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

30 responses to “Growing up Poor

  1. What a fantastic post.

    I hate the taste of Swiss Chalet sauce by the way, so you’re in good company there.

    I didn’t grow up poor but I’m not a stranger to it, as I have my own post on it coming up soon.

    Thank you for writing it. I loved reading it.

    • I’m glad there is someone else out there who doesn’t like the Chalet sauce – I was starting to think I was an alien…. 😉

      I can’t wait to read your post! I love all these stories of my favourite pf bloggers. It sheds a new light on personal finance, and also reinforces how and why finance is personal for all of us.

      • Dylan

        Thank you for sharing your story.

        I’ve only been to Swiss Chalet once and I’m not a fan of the taste of their sauce either. Glad I’m not alone in that opinion.

  2. P.S. your links to revanche and sandy don’t work…..

  3. Thanks for sharing your own story and mentioning mine. Your parents were quite resilient to start life over not once, but three times. It takes an amazing amount of strength and conviction to do that. And I don’t know what Swiss Chalet sauce is. Sorry!

  4. Wow, what a fantastic article. I’m so glad I took the time to read this all the way through.

    Also, I’ve never had Swiss Chalet, so I can’t comment on their sauce. =)

    • Thanks for reading it all. It is lengthy…. 😛

      Swiss Chalet is a restaurant in Canada, and they have this sauce that everyone I know LOVES (except for me and FB). You can try it out next time you visit Canada and let me know if you are fan.

  5. J

    Thanks for sharing this! Both my parents came from large families in Hong Kong so I hear similar stories from my grams 🙂

  6. Wow!
    I, similarily, didn’t know my family was “poor”, but for different reasons, of which I will go into in part two of my post.
    You commented on my blog that some people seem to forget that they grew up poor. I think that’s so, so true. I think, though, that there is some psychological problems behind that – my brother, for instance, grew up in the same household as me & spends like it’s going out of style. I, however, have a more balanced approach to money. I think that people that treat thier money that way, & forget that they grew up with not enough of it, as trying to fill a void in thier lives. Everyone else is just filling that void with other things 😉 juust kidding. but seriously, good post. 🙂

    • Even though there are a lot of us out there in the pf world who have learned, I know more people who have refused to acknowledge (much less, learn) from their past in poverty. And I agree that they are trying to fill a void.

      My family is pretty evenly divided on both sides of the coin.

  7. I don’t like SC’s sauce either, and we eat there at least once a year.

    Great post, thanks!

  8. Frudoc

    Thank you for sharing your story. I also come from a humble first generation immigrant family (also East Asian and my parents had moved from China to Hong Kong then US) and reading about the sacrifices your parents made for you also reminded me just how much my parents have done for me. Now I also slipped down the rabbit hole during college and had no savings from all my part time jobs and am only starting to recuperate since I’ve begun working full time. If only I could be like my parents! (they saved 50% of their 40,000 combined salary in the early 90s so they could put down a downpayment on a house in 5 yrs, amazing!)

    • Saving 50% of their combined income is very impressive, especially when they weren’t making that much.

      I think my story is quite common amongst first generation immigrants. I feel that in this country (Canada or USA), even if you were poor, it’s possible to dig yourself out of poverty. We are very lucky.

  9. You can add me to the list of people who don’t like the Swiss Chalet sauce. Not a fan.

    Very interesting! I’m enjoying reading about everyone’s upbringings, it seems like this was family week in the blogosphere.

    That part about the pizza gets me, why do adults have to say things like that to children? It’s completely tactless.

    • Yes, another SC sauce un-fan :).

      I’m thinking of linking everyone’s story up. It was amazing to read about everyone.

      Ditto on the tactless pizza comment. Now that I’m older, I just let it (kinda) roll off my shoulder. But, I do want to show my aunt (through actions), that despite growing up poor and not eating delivery pizza, my parents raised good kids.

  10. Kim

    reading your story really humbled me. Your family’s resourcefulness and resilience reminds me of those of my parents. Even though I always tell people that I am poor because I have a student loan, I realize I have no idea what real poverty is like, and I don’t know if I could fare half as well in a predicament like those faced by your parents.

    I find what your aunt said to you really insensitive. Funny how things get stuck with us. I had a high school bf who told me that I’m poverty stricken, and used that as an extra way to hurt me when he broke up with me (my mom and I went through a rough period financially after my dad left). That sentence had lasted with me. And for a long time, I was ashamed of, and tried to hide, the period of time when my mom and I were struggling. So that one sentence had a huge effect on me, but I was an adult when it was said to me, so I’m glad that it didn’t affect you, but it was definitely a really insensitive thing to say to a child.

  11. This is such an amazing story, thank you for sharing it wtih us! I think our backgrounds definitely influence our spending patterns and attitudes about money – I’ve seen it go to both extreme, but it seems like you have a great head on shoulders and are on your way to doing amazing well.

  12. Oh, I’ve added you to my small collection of links- I wasn’t sure who-all had linked because my happening across everyone’s links was a bit haphazard but I’m glad I found yours!

    I have to wonder how many of us just didn’t know we were growing up poor because that was our norm. And then, in typical lifestyle inflation, as we grew older and had more means available to us in college and later, we just naturally adjusted to the new norms of not being so poor. To some degree, you almost can’t help forgetting you were poor because until you bring a stranger in and see it through their eyes, or go into their homes and see something totally different, there’s no real reason for you to think it was anything but another normal childhood.

    It’s incredible how much we can now share with each other thanks to modern technology and how we can more fully appreciate all that our parents sacrificed and did in the name of raising us, isn’t it?

  13. LAL

    Very nice post. Funny, I grew up poor but had no idea as well! I thought honestly we were well off. Interesting how you perceive wealth when you are a child.

    PS my DH has no idea about swiss chalet either. He just shrugged and said he has no idea if it’s good and he’s a canuck.

  14. Kay

    Wow!! What a great set of parents!! You are very lucky, fru-girl!

    Your aunt was so wrong. You weren’t a poor thing.. You were a lucky thing to have great parents like that.

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  19. My parents immigrated to Canada in their early 20s and met in Canada. I grew up quite fortunate, but my parents never let me forget how easy my sister and I had it and how difficult it was for them when they first came to this country.You may not have been wealthy financially, but it is quite obvious you were wealthy in family and love. Such a heartwarming, touching post. Thanks for sharing Fru-Girl! 😀

  20. Wendy

    My parents came from mainland China and grew up around the time of the cultural revolution so they didn’t even have any high school education. My older sister (she’s actually your age) grew up with them during the worst of it. I came along around the time where they became more established. So they could treat me to McDonalds breakfast meals on Saturday mornings before Chinese school and they could drive me around to Taekwondo. I never noticed but my sister definitely did. I think some part of her has always held it against me, and I can see slightly more clearly now why she did.

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