Green Lessons from My [Cheap] Asian Parents

The green movement is often seen as a white movement. A white, Whole-Foods-loving, Prius-driving, upper middleclass, leftwing movement. Which strikes me as sad because your ethnicity, car, and politics have nothing to do with being a concerned earthling who doesn’t want to see humans screw up a perfectly good planet.

Here’s something you might not have known about me: I’m green(ish), but I’m not white. My parents are Chinese immigrants, which makes me first generation Chinese-American. But I’ve never considered being Asian an essential part of my identity and am what you might call white-washed (English major? Check. Has been known to eat fried rice with a spoon? Check. Please don’t tell my parents.)

Still, when Lori from Groovy Green Livin tweeted an article about being green and black, I started to think about my non-white upbringing. Without ever being treehuggers, my parents raised my sister and me in a pretty low impact way. (When we were growing up, we thought of it more as skinflint-y, but the bottom line is what counts, right?) I think Americans, including the green movement within America, could actually learn a lot from simpler, more cost-conscious immigrant lifestyles. None of this ‘eco’ recycled plastic cupcake holder crap, please.

So here, in no particular order, are some lessons my [cheap] Asian parents can teach us about being green.

Lessons about food:

  • Being able to cook is a critical life skill. Processed food is carbon intensive, produces a lot of packaging, and wastes a lot of money. It’s not good for your own body or the environment. Thanks to my mother, I grew up on mostly homecooked meals and still regard eating out and packaged foods as an indulgence. (See an older post, Lower your impact: learn how to cook.)
  • Meat isn’t the centerpiece of a meal. Homecooked Asian meals are mostly about lots of different seasonal vegetables with small amounts of meat. If you go to a Chinese supermarket and watch what people buy, you’ll see mounds of leafy greens and fresh vegetables on the conveyer belt with proportionately tiny amounts of meat and packaged foods. The traditional scarcity and expense of meat makes many Asian cuisines a lot lower impact than meat-centric western meals.
  • Backyard gardens can produce surprising amounts of delicious food. Our yard was tiny, but I grew up plucking raspberries straight off the vine and polishing dusky plums on my shirt and eating them while they were still warm from the sun. I learned what fresh produce should taste like and where it came from.
  • Lawns are a waste of water and space. See above.

Lessons from around the house:

  • Function is more important than form. Our coffee table was a Goodwill reject, a graceless rectangular block of black press wood with chipped corners.  (It was free.) Our dinnerware never matched. I survived 18 years of shag brown carpet turning green from the sun, and I came out fine. Ironically, both my sister and I appreciate aesthetics and design now and like things to be both functional and beautiful, but we learned the difference between the two and choose things that don’t need upgrading every couple of years.
  • Line-dried clothes smell better and save electricity. My mother line dried even in the winter, as long as it wasn’t raining. Our laundry line was jerry-rigged by my dad. Line drying might have been a chore, but it had its own quiet pleasures.
  • Water is money. California was in a drought for part of my childhood, but even before that, my parents were water conscious. We saved the clean, cold water from running the tap for a bath or shower to water plants or flush the toilet.
  • Knowing how to sew is not anti-feminist. There’s something to be said for a mother who could mend, hem, sew Halloween costumes, and repurpose worn out clothes. She taught me, and I’m grateful.
Lessons about the car:
  • Car trips should be minimized and consolidated. I can’t remember ever making impromptu trips to the grocery store for a single ingredient. My mother, a talented strategist, made lists, gathered coupons, and plotted routes before ever heading out the door.
  • Stick shift cars get better mileage than automatic transmission. My dad’s car was a blue, budget Toyota Tercel with stupendous gas mileage (comparable to some hybrids) and no creature comforts whatsoever. For my parents, a car was something that got you from A to B, not a status symbol.
Random other lessons:
  • Don’t have more kids than you can afford college educations for. The vast majority of Asian parents I know — the first generation to have access to good contraception — have one or two kids. A handful have three. While I’m pretty sure the cost of higher education was a major deterrent, as it turns out, not having kids, or having fewer kids, makes the biggest dent in your total environmental impact.
  • There’s a big difference between what you want and what you need. My sister and I were not deprived, but our toys were modest, and gifts were generally reserved for special occasions. Neither of us had a cell phone or personal computer until college.

