• Millie Liao

Growing Up Poor, Only to Realize I was Rich

Updated: Oct 21

Even though we have enough money, my family lives frugally.


Every year, as my fellow classmates went on shopping sprees at our school’s book fair, I left school without a single new trinket. I was just as enticed as they were by the colorful aisles filled with comic books and fantasy novels, sparkly diaries with little locks and smelly erasers in strawberry grape and pineapple, but I always ended up getting dragged away from the enticing market by my 妈妈’s (mom’s) firm hand.


(Me at the Detroit Zoo in 2012, eating a Nature Valley bar from home, posing in front of a huge gift shop where I wasn't allowed to buy anything from.)


Similarly, I wasn’t allowed to collect stuffed animals, buy jumbo 500-piece Lego sets, or raise a pet (specifically, a hamster I wanted to name Cheeseballs). Time and time again, I was denied these commodities and chastised for greedily wanting more things when I couldn’t properly cherish them.


Even after growing out of my dreams of toys and castles, I still ended up reusing the same binder every single year until it was falling apart, because my mom didn’t see the need to get new school supplies every year. We ate out only one or two times a year, and even then the fanciest we ever got was Olive Garden.


I came to the conclusion that my family must be financially unstable.


But when I asked my mom in middle school if we had enough funds to send me to college, she laughed, stating that we had more than enough. We had the same amount of money saved up as the average middle class family.


When my mom told me this, I was shocked. The frugal state we were living in just simply didn’t match up with the numbers in our bank. How could I be living like this, where I willingly chose to eat the free lunch at school instead of purchasing the normal options, and in actuality be rich enough to settle comfortably above the poverty line?


I believe that the answer lies in my parents’ backgrounds.

Both my mom and dad came from poor farmer families in China who suffered through the most unstable period of time in Chinese history - World War II and the Chinese Communist Revolution.


Consequently, they grew up in abysmal, impoverished living conditions. My mom’s family couldn’t afford flour or new fabric for clothes, and my dad’s family only had meat once every year, on Chinese New Year’s. And when the two of them came to America, they worked minimum wage jobs while studying at community college, and rented out a closet-sized apartment in downtown Chicago.


They persevered through hard times and harsh circumstances in order to provide my younger brother and I with a life where we don’t have to worry about keeping a roof above our heads, or having enough food to fill our stomachs.


And even after many years of saving up enough money to live comfortably, my parents are unable to let go of the deeply ingrained culture of saving everything and 省吃俭用 (using the least amount of resources possible). But through leading a frugal life, they have also spread this culture of saving to me, their daughter.


Nowadays, I don’t need anyone to regulate my economic investments. It’s second nature for me to think before swiping my Debit card: Is this really something that I will properly cherish? This mentality has actually empowered me to become more motivated and organized, as I am surrounded by only things that bring joy and inspiration.


It has also helped me to get creative when I face challenges. I’ve started to use the backs of scrap paper from our weekly mail to write my assignments instead of buying lined paper, I’ve redesigned and upcycled my old clothes into new pieces that I love instead of just buying more clothes, and most importantly, I have become a more creative leader.


Just last month, I led volunteers from the school club I founded, the LACHSA AAPI Alliance Club, to serve food and even perform songs and dances at a local event celebrating AAPI Heritage month. While we didn’t have a lot of existing funds to support our ventures, we played to our strengths as students from an arts high school and prepared our own interpretations of Asian American culture and experience through song and dance. Furthermore, finding alternatives to spending money resulted in us researching the most cost efficient foods to make and sell, which were Yakisoba and fried rice. In the end, we made over $700 raising money for our club, which will be donated next year to a victim of an anti-Asian hate crime.



(Photos from our club's AAPI Heritage Month Celebration event.)


This event showed me how important it was for me to have to struggle to get the things I wanted, rather than just getting them handed to me. It has allowed me to get creative whenever I could not immediately achieve a goal, and build strong problem-solving skills from the very start.


And most importantly, being grateful for what you have is already such a huge power. I realized the more things I obtained, the less grateful I felt for what I had. Instead, I would feel like I needed to get even more things, and end up wasting money on things that I ended up not ever using or enjoying.


There is a Chinese folk story of a rich man who could not feel happiness. He went to see hundreds of doctors across the land, but could not find a cure that would fill up the emptiness inside of him. One day, he brought his problem to a poor doctor whose family worked in a rice paddy field. The doctor took the man to the fields, and they worked the entire day harvesting rice with his family, wading through the muddy waters and sweating under the hot sun. Then, when the day ended, the doctor brought him to a shady area and gave him a cold drink. He asked the rich man how he felt at that moment. And after a day of hard work, realizing how much he already had at his hands, the rich man experienced overwhelming gratefulness and joy for the life he was fortunate enough to live.


By combatting the privilege already given to us, whether that be our race, our gender, or our social status, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the lives of those different from ours. I am learning to build gratitude for the comforts of my everyday life, from having food available to me to sleeping with a roof above my head. These are luxuries that many people don’t have, and they have allowed me to grow into the person I am today, chasing my dreams of becoming an actress. I discovered that by many standards, I was already rich- I hit the jackpot on having a safe environment to grow up in and a family that loves me and supports me unconditionally. I could be the richest person ever if measured by luck and love.


All in all, I would like to challenge you all to consider saving up instead of splurging on something you might not really want, and reflect on what it means to have enough to get the things you want.


And as always, I write this


With love,


Millie