Sitting crouched down behind the counter of her grocery store, Lee Kien greets every customer that walks through the door with a warm smile, and converses with them in their native tongue, as if they have all been friends for sometime.
Kien explained that she tries to channel the way her mum use to run the family grocery store back in her hometown of Savannakhet, Laos.
“My mum had a lot of respect for her customers who would travel far to come visit her. So I’ve been involved with owning a business for years, and where ever I’ve gone my customers have followed me,” she said.
Arriving to Australia as a refugee to escape the Laos ‘secret war’ in 1977, Kien has been running her store in Sydney’s southwest suburb of Bonnyrigg for the last 13 years. But before the turmoil that forced her to flee, Kien had dreamt of becoming a nurse because she enjoyed the idea of wanting to help other.
But while that dream never came to fruition, Kien’s kind-hearted generosity and compassion is known in the local community. Boxes of coconut cream, bananas, and bags of rice are often donated by Kien to the local Laos temple. Other times, Kien said she gives money to families when someone passes away as a symbol of her condolences.
“I always think it’s important we do things from the heart. Even though I own a shop, I can’t always take people’s money. I always look to see if we can give, and if we can, we give,” she said.
Kien said her own personal hospitality to give has stemmed from seeing the strength and determination her parents had in raising her and her 11 siblings. She recalled that no matter how expensive it was to send her to Chinese school in Laos, their main concern was about giving her an education.
“My father always told me, ‘As long as you’ve got two hands don’t be shy to work’,” she said.
Kien’s charitable nature is also reflective in her faith in Buddhism, which she has since practiced at an early age. When she was growing up, Kien said she would get up every day to prepare for the morning alms.
“Every morning the monks would pass our house, so I had to get up at 5a.m. to steam the rice and cut the bananas, before I had to stand outside of our house and donate it. But this was something no one taught me, I just learnt on my own,” she said.
When she’s not giving, Kien can be found attending to the hairstyles of elderly people at a nearby nursing home every Wednesday from 1pm to 3pm. She completed her hairdressing licence at Liverpool Tafe, initially as an interest and as a potential career but nothing ever became of it. Kien said this was mainly because as she had just completed her certificate, she had met her husband, who at the time owned a grocery store, and ended up working with him.
“Everybody is usually waiting in line,” she said of her visits at the nursing home. “They would bring me a picture to show me how they want their hair. I can see that when I visit I make them happy, and that makes me happy.”
Now in her mid-60s and a mother of three, Kien said there is still no sight for retirement, and if it does happen, she said it would just mean more time to help others, including babysitting her first, newborn granddaughter.