Ironically, I rebelled against a number of my parents’ teachings and only saw, years later, that they made a lot of sense from an ecological as well as economical perspective. The advantage of growing up as the daughter of immigrants is that I know for a fact that living this way is possible. Living simply, frugally, seasonally wasn’t several generations ago for me; it was my own childhood. And despite a brief detour into good old American consumerism, maybe it paved the way for a greener adulthood for me. I’d like to see immigrants brought into the green movement. They clearly have a lot to offer — ideas, techniques, mentalities, inspiration.

What do you think about the whiteness of the green movement? How do you think we can open it up to more cultures and ethnicities?

Photo credit: Laundry Day by Roy Montgomery


38 responses to this post.

  1. Loved this post!

    I found that I could relate. Although my latin parents are immigrants, by the time they had me, they were financially secure. But I could see what you meant about the food. We were not a processed foods family. Lots of bean stews, rice, split peas, etc. We were not a meat-centric house either. My mom didn’t have much of a taste for meat since they couldn’t afford much of it during her childhood in Cuba. (They ate a lot of fish!) So I think that’s how I ended up that way too.

    As far as the “whiteness of the green movement” I think a lot of it is probably assumed. It’s limiting to even call it that though, because even though my Honduran Cuban background definitely makes me a different ethnicity and culture, I’m still a white hispanic girl if we’re technically talking race. (Even though that’s not really how I think of myself, I know that’s how I’m not only seen, and definitely classified.)


    • Hi Camera Phone Vegan,

      Yeah, my parents made enough money to be considered solidly middleclass, but they spent it as if we were much poorer. (As a result of their frugality, they were able to put two kids through college without debt and save for retirement…not a bad plan, all things considered.)

      The white treehugger is definitely a stereotype rather than a bona fide reality, but I think it’s a bit limiting. I’d love to see the idea of sustainability stretch to include what other cultures are already doing right.


  2. Posted by ecocatlady on 03/22/2012 at 01:13

    Yet another fabulous post! I learned many similar things from my similarly cheap parents. Actually, my dad & step-mom have been consistently frugal, while my mother was always a tad bit schizophrenic on that front (well… on many fronts actually, but that’s another story.)

    My step-mom is an immigrant, though decidedly white (she’s German), but both she and my father grew up in poverty so they understand frugality from a whole different perspective than someone who has never experienced want.

    You know, I live in a primarily Mexican neighborhood (I would say Hispanic or Latino, but really, most of my neighbors are Mexican immigrants.) And by in large they live much simpler and greener lives than the “greenie” white folks who I encounter at the Whole Foods. But the thing is, my Mexican neighbors are surrounded by the consumer culture, and tend to want many of the “luxuries” that their wealthier counterparts “enjoy.” So I fear they are only simpler out of necessity, not desire.

    I guess when I say this, I’m thinking of the big expensive gas guzzling SUV’s that are ever-present in my neighborhood, the crazy princess fashion dresses and amazingly expensive “designer” jeans that I pass by in the Mexican boutiques, and the ridiculous amounts of money they shell out at the nail salon. All of this seems to be evidence of a desire to display wealth through status symbols.

    I’m not saying that immigrants should stay on the bottom of the economic ladder by any means, I just think it’s sad that “moving up” tends to mean buying more and more impractical stuff. I really wish there was a way to change that equation.


    • Hi Cat,

      Both my parents grew up relatively poor, as well. I’m relatively frugal, but I know I’m not as good at it as my parents are, just because I’ve never had to be.

      It definitely is a problem that immigrants often see ‘making it’ in the US to be the same thing as more, better stuff. I think it’s a cultural problem: the more deeply entrenched subsequent generations become in American culture, the more we define our lives in consumerism. There are certainly alternatives (voluntary simplicity for one), but they’re not mainstream. The more I think about the stranglehold consumerism has on our culture, the more I worry about how we’re going to get off this track.


