On Immigrants And Being Cheap

Marie Myunk-Ok Lee (no relation) wrote a humorous Op-Ed for The New York Times discussing how Mitt Romney’s campaign staff may have cost him the Asian-American vote by releasing an anecdote stating that he only eats the tops of muffins. The reasoning was pretty basic: Asian immigrants like her father are hyper-frugal and would be turned off, if not incensed, upon finding out that Mitt was wasting muffins. I read the op-ed and thought to myself: “Mitt just screwed himself with all the immigrants,” because, well, a lot of us (immigrants and their offspring) are notoriously cheap.

This is not to say that all immigrants are prudent money managers, but let’s just say that a large percentage of us think of our own families and immigrant friends when we hear stories like the ones Ms. Lee shared about her father refusing to throw away food that was a day or two past the expiration date, and eating takeout that was left out all night.

“Cheapness” typically conjures images of people who buy cheap goods at Wal-Mart, instead of the more expensive, higher quality goods that last longer. However, “immigrant cheapness” is more nuanced than that, existing over a continuum that goes from practical stories of sacrificing to get ahead, to just plain silly.

My first experience with money came around when I was about four years old. I don’t recall the exact specifics but I do recall my mother giving me money, telling me to put it in my Donald Duck bank, and regularly telling me how important it was to both save and be good with money. This was the start of a lifelong series of lessons from my Mother around the virtue of being cheap, but not just how being cheap was a good thing, but how it was “part of my culture” as the child of a Caribbean immigrant.  As she would always say, “A Caribbean man is never broke, he’s just spent the money he hasn’t set aside for savings.”

The lesson took hold: To this day, I feel “broke” when I’m running low on cash in my spending account, even if my accounts for bills and savings have plenty of money in them.

My mother often made it sound like not being cheap and good with money (synonymous in our culture) would be analogous to letting down not just my own family, but everyone of Caribbean descent on earth. Okay, I’m kind of exaggerating, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m in my 30s and I still feel guilty whenever I make a big purchase. I can spend money on an awesome vacation and part of me will wonder, “If I had invested that money I could have X right now.” Even the $300 I spent at the eye doctor yesterday put a dark cloud over the rest of my day even though it’s for something as critical as, well, my vision. Maybe that was just the gray Seattle skyline.

A regular story my mother told me was that of my great-aunt who moved to New York City from the Caribbean who walked everywhere she had to go for three years instead of spending money on mass transit. She did this so she could:

1) Put herself through college and become a teacher.
2) Save up money to bring her sister here.
3) Save up for a down payment on a house.

Her two sisters did the same thing when they came to America as well, walking everywhere, pinching pennies and sacrificing to get an education and bring over the next sister.

It’s hard to ask your parents to buy you a bicycle after hearing a story like that.

My father used a similar strategy after he came here from the U.K. to save up money to buy a car—a car he drove all through law school and nearly a decade afterwards. He considered buying another car, but decided against it after a neighbor told him that he had taken out a loan to buy a parking space, because parking wasn’t always readily available in their area.

“Can you imagine Markham? Taking out a loan to buy a parking space, a parking space, after you’ve already spent a large sum of money or even taking out a loan to buy a Car?! It’s madness.”

Feel free to imagine the above comment in my dad’s unique blend of a British accent with a good dose of Caribbean seasoning—it makes it a lot funnier.

While buying a parking space for your car is pretty normal behavior in certain New York circles, my Dad thinks it’s a form of mental illness.

My stepfather was also an immigrant (British Caribbean like my father, because me Mum had a thing—let’s not talk about it), only he has a Ph.D. in Math. Needless to say, this allowed him to apply a quantitative approach to immigrant cheapness. For example, he had a list on the fridge with the cheapest routes to get various places based on fuel costs.

Fuel costs.

In his defense, what seemed silly when gas cost less than a dollar for the cheap stuff seems genius now.

My mom claims he would sit down and “run the numbers” to find areas where he could skim costs when he wanted to buy something expensive—he’d bring lunch to work, eat franks and beans, walk, whatever it took.

