Daily Archives: February 24, 2011

Growing up Poor


Today I read posts by two very brave young women who wrote about growing up in poverty and why they are motivated.  You can check out A Gai Shan’s post here, and Sandy’s post here.  Their stories inspired me to share my own story of where I come from, and what motivates me to save (aside from fear, of course).

My father grew up in southern Vietnam, about 20 minutes away from the city of Saigon in the 1960’s.  He is the oldest of 10 children.  His family was poor.  My grandfather worked as s traveling sales man and my grandmother stayed at home to care for the children and take care of the family store which the family lived above.  My father tells me that his family could not afford good food.  Meals were comprised of rice and preserved vegetables.  Fish, meat, and eggs were all delicacies. My father described to me in great detail his first taste of an apple.

My mother grew up in Phnom Penh to wealthy family.  She was the 3rd oldest daughter, and was born in the middle of her 10 brothers and sisters.  Her father was a business man who owned a text tile company.  They had servants and even owned an automobile.  My mother went to a private school where Mandarin was taught and she excelled in both academics and physical activities.  My mother was a talented dancer, volleyball, basketball, table tennis and badminton player.

Then in the late 1960’s war broke out in both my parents’ countries.  My mother’s family was wealthy and so they were able to buy their freedom.  My grandparents, my mother and all her siblings (with exception of my eldest uncle), left Cambodia for Hong Kong.  My father’s family was not so fortunate, but my grandfather had connections because of line of work, and was able to get my father onto a boat leaving for Hong Kong.  My father left his family in the middle of the night, with 20USD in his pocket at the age of 18, and never returned.

In Hong Kong, my father worked at a warehouse for a family friend, and slept in the same place.  My mother shared a 2 bedroom apartment with her parents and 10 brothers and sisters.  My mother could no longer afford to attend school, and worked full time to support her family and younger siblings so they could attend school.  My parents met and wed.

As newlyweds, my parents scrounged together all their meager savings, and bought supplies, such as canned foods, clothing, under garments, blankets, and other household items to ship to my father’s family who were still in Vietnam.  Eventually, my parents saved enough money and moved to France to join my mother’s family.

After the Vietnam war ended, my father’s family was sponsored to Canada. My parents joined them shortly after, and my mother’s family also came to Canada after that.  Starting over, yet again, was very difficult but parents were young and determined.  There was much family drama over money and responsibilities that I won’t go into details.

My parents shared a one bedroom apartment in a 7 bedroom house in Toronto’s Chinatown and paid $50 a month in rent.  My father took the first subway out west (6am) and commuted to Mississauga (sub-urb about 1.5hours away by public transit) every day to work at a factory.  My mother found work doing piece meal sewing in Chinatown.  They used their window as a refrigerator and milk crates doubled as both a chair and desk (with a sturdy piece of cardboard, of course).

Within four years, my parents saved enough money for a down payment on a small town house.  They moved to the townhouse and shortly afterwards, I was born.  And not long afterwards, my 2 younger sisters were born.

My mother stayed at home to take care of my sisters and I.  My father worked at a wall paper factory for 10 years before he was laid off.  My mother ran a daycare of sorts from home taking care of my cousins, 2 toddlers and my best friend from elementary school.  Even though we grew up poor, I never saw it that way.

I wore hand-me-downs which were passed down my mother’s friend’s boys (she convinced me green was a girl colour, too), my father cut our hair, we grew our own vegetables in the garden (and used our own natural fertilizer), we always had frozen meat and bread (which my parent bought in bulk on sale), were taught to use 2 squares of toilet paper, we never had juice or pop and we always always had to finish every last rice in our bowl.  Nothing ever went to waste.

My sisters and I didn’t join sport leagues, we played in our back yard.  My family never went away for vacation, we went camping or to the CNE with our vouchers from school.  We never ordered pizza or delivery.  I think I had Swiss Chalet once in my entire child hood (it’s why I am the only person I know who doesn’t love their sauce).  We would never go shopping, but my father would bring my sisters and I to the library every other week without fail.  We would always come home for lunch.  But if there was a school trip, my sisters and I were always allowed to go (except for overnight or faraway trips).

Even though my family was poor, we were very fortunate.  My sisters and I were always well fed, and warmly dressed.  The funny thing is that I never knew I was poor.  Until people told me.

The first time was at my cousins birthday party.  I might have been 7 or 8 years old.  My aunt ordered pizza for everyone.  I loved pizza but I’ve never had delivery, we always baked our own from frozen ones.  I guess I must have had a few slices too many because my aunt says to me, “Poor thing.  Eat as much as you like, because your father is poor and can’t afford to buy delivered pizza.”  Or something to that extent.  At the time I didn’t understand, but now that I do, it makes me angry to think my aunt would say such a thing after all my parents have done to help her.

The second time was at school when I got 2 new pairs of running shoes.  I was super happy and alternated days wearing them to school.  Someone else also noticed my new shoes, and called me out on it.  “Fab Frugirl’s got new shoes but they are no name brand!  No name brand! hahaha.”  Well, I could clearly read that my shoes were Venture brand, so I threw that back at him.  Little did I know that Venture was a no name brand.

Fast forward to high school where I started to understand more about money.  I also knew that University tuition costs a lot of money, and I was afraid that my parents would not be able to afford it.  I worked part-time for 3 years during school, and full time during my summers.  I fried donuts, was a cashier at McDonald’s, tutored math and science, operated rides, cleaned dishes at a summer camp – and funneled every last penny into my savings account.  I had $8,000 in the bank when I set foot on campus.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I kind of forgot all this when I was in college.  I saved enough from my internships and co-op for living expenses and tuition, but I could have saved more.  I could have wasted less money on clothes and eating out, and put it towards an RRSP.  Hindsight is 20/20, right?

Now that I live on my own, I’m starting to realize more and more how many sacrifices my parents made, to lift our family out of poverty and give my sisters and I the opportunity to live a better life.

Through discussing retirement with my parents, I realize that not only did they take care of my sisters and I, they also did all that they could to save for their own retirement so that they do no burden my sisters and I.  Coming from a culture where it is very normal to have parents live with their children after their children are married, I am truly humbled by all that my parents have done.

So that’s where I come from.


Filed under Personal