The media keeps telling us that the economy is getting better, that the unemployment rate is decreasing and that there are brighter days ahead.
In my parents’ circle, this is not the case.
Because from what I can see, 2011 has been the most difficult for small business owners, especially immigrant groups who rely on dry cleaners, nail salons, delis, and grocery stores — previously some of the most stable small businesses — for their livelihood.
My mother tells me that in the 20+ years she’s been in the dry cleaning business, she has never seen it this bad.
Two of her close friends are in default on their mortgages. My aunt’s family recently had her home foreclosed. Everyone else is dipping into, and depleting their savings and retirement funds just to stay afloat.
And my parents? They are two of the most hard-working, frugal people I know. Their credit scores were both above 800 even just a year ago. The regulars at their stores love them and constantly tell me that I should be proud to have such great people as my parents.
But this past year, they have struggled tremendously. They too have cashed out their retirement funds. Their credit ratings have suffered as a result of all the loans they took out — in addition to the loans they have applied for and have been rejected from. They cannot sell their stores because no one is willing, or has the money to buy. They are in danger of losing both their stores as well as their house.
The most frustrating part about all of this — at least, in my small and selfish mind — is that my parents cannot speak good English. So it’s me and my sister who have to deal with the calls to the bank, the letters from collection agencies, and the endless amount of paperwork.
It’s even more exasperating that our parents still do not quite understand how the American system works. They are still accustomed to the Korean way, where you can plead your case to the bank manager and perhaps receive a pardon for the month. They do not understand why some companies refuse to take personal checks, even when accompanied by a bank statement that shows there is plenty of money in the account. They do not understand how the representatives of the companies they deal with can be so careless and even irresponsible with their clients’ accounts.
Moreover, they do not understand how the American dream, which they had been so certain they had already fulfilled, can disintegrate so suddenly.
My father’s health continues to deteriorate. My mother grows older and more haggard with every passing day. I wish that they could retire, but they no longer have the means to. I wish that I can help them out, but we are in no financial situation to do so either. If it weren’t for the girls, I would get a job making even $30,000 a year just so that I can help support the two people who have supported me for the first quarter-century of my life.
I ask my mother how she does it. How does she get up to go to work every day knowing that she will only continue to go into debt?
“We have hope for the future,” she tells me. “We hope that things will get better soon. We also have hope in you and your sister, and in Claire and Aerin…and we continue to work in hopes that you may all be more comfortable in the future.”
“Besides,” she continues. “There are people out there who are much worse than us. We still have so much to be thankful for.”
I turn away my head as she says this so that she cannot see the tears welling up in my eyes.