The goal of immigrant cheapness is to live the good American life, but as cheaply as possible.

The thing is, it’s not just my family and me. Many immigrant families are like this to some degree, because it often takes that level of financial discipline and willingness to sacrifice to gather up the resources to come here in the first place. I also think it’s a function of coming from places where people are used to living with less, even if the person comes here from an affluent country. I have a rather well off European friend who asked me, “Markham, why do you have an entire Aisle dedicated to potato chips? What’s the point of 100 versions of the same product?”

My girlfriend and I have an on-going debate over who is cheaper: Caribbean people, or Asian people. I claim that we’re at a standstill, and she claims I’m not living up to my immigrant roots because I throw out food once it’s a day or two past the expiration date.

“That’s just wasteful American shit, this is perfectly good food you’re throwing away.”

This habit, plus my lack of pork consumption are my major faults according to her.

In her family, every tiny particle of food must be consumed when we eat, and I mean every particle. She doesn’t mind if I leave a grain or two of rice on my plate when we’re at home, but if we’re eating with her Mom, or at an Asian restaurant I know not to leave anything behind lest I “embarrass her.”

When we go to Costco, we often chuckle at how it’s one of the few places in the Seattle area (especially where I live) that appears diverse, because it’s often chock full of the various immigrants who have come to the area to work in the tech industry. Trust me when I say that immigrant families don’t waste anything that comes from Costco.  I read things all the time that say shopping at warehouse stores wastes money because you won’t use it all. That’s just not my experience—if we buy a giant box of oatmeal, we’ll use 100 percent of it.

Sometimes, my girlfriend and I go to Costco just hoping we can find a bargain, but I don’t think we’ve ever bought anything we didn’t actually need. As a result, we sometimes pull off the near impossible: leave Costco without buying anything, or after spending less than $50.00.

I have a Nigerian friend whose physician father once let the electricity get shut off to teach the kids a lesson about leaving lights on and wasting money. Upon hearing this story, my girlfriend told him that he had a “great father,” and said she was going to tell her family about this story in case her little cousins got too “Americanized and wasteful.”

But, she recently related how she thought her aunt was doing a good job with her little cousins, because she took them shopping, and they were wary of asking for something that cost $20.00.

“My Aunt makes really good money and she has them afraid to spend $20,” she said. “She’s such a good mother.”

We were trying to fly into New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but were only able to get as far as Philly. In an effort to avoid paying the huge one-way rental car fee, we wound up on a crazy adventure that involved: taking the train to Trenton, an overly amorous group of homeless people (don’t ask), an actual pimp, waiting hours for her friend to pick us up via Zipcar, and, when that failed, hiring a driver whose fare had ditched him to drive us to Brooklyn.

I think we saved “maybe” $40.00 in the end, but we were trying to save over $100. Some people hear this story and think we’re both a bit daft, but immigrant kids get it.

When I was finishing High School outside of Portland, Ore., I had some white classmates who would swear that the Asian immigrants in the area must be “dealing drugs” or “getting money from the government” to have nice cars, homes and/or businesses. My mom might hear someone saying this and would quickly correct them.

“They have those things because they come here, pinch pennies, work multiple jobs, share housing and sacrifice to get ahead,” she’d say. “They don’t waste their money on crap.”

I think my mom’s comment really captures the idea behind immigrant cheapness. Sure, it goes too far sometimes, but the goal is just to maximize resources and opportunities. At the end of the day, the same drive that helps people raise the money to come here is the same one that pushes them to walk around New York City for three years to build the life they dreamed about before they arrived.

Because of this, I prefer to use the word “efficient” over “cheap.”


Markham Lee is a freelance writer based in Seattle who has spilled pixels on topics ranging from music, relationships, television, and those instances where life is stranger than fiction. He’s also working on a science fiction novel he hopes to finish before 2020. His work has been published by Nerve.com, The Frisky, Pop Matters, and Seeking Alpha. You can find more of his writing on his blog, and some of his more random, yet semi-intelligent thoughts on Twitter. Photo: Nikola


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