Immigrant Frugality

Two days ago I discovered a podcast called The Mash-Up Americans, a show hosted by Amy Choi and Rebecca Lehrer, two hip, culturally mixed first- and second-generation American women. I’ve only heard two episodes, but I’m pretty sure I’m already a big fan. So far I’ve heard them talk about their upbringings, choices in parenting their children, and heard them interview (among others) wunderkind Hasan Minhaj. The way they deal with the complex themes of race, culture and nation are nuanced, beautiful, and so so smart.

In each of the episodes I’ve heard the hosts have asked and discussed the question, posed to children of immigrants, “What do you spend money on that your parents don’t?” I suspect this is one of their signature questions, and is one that reveals a lot about a person’s experience with family and culture.

Vaguely Ethnic

My parents are not immigrants, they are second-generation Americans with a touch of first-generation, since my dad’s mother emigrated at the age of nine. All my grandparents spoke Yiddish which, typical for their generation, they spoke at home when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were saying. Even though I’m a third-generation American, I really resonated with the question about spending money differently from your parents. It tends to be a Jewish thing to retain an identification with being an immigrant, even if you aren’t. It’s part of the cultural identity and has a very long history.

For a little context on money-spending, my grandparents were working class, lived through the Depression, and raised their kids with the assumption that they would go to university. Both my parents were the first in their families to do this. When my dad was in school his father ran a janitorial service, that my dad and his brothers worked for. My grandfather eventually put himself through school, becoming a respected professor of education. The money question from the podcast highlights the frugality of the immigrant parents, and my family was no exception on this front.

Did you ever hear the joke “How was the copper wire invented?” Answer: “Two Jews fighting over a penny.” Ha, ha, right? Yeah, well that kind of joke isn’t funny at all. It’s just another joke based on stereotypes to keep minorities down. You could spend all day unpacking a joke like this, but one of the things it does is take the concept of frugality and turn it into something competitive, vicious, and laughable.

Once I heard the writer Sandra Tsing Loh, in a radio story, talk about how her Chinese immigrant father, though he was a highly paid engineer, used a Frosted Flakes box as a briefcase, or when the elbows of his sweater wore out he simply wore it backward. It’s funny, especially how Tsing Loh tells it, but memories of poverty die hard. I myself was raised with something akin to this kind of frugality. My dad has shirts that were once a cotton-poly blend, but that are so old that the cotton has, over time, washed away. They are entirely transparent, but as my dad says, “They’re still good!” My mom once had a shirt that was the big anomaly in her closet because, as she said, “I actually bought it new.” Their frugality, which I inherited as DNA, goes way beyond clothing, but you get the idea.

More than money-spending habits, frugality could be called a way of being in the world. It helps you make the most of your opportunities, shields you from disaster, views waste as shameful and keeps you from using more than your share. It has something of the “Waste not, want not” vibe, combined with the lofty “Live simply, so that others may simply live.”

The Kind of Frugal…

Thankfully I didn’t turn out to be a hoarder, actually I’m a bit of a minimalist, but I do notice a contrast with my partner Chris whose heritage is mostly Irish and whose immigrants came over a little earlier than mine. If Chris doesn’t want the crusts on his bread, for example, he throws them away. This is alien to me. First of all, in my book, you eat it whether you like it or not. But if you really don’t like it, you make it into something else. Our child, Asa, doesn’t like the crust on the sourdough bread I make and typically serve for breakfast. I don’t mind cutting those off, but I turn them into French toast when they’ve accumulated enough.

Some would read this and chalk it up as evidence that Jews are stingy. Maybe it’s one way we’ll never really shed that immigrant status. When one of the hosts of The Mash-Up Americans asked Hasan Minhaj what he spends money on that his parents don’t, he said sneakers. In a different episode, one of the hosts answered for herself that her thing was booze. I wonder though if, in other ways, they are frugal like their parents. I bet it’s a hard one to fully escape.

When I heard the podcast question I thought about it for myself. What do I spend money on that my parents don’t? For a long time I couldn’t think of anything. I’m just as frugal as they are. And by the way, they aren’t frugal as a unit. They have been divorced for 30 years, they are separate frugal individuals. Finally I did think of something, something I would guess constitutes as much of a contrast to the worldview of the parents as sneakers and booze: I go to a chiropractor, and regularly.

Since around 2001 I have regularly seen a chiropractor, different ones in different cities, but the same style, and spent many thousands of dollars to do it. All of these dollars have been personally life-saving, and I’m very grateful I’ve had the resources. Separately I’ve tried to get my parents to go too, when they’ve had back problems or other health concerns. I’ve tried to get them to go to acupuncture and other things I think would help them, but they won’t do it. They won’t even try it once.

Both of my parents have lived in California almost their whole lives. They lived in many communes in the ‘70s and ‘80s (see my childhood for more info on that). They eat organic, they vote Democrat, they felt The Bern, my mom is a lesbian. They are not strangers to alternative lifestyles. But bodywork? For their health? Forget it. It’s not on the radar.

Jenny’s Mom with Jenny’s Thrify Grandmother

When it comes to clothes, and many other materials in life, I’m exactly like my parents. My partner and child and I dress in second-hand clothing and sometimes even that’s not enough. Asa’s jeans last year were the previous year’s jeans (bought second-hand) with patches and extensions I sewed on myself. Asa was into the artsy look. But then those got too small, so a couple of weeks ago I found five pairs of jeans at a thrift store which, thanks to a sale and the dollar rack, cost a total of $12. I felt my Grandma Eve, my mom’s mom, who worked for years in a thrift store, smiling down at me from Heaven. With a little alteration (one of my super powers) they fit Asa perfectly.

So Asa is eating bread crust French toast and wearing recycled clothing and I’m confident I’m instilling frugality in the next generation. But we also both go regularly to the chiropractor, since I consider it an important piece of our wellness plan. “Save your pennies and your bread crusts, and see your chiropractor.” Maybe Asa will say one day, “Listen to Grandma.”