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Money stories: How your family’s narrative shapes how you feel

Lately, my weekend reading has been ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama. Initially, I couldn’t identify with the high achieving little Michelle, whom, to me, seemed to have a blessed childhood of play, love and feel-good achievement. Until I came unto a part in the book where Michelle sighs to her mother about how she found her well-paying job at the law firm “unfulfilling”. She writes that her mother’s reply was “make money first and worry about your happiness after. If I had the kind of relationship where I felt comfortable saying something like that to my mother, I’m sure my mother probably would have said the same thing.

My mother came to Canada in 1989 and worked in factories and kitchens her whole life. Recently, I came across her immigration papers and seeing the small amount that my parents came to Canada with. I wondered how diligently she had to save to order to bring over that amount of money.

From a young age, it was pressed onto me that money was a very difficult to thing to obtain and not even five cents should be wasted. I remember sitting with my mother in the passenger seat of a honda civic (the first family car) as a six-year-old. My other had a solemn and serious tone in her voice as she told me about the poverty and mother had to endure in Macau to finally get to this point where we had a house and a car. I poignantly remember being told that my mom crossed the border into Macau with $10 in her pocket and the clothes on her back. She described to me that a bowl of noodles cost $5 and she asked me to think about that for a moment about how much she had left after she had eaten. She described her living situation, which was a shared housing type of situation, where people did strange things like walk up and down the hall at night, carrying a butcher knife, chanting things. Because of these stories, I carried with me this sense of having to help my family by being as quiet and self-sufficient as possible. I held onto that role fericly.

As a young child, my mother never explicitly told me what kind of career she wanted me to have but she would very quickly dismiss career paths she believed wouldn’t earn a living wage. I remember her dismay when I said I wanted to be a chef like my father as an 8-year-old, and her screeching concern when I said I wanted to be a marine biologist in grade 5. In grade 11, I finally asked her, “what do you want me to become?” She said, weakly, “you’re good at art, why don’t you do something with that?” Unsatisfied with that answer, I prodded for another one. She said, “well, ideally a doctor or a lawyer.”

Well, I didn’t become a doctor or a lawyer, obviously, but I did become a psychological counsellor.

For a Chinese person, success is measured by how much you can give to your parents. It’s an unspoken expectation. Although, my mother has certainly made hints. As of today, I don’t know if I’ve succeeded in my parent’s eyes.

In Buddhism, the pursuit of success through money and power is considered trivial. If my parents were a little more Buddhist, maybe they would throw out this oppressive definition of success, but alas, they are not. On the contrary, it seems an oxymoron that a Chinese person could even be able to adopt the Buddhist admonishment of success when the words fortune and money are synonymous with good in the Chinese language. The culture inherently implies that being wealthy is desirable and that not being wealthy is a shameful existence.

So why the emotional roller coaster and self-blaming thoughts each time I get a parking ticket? It’s because I’ve been groomed to believe that money is scarce, and that poverty is just around the corner.

I wonder if Michelle felt misunderstood when her mother said told her to make money first and worry about her interests later. As for me, I’m working gaining awareness of my family and my culture’s money stories and how it affects me emotionally. I invite you to do the same.

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By Angela Leong
Apr 29, 2019