  3. Posted by Antonia Marrero on 03/22/2012 at 07:10

    This is a wonderful post. I wish everyone would read it. I would like to read a memoir of your life, growing up, through the lens of your activism and advocacy.

    I didn’t appreciate my Mom’s vegetable garden until I was an adult. We had wild blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, too, on a little 13 acre hobby farm. I took it for granted. Store-bought berries are always a disappointment.


    • Hi Antonia,

      Eh, my childhood wasn’t that interesting. I didn’t realize it wasn’t normal to line dry clothes and make do with less until I started seeing how my friends lived. I have a friend who is concerned that squirrels will ruin line dried clothes…probably a legitimate concern if you haven’t had years of incident-free line drying in your past!


  4. “Knowing how to sew is not anti-feminist.” This made me laugh because when I was a kid, my mother sewed most my clothes. She was constantly trying to get me to learn how to sew, but I refused because I was a tomboy and hated anything “girly.” Now I really wish I had learned. Ironically, my boyfriend likes to sew and made me a beautiful sundress last year.

    But on the topic of “greenness” and indigence… I’ve always said that poor people are far less impactive than wealthier green folks. For example, take an American person that lives in a trailer and is on food stamps. That person may not ever think about her environmental impacts, but she is “greener” by default because she probably buys less products and lives in a small home. The proof that poor people are greener is in the numbers: most of the world’s population is concentrated in Asia/the East, but most of the world’s greenhouse gases are produced in Europe/N. America/the West.

    I am technically low-income and I suppose it it by choice. I choose not to participate in the 9-5 American workaholic culture and I also choose not to participate in an unethical job. So, I have little money to spend on new “green” items, a house, a new car, etc. And my lifestyle’s not all that bad either.


    • Hey Emily,

      Absolutely, poverty makes for some pretty low impact habits. Unfortunately, having money makes it harder to stick to those habits, especially when there are so many forces pushing us in the opposite direction. Some people regard technology as the bridge that will allow us to have convenience at a lower impact, but I dunno…I think we’re going to have to make some real changes to the way we see and use resources, too.


  5. Posted by ecocatlady on 03/22/2012 at 08:17

    Here’s what I think. We should start a campaign to welcome all immigrants to this country with a little handbook… “Welcome to America – here’s how to outsmart the system!” :~)

    Seriously though, there are actually a lot of immigrants from Laos and Cambodia in one section of my neighborhood, and a group of them are very involved in the community gardens. The non-profit that runs the gardens has done an amazing job of mining their brains for information and treating them as honored & wise elders.

    But I really don’t know how you compete with the multi-billion dollar advertising industry on this front. Sigh…


    • Posted by ecocatlady on 03/22/2012 at 08:18

      Oops… this was meant to be a reply to your reply to my comment above… for some reason WordPress has suddenly decided that it won’t let me comment with just my email address etc… and it’s making me log in through an old defunct wordpress account that I used to have. Not sure what that’s all about, but sorry for the confusion!


    • Hey Cat,

      I’ve been having weird issues with comments lately. I’ll fiddle around with my settings and see if I can fix them.

      I love your idea of a pamphlet for immigrants on how to beat the system! 🙂 What we’re up against is so daunting, though — a whole culture, a bunch of very powerful industries and lobbyists, politicians who don’t dare to make good decisions because they’re funded by industries. Wait, why are people in public office allowed to take contributions anyway?


      • Posted by ecocatlady on 03/22/2012 at 15:50

        Actually, I think it’s a WordPress issue.

        The “official” person on this forum said WP recently made a change requiring you to log in to post if you have a WP account… and, unbeknownst to me, a Gravatar account counts as a WP account – they must be owned by the same company or something. Sort of a bummer because if anybody clicks on my comments it takes them to a stupid Gravatar account that I only set up so there would be a real icon when I commented, instead of taking them to my blog. It’s not like I’m commenting for the sake of getting new followers or anything, it just bugs me on principle.

        Anyhow, it doesn’t sound like there’s anything you can do about it from your end.


        • Hiss! I disapprove. I’ve already heard from someone who couldn’t login and emailed me instead (which, if I had been in her shoes, I might well have been too lazy to do). Thank you for the info. I’m going to go harass WordPress on Twitter now.


