When I was a child in Korea, I was told this folklore on a magpie repeatedly. The story goes like this: a traveler spots a magpie trapped in a net. He does his best to rescue the magpie. He succeeds, and the magpie flies away. A few years later, the same man falls off a cliff and gets entangled in tree roots. He is too injured to help himself. Then, a bird flies and chews away the roots. The man looks at the bird closely, to find that it is the magpie that he helped several years ago. All Korean kids were told this story to learn a lesson on the importance of returning a favor. We were told, “when someone helps you, don’t forget to return the favor.”
I never liked this story. I want to talk about why, by means of sharing with you my evolving history of receiving help.
Phase 1: Aggressively Asking for Help
I was 19 when I came to North America for the first time. I knew nobody, and back then, I did not speak good English. I realized quickly that without help, I would not survive. I remember the first day when I arrived in my dorm. Typically, a college student arrives in his/her dorm with mom and dad and with a carful of stuff from home. But I was an international student. I went to the dorm straight from the airport, and I arrived alone with two suitcases. In them, I had some books and clothing. No bed linen, no blanket, and no cereal. I did not know where the hell I should go to buy those. I went down to the hall and grabbed a girl who was hanging out there. My first question was, “do you have a car?” (Don’t ask me why I didn’t called a cab. I lived in a big city in Korea, and I found a cab every 20 seconds on any street. But we’re talking about a tiny town in the midwest, and I didn’t know that a cab required a phone call. And phone? What phone?) The girl said, “yes.” I said, “I just arrived here from Korea. I need shampoo and blankets and pillows. Can you take me to where I could buy them?” She took me to Walmart. For weeks thereafter, she was my indentured laborer to take me to places, until my dorm became a livable place.
I aggressively sought for help, and I received it without reservation. When my friend gave me a ride to a place and was about to go, I said, “I want to go home at 5 pm. So I will see you right here at 5, okay?” I knew that housewives were busy at 5 pm, when the children were at home and dinner should be cooked, but I couldn’t afford to think about her busy schedule. I had to go home at 5, too.
Phase 2: Afraid of Asking for Help
By the time that I became a graduate student, the pendulum swung to the other extreme. I was such a shy girl and so afraid of asking for help. I tried not to get anyone’s help. However, there were times when I had to get help. For example, for the first two years in graduate school, I did not have a car. Taking my laundry to a laundrymat was a big problem. Fortunately, my roommate had a car, and she kindly gave me a ride whenever I had to go to the laundry mat. But here is how I asked for her help.
Me: Carol, um…, are you busy this Saturday around 3 pm?
Me: Um…I have to do laundry. But if you’re busy, that’s okay.
All I was thinking was that I did not want to intrude upon her schedule and consume her time when she was busy. I wanted to allow her to say no. One day, however, my roommate exploded. She said, “Just say that you need a ride at 3 pm this Saturday. Don’t ask me if I am busy at that time. I am always busy. When you ask me if I am busy, you seem to suggest that I help you because I am not busy and have no better thing to do. Helping you costs my time, but that’s the time I am glad to spend for you. Don’t imply that I help you because helping you isn’t a big deal.”
That was an eye-opening moment.
Phase 3: Aggressively Giving and Receiving Help
As a middle-aged woman, I don’t need as much help as I did when I was 19. And, because my position has much secured since I was 19, I not only get help but also offer help to those in need. If I learned a lesson during this maturation process, it is that the magpie story that I introduced at the beginning of this post is wrong. I suggest that we learn to receive help without attaching it to the idea of return. Some people feel uncomfortable when someone else helps them. They think, “can I accept this dinner invitation when I cannot afford to invite her to my dinner?” “He always comes and fixes problems in my house. But I do nothing for him.” I assure you that the lady who invites you to dinner and the guy who fixes your bathroom faucet do not expect anything in return. They help you, because they want to help you and can afford to help you. If you are immediately thinking about how to return the favor, it is like saying, “okay, you do this for me, but I do that for you, so we’re even.” I think this is kind of rude. The idea of “returning the favor” kind of cancels out someone’s good heart. If you can invite her to your dinner and go to fix his problem, that’s great, but returning the favor is neither expected nor mandatory. Just accept the help and be thankful of the helper’s good intention. And be ready to help someone in need. That someone can be that lady and that guy who helped you, but it could be anyone.
My trouble with the magpie story, then, is that it limits the scope of giving and receiving help to one-on-one relations. If you help me, I help you back. What’s that? A ping pong game? When someone helps you, accept it graciously. And widen your network of help relations. Offer your help to whoever needs it. That’s the idea of ” return the favor. ”
P.S. Today’s post is dedicated to all the strangers and friends who helped me during my first years in North America. They didn’t judge who I was, didn’t calculate their losses and gains, and didn’t mind the risk of being attacked by me. They just helped me unconditionally. They are the ones who taught me the lesson on the widening network of help relations. One thousand thanks to them, and I hope I help others now, as they did help me back then.