City Fines Mount As Language Barrier Confounds Avenue U Shop Owner

Sam Tsang, Meijiao Chi, Theresa Scavo
Source: World Journal

It’s hard enough trying to run a small retail business, but in Babel-like New York City, immigrant business owners face a whole other world of challenges.

Chinese newspaper World Journal has a report about Meijao Chi, owner of a fabric and toy store at 1231 Avenue U. Chi doesn’t speak much English, and when Department of Consumer Affairs inspectors came around, fines started piling up while Chi’s Chinese got tangled up with the city’s legalese.

“Towards the end of August 2011, an agent from New York City Department of Consumer Affairs issued two citations,” Meijao Chi said. “One citation was a $125 fine for unregistered merchandise, and another citation was for the toy guns.  The agent at that time did not say how much the total amount would be for the fines.  The next day, the second citation ticket was mailed to the store.”
Chi, who does not speak English, paid a $125 fine, thinking that doing so would take care of the two citations.  That only covered one citation, however, and the other citation remained unresolved.  Later on, she received a court appearance notice and disregarded it.  Two months later, she received a $5,000 fine.

Things didn’t end so badly for Chi. After reaching out to Sam Tsang, Community Board 15’s only Chinese member (and also an Asian community liaison to the 61st Precinct), Tsang worked as a middleman for Chi, the Community Board and the Department of Consumer Affairs. After explaining that the the language barrier caused confusion which led to Chi’s failure to appear in court, her fine was reduced to $900. Tsang is also going around reminding other business owners to speak up when they need help navigating the city’s complex web of regulations.

As a side note, Sheepshead Bites needs to give a well-deserved tip o’ the hat to CUNY’s Voices of New York project, which aggregates and translates ethnic media outlets. Without their dedication to helping ethnic media stories reach a larger audience, we never would’ve heard a word about this issue.

Other than the Asian-owned businesses on Avenue U, Sheepshead Bay has a dense population of Eastern European- and Turkish-owned businesses. What kind of unique challenges do they face?