  6. I’m so glad you wrote this post Jennifer. There are so many similarities between the lessons you’ve learned from your cheap, Asian parents and what I’ve learned from my immigrant grandparents and Americanized parents. It’s the immigrant mentality-coming over to America with very little and making it work in America. That mentality is also very ‘green’. My grandparents stored rolls and rolls of toilet paper in their attic. I think they bought them when they were on sale and kept packing them away….just in case. You are very lucky to have such incredible role models in your life.


    • Hi Lori,

      I think what it comes down to is that, a few generations ago (or just one, if your parents were immigrants), we all had more sustainable ways of life. We ate less meat, we were a lot more careful about what we bought, things were made better and lasted longer. It’s true that we’ve made some real progress in cleaning up air and water quality and know more about the impact of our actions, but we’ve also lost that earlier, more frugal mentality. It seems like it would be easier to bring back because so many of us have had this type of role model, and yet…not so much.


  7. If ultra-hippie, 70s parents can be classified as being from another culture, then this is possibly why I can relate to much of what you wrote – though I grew up within the majority culture in this country.

    Thanks for writing this post. An underlying message is certainly how much we have to learn from people from other cultures. The goal shouldn’t just be simply blending into how white Americans do things. But this is obviously a much bigger topic…

    Have you ever read Sandra Tsing Loh’s articles in The Atlantic magazine? She often mentions her extremely frugal Asian immigrant dad and what it was like to grow up with him. Her writing is often incredibly funny.


    • Hi Suzita,

      Absolutely — if anything has become obvious in the past twenty years, it’s that the western version of civilization is completely unsustainable and irresponsible from an ecological standpoint. We are certainly not in a position to look down on other cultures!

      I don’t think I’ve read anything by Sandra Tsing Loh. I’ll have to take a look. Thanks for the recommendation.


  8. Posted by Andrea on 03/22/2012 at 11:37

    I found myself nodding while reading each of your lessons. I grew up with the same. Even after my dad’s business became quite successful, our family life stayed much the same. Same compact, fuel-efficient car. Same compact, split-level house. Same amount of food grown ourselves in the backyard instead of bought at the store. Same number of meals home-cooked instead of eating out or ordered in. Same focus on reusing and recycling, and having my brother and me take our bikes everywhere instead of asking for rides. The first time I ever used a clothes drier was when I moved out for school!

    As for how to open up the green movement to be more inclusive, I’d say we have to engage people using what’s meaningful to them. My frame of reference is not your frame of reference. My needs are not your needs. We have different priorities, goals, and values. It starts with listening, followed by tailoring the message to the audience and context. Think about growing food: some people do it because they can’t afford to buy food. Others do it because it tastes better. Or because they want to know what went into growing it. Or because they want to be self-sufficient. Or because the store doesn’t carry the foods they grew up with. Or because there is no store where they live. Or because it’s so much fun to get your hands dirty and be out in the sunshine and breathe fresh air! There are different angles for every action.


    • Hi Andrea,

      In England, I was surprised to discover that many homes only had washing machines, not dryers. Given the amount of rain England sees, I thought it was astounding that anybody ever got their clothes to dry! Of course they did, and many people had covered clotheslines and other adaptations (drying racks set near the radiator) that worked very well. In Japan, most people had and used clotheslines. Once you’ve grown up with the convenience of a drying machine, maybe it’s harder to wrap your head around the idea that it isn’t, in fact, a necessity. Some re-education seems to be in order. 🙂

      I think you’re spot on about how reaching is about listening and reaching out to people based on what they care about. That would certainly be easier if I were more sociable.


  9. I love this! Thank you for writing it. I want to write my own version 🙂 The whiteness of the green movement is what makes it seem more like a trendy yuppie fad than something more real and substantial. The movement totally needs to diversify and be less ‘yuppie’. It’s always cool to see that happen.


    • Thanks, Lynn! You should go for it! The trendy yuppie thing puts my teeth slightly on edge, especially once it filters down into mainstream culture. Once it became trendy to have a reusable water bottle, everyone got one, regardless of whether they genuinely needed one, how it was made, or whether it actually replaced disposable plastic water bottles. I don’t think all that much waste was actually prevented.


