TL;DR; I grew up dirt poor and learned a lot of hard life lessons.
When my family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, in the 90s, we spent the first year and a half living in the same building as drug dealers, prostitutes, and other seedy types. It was a moldy, decrepit building on the Downtown Eastside, and it was the best we could afford. We were living in slightly better conditions than our homeless neighbors on the street. Cockroaches lived and bred inside the walls and when the lights were off, they came out to play. *shudders* Hundreds of them covered our beds, the floor, the counters…and when we played Cockroach Whack-a-Mole with them, they’d retreat inside the light sockets and cracks in the walls.
Thank God I was only six and forgot almost everything that happened during that year. Almost, being the key word. Every evening, when I came home from school, I’d ask my mom why ‘that lady’ was always waiting outside our apartment wearing almost nothing. Wasn’t she cold? Mom would tell me she was waiting for someone to give her a ride. She was a hooker.
My dad spoke some English and worked twelve-hour days as a dishwasher at a Japanese restaurant. He’d spend three hours walking to and from work every day to save bus fare. My mom didn’t speak any English and became a slave at a clothing factory. I say, slave because she was literally stuck in a dusty, dirty factory for twelve or thirteen hours a day, getting paid penny piece rates. You’d think she was working in Indonesia or China…But nope. In China, she was an accountant.
I didn’t speak any English and my whole family was incredibly homesick. We also suffered from culture shock and the food upset our stomachs. Even after we moved into a slightly better (but still poor) neighborhood during elementary school, we were still pinching pennies.
Other than at fast food restaurants, my family never ate out.
I wore home-made clothes for years before I graduated to used clothes from the thrift store. I was mortified at the time and thought my parents did it to embarrass me.
I watched a 1980s black-and-white TV (salvaged from a back alley) until I was 12.
I never used a dishwasher (waste of electricity, said my grandma) until I was 15. Elbow grease, my friend!
Never got a haircut at a salon until I was 14.
Never watched a movie in theaters until I was 13 or 14.
Never traveled outside of Canada/China until I was 13.
Never owned any sort of gaming console until I was 14.
Never had my own computer or cell phone until I turned 13.
Of course, there are millions of people who grew up in far worse circumstances. I’m grateful I had what I had. But compared to the average Canadian family, mine stayed far below the poverty line for almost a decade.
Because my childhood was so financially poor, I learned to be rich in creativity. I invented my own entertainment, read a lot of books, and spent most days playing outside. I ended up having a great childhood.
The following are some lessons I learned growing up poor.
1. I learned that libraries could take me on adventures for free.
No need for toys or video games when you’ve got books! I visited the local library twice a week with my parents. They’d let me borrow sometimes 20 or 30 books at a time and I’d spend most days lost in books. Reading took me on incredible adventures, and I never felt underprivileged as soon as I learned how to escape inside books. My favorite series as a child were the Magic Tree House, Series of Unfortunate Events, Cam Jensen and Bailey School Kids Mysteries. I also devoured Tintin, Asterix and Garfield comics. Life was great because the library has always been within a ten-minute walking distance from my home.
2. I learned that garage and yard sales = gold mines.
We rarely bought anything new when I was a kid. We were frugal to the max, buying all our clothes, furniture, toys, kitchen wares etc. secondhand. I learned how to spot good deals and every weekend, I’d be allowed to spend fifty cents or a dollar buying something I really wanted. Cruising the neighborhood for deals became a regular family pastime. It was really fun, and I purchased almost all my toys this way.
3. I learned that ketchup went with everything.
McDonald’s was a rare treat. As a kid, visiting Mickey Dees was the equivalent of visiting a fancy restaurant. Every time I went, I’d load up on ketchup packets so I could eat them when I got bored. Home-made buns or white bread + ketchup and white sugar became my breakfast for years. Years. White bread + jam or a wiener also made great lunch. Ketchup also went well with SPAM, crackers, noodles, fish sticks, corn dogs…
4. I learned to love junk food.
Onion rings, shrimp crackers, chips, candy, ramen bowls, frozen corn dogs, taquitos, Hungry Man dinners, fish sticks, SPAM, canned sardines, pickled veggies, preserved tofu…I rarely ate any fresh food. I spent most of my childhood eating garbage. And I learned to love it. I was underweight and often sick, but there was nothing we could do about it. Fresh fruits and veggies were just too goddamn expensive. If I did eat fresh food, it would come straight out of the garden. Every summer, Grandma would force-feed me tomatoes, green beans, potatoes and lettuce in some form every single meal. Until I was sick of it. Then she’d give me more. And since we were too poor to afford fertilizer…guess what we used to nourish our organic garden…? Yup. Our peeps and poops.
5. I learned to save money. Too well.
Earned $5? Kept it under my pillow forever. I saved every penny I earned. I started making money when I was eight or nine, ‘renting out’ my family’s garage and parking spaces to tourists for $5/hour. I made a lot of cash doing that every summer, and never spent it. Then I invested it in stocks and made a million bucks. (Just kidding) I grew up with the mentality that spending money was almost a sin, and that I needed to hoard it all so I would never have to work as hard as my parents. It wasn’t until late in high school that I realized how terrible it felt to be cheap. I was missing out. I couldn’t relate to any of my friends and their experiences because I was poor and had no experiences to share.
For years, I was ashamed of growing up poor. But now I’m proud of it. I missed out on a lot of things children nowadays take for granted. But you know what, I have no regrets. I had a fun childhood, and it helped shape me into the woman I am today.
To be continued…I’ll post Part 2 later this week.
P.S. In case you wanted to know, I’m turning 25 this month…Just to give you a sense of the time frame, all this happened between 1991-2005.
Thanks for reading, and as always, like, share and leave a comment!