I needed something to do anyhow. When I finished, Won asked me to help him load the cabinet in his truck. I helped him out and he went back into my garage to look for more stuff to buy. He eventually bundled together a bunch of old tools and offered me $40 for them. I accepted his offer, he added a few more items without offering me more money, and then got in his truck and left to get more money. This time he came back quickly and I was sitting alone waiting for customers. He grabbed a seat next to me and said, "I want to tell you a story. It is a true story and I don't often share it with people but I want you to hear it."
I briefly searched for a way out of the situation, realized I was trapped and decided to make the best of it. I filled up my lemonade glass and sat and listened attentively.
A few decades ago, when Won first came to the United States he used to do a lot of fishing. His family was poor, renting a small place in a not-so-good neighborhood and he literally fed them fish that he caught from the lake to survive. One day while he was fishing, a man approached him and offered him a coffee. They got to talking and the man (who he referred to as a white man) showed a genuine interest in Won. They became close and fished together from time to time. The man was a well-to-do lawyer who enjoyed picking up the tab and helping Won's family with things.
One day, the man told Won he wanted to buy him a house in a nice school district. Won accepted and moved to West Bloomfield. The man was a widower so Won decided to invite him to live with him and his family. They lived together for 10 years. Won eventually opened a shoe repair business on Detroit's east side and started making his own living.
Eventually, the man told Won is was time to buy his own house. He picked out a house in my neighborhood and when it came time to sign the mortgage, the man stepped in and paid the house off. Won still lives there today and when he spoke to me about this man (who's name he never mentioned) you could tell he really felt a strong connection to him. I mean, sure, he bought him two houses and helped his family survive but it was more than that. It's the same way I would talk about my wife or best friend. They were connected.
A few years ago the man became terminally ill and Won visited him often in his final days. He said to won, "Your children are successful adults who will raise their own families without struggle. They were a good investment."
The man passed away and left both houses and a large bank account to Won. Won never used the money that was left to him to feed himself or buy things. He kept it put away. One day he got a call from someone in California. It was the man's son. The son was upset that all of these things had been left to Won instead of the family. The son kept asking, "Why did he leave it to you and not me?"
Won, who is not an offensive person, let the man voice his frustration and shrugged when he asked him why. The man, who was a lawyer also, became frustrated and hung up.
Then, Won got real intense, you could tell he was about to deliver the moral and I found myself deeply engaged in his story. He said, "For 10 years he live with my family and never once I meet his kids. They never visit. Then he call me and ask me a question 'why he leave money to you and not his kids?' That is question he should ask himself, not me."
An intense stare and a long silence followed. I got it. His story made a real point and struck a chord with me. I helped him load up his $40 worth of tools and gave him a jar of my homemade kimchi as a gift. He wished me luck on the road trip and told me that I have a beautiful wife. He also mentioned that in his day, it was highly unusual for white women to date Korean men and that I was a lucky man. He drove off and I closed up shop for the day and while I packed up, I thought about his story. I don't know him well so it might not even be true but, it doesn't matter, the message is still there. We often ask others questions that we should ask ourselves. When I fight with my wife I ask her why she is being so crabby. A question I could probably answer myself. When my kids are doing something to get my attention I ask them why, when the answer (and solution) is inside of me. Sometimes, the most difficult questions can be answered quite easily when you ask the right person.
I spent the weekend selling all of our white elephants and made a nice bundle of cash that I will set aside for our travels. We dropped the price on the house this week and our agent thinks that this is going to do the trick. We are tying up loose ends and everything is coming together. When I am out there seeing America I will try to remember what I learned this weekend:
Be kind to your neighbors and for life's most difficult questions, look within.