  10. This resonates for me so strongly! Being green can be about simplicity rather than new complicated replacements gadgets. Many of these basics were part of my early life too – like home-cooked meals and line-drying clothes. Thanks for reminding us of these easy and enjoyable basics.


    • Hi Sandra,

      I think you’ve put your finger on it — simplicity is usually lower impact than a technological replacement (sunlight vs. CFL, clothes line vs. high efficiency dryer). I also do believe that simplicity offers rewards that high tech solutions don’t. There’s something very appealing about a simple life lived with appreciation and consciousness.


  11. I love this post. LooOOove it!
    There is a whiteness to the green movement, because it’s not a “movement” to many other cultures. It’s just life. Spend less, make do with what you have, repair, reuse etc etc. Only a culture of excess can pat itself on the back for buying a hybrid as a second vehicle or or using solar power in their 3 storey house. First world solutions to problems the first world has created. But, like the second wave of Feminism being spear headed predominantly by middle class, white, educated women, perhaps it’s the people who hold the most socioeconomic power that need to take the first steps toward social change? It’s a dense, intricate question you’ve asked. To big for this comment section.
    Also, I think it’s linked equally to income level (past or present). Quite often, people who know what it’s like to make do with much less create habits that stick with them. Though this is far from universal. There are plenty of non-Caucasian new Americans/Canadians who came from poverty that don’t give a damn about the health of the planet.
    Coming from a land of scarcity to land of (apparent) plenty can do that, I’m sure.


    • Hi Sara,

      These are such insightful points. Absolutely — where low impact living is the norm, no need for a label or a movement. Yet skewering the Prius-buying crowd for hypocrisy surely isn’t the answer either, since change has to start somewhere, and the white middleclass has traditionally had both the idealism, influence, and financial heft to make itself heard.

      As Cat pointed out earlier, different cultures and families respond differently as far as adapting to America. Education is paramount for my parents, so they scrimped and kept many of their frugal lifestyle habits so they could save up for college educations for both me and my sister. However, people who don’t have that strong motivation to save might be a bit spendier and buy in to American consumerism more.


  12. I love this post! I’ve been sewing more and more (self taught… yikes) but I have been able to make pants for my 1 year old (that fit over his cloth diapered bubble tush ;~) and dress up things for my 4 year old. Feels good to make a present for a party rather than buy the newest plastic toy!

    And I think your idea about bringing different backgrounds into the green movement is wonderful… clearly there are great ideals and skills to be offered! It’s the breaking through the ‘must have the newest thing the Jones’ have’ mentality that is tough.


    • Hi there!

      Basic sewing skills really aren’t too hard to master (although hidden zippers continue to confound me for some reason). It’s one of those skills that many people used to have and use and has now become a good deal less common. I think it’s pretty essential if you want to reuse and upcycle things.

      As has been said, one major problem is how to keep the immigrant frugal mentality even in a setting where we have more convenient (if higher impact) options and lots of social and cultural pressure to buy into them.


  13. Posted by litaworld on 03/23/2012 at 15:27

    Incredible Post!! I LOVE it!!

    It’s so true we have so much to learn both a) from our parents and b) from our neighbors/coworkers/community and other cultures. I certainly know people have been living around this planet with a lot less than many of us have today and they’ve been happy and healthy and at peace in their lives.

    I never thought of the “green” movement as being a “white” movement until I read this post – am I alone in this?? I hope not and if I am, wow how sad is that!! We all inhabit this planet and should all be just as concerned as the next person.

    Actually, thinking about to my day-to-day life, most of my friends are 1st generation from other cultures (Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Iranian, etc). That’s the beauty of living here in the Bay Area and I’m so happy to live in a multi-cultural area.

    I grew up in New England in a very blue collar “white” town and am so glad my parents raised us with an awareness and a LOVE of other cultures, their foods, their ideas, their lifestyles, etc.

    I love all the lessons your parents instilled in you and your sharing them is a great reminder to all of us that everything counts and we should try to bring awareness to all we do – especially the driving trips and how many unnecessary ones we make each week!

    Thanks so much for sharing!


    • Thanks! I might be overgeneralizing in thinking that the green movement is primarily white, but I don’t see a lot of diversity among green bloggers and prominent people in the green movement. At the same time, I think that’s changing a bit at least in the Bay Area, where there are so many educated and liberal people of different ethnic backgrounds. I’m hopeful green will transcend whiteness — but concerned that our middleclass green habits will still remain high impact in comparison to earlier ways of doing things.


  14. Posted by SherryGreens on 03/24/2012 at 11:48

    I agree with you and have thought about that for a while now. Immigrants come here typically with a different relationship with food. They are closer to it, they garden, they cook from scratch, they respect it and enjoy it the way most westerners just don’t. We have little food culture, here, in my opinion. We eat processed and packaged, pausing only slightly to grab our food from the drive through window. We have a lot to learn from immigrants who have a whole different food relationship. I think that the slow food movement came out of immigrants coming here and thinking we are crazy. Slow food, not fast food!

    As for frugality – this is something that can be learned from farming parents too – both my in-laws grew up on farms and are ingenious to finding things around the house to make something work. I am so tired of the excess consumerism everywhere.

    Clothes on the line are so much better. In fact I line dry all my clothes INDOORS 7 months a year, and it is still better (because of the snow, we still have snow!). So if I can do that, anyone can.


    • Hi Sherry,

      I’m not sure we don’t have a food culture…I think it just might be thoroughly dysfunctional and alienated. Reconnecting with our food and maybe with ourselves as biological creatures living in complex, interconnected ecosystem is going to be key. It’s sad that we seem to lose a lot of that when we move to so-called developed nations. Everything has a price.

      Kudos to you for line drying in an unfriendly climate! I confess I still use the dryer if it’s raining or late at night, since I don’t have a good set up for line drying indoors. I should look into rigging something up.


  15. Posted by ecokaren on 03/24/2012 at 12:02

    I have to try to remember what I said before WP deleted my brilliant comment……

    I think your perception that green “movement” shouldn’t be “white” movement is correct but who ever said it was “white” or “black” or “yellow”? Or even leftwing or upper middle class? Most of my, so called, “friends”, think I’ve gone “hippie” when I talk about being ‘green’. I admit their perception have changed since I started “explaining’ myself a bit and I am no longer perceived as one over another. Now they think I’m just annoying.

    But you are right in that it’s neither the race or politics that determine who’s involved in the ‘green’ movement. And “movement’ sounds temporary too. For us, it’s our chosen lifestyle because we don’t know any better.

    I think we, the immigrants, have paved the way in being green out of necessity and that goes for the lower socioeconomic classes too. We know how to stretch the dollar and most of what we do is because we have to be fugal, not because we want to be gentler on the earth. Just ask any of us, coming out of the Dollar Tree.


    • Hey Karen,

      Ack, sorry about the lost comment. WordPress has decided to implement a new policy that requires you to sign in with a WordPress account (and it considers a Gravatar a WordPress account). The best way to get around this, apparently, is to put in a fake or different email address. I’m pretty annoyed.

      My perception that the green movement is mostly a white movement comes from two primary things: 1) my online green community, which is mostly white; and 2) Whole Foods on a Saturday afternoon. Perhaps not the most objective judgment on my part!

      There’s a definite difference between frugality and eco-consciousness. I could easily write another blog post about ways in which my parents aren’t green because they put price before impact. (And yes, Dollar Tree would be a part of that post!) Overall, though, in their attitude towards consuming, I still think they end up being much lower impact than traditional American families or even some eco-conscious ones.


  16. It’s true that the green-living movement is seen as stereotypically white… And it’s important for that to change. After all we need the whole human race to engage with this movement. Here’s the link to an article I read in Inspired Times Magazine that shows a heart-warming exception to this:

    Give it a read – it actually brought tears to my eyes! What a truly amazing woman…


  17. […] all of this much more. Now I appreciate it wholeheartedly. They have a lot to teach, and like Jennifer Mo, who inspired this piece, I’d love to see more immigrant ideas and cultures brought into the […]


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