Saturday, August 31, 2013

Of poverty, books & parenthood

We are a product of our upbringing. I am my father’s daughter, and here’s a little window into what makes me.

I have a rather large family - there’s six of us - my parents and three other siblings. In order to raise a large family, my middle-income parents worked extremely to put us all through school.

We didn’t have much luxuries growing up - we ate simply, seldom in restaurants, never had a family vacation, never had my parents buy us toys or new clothes for the new year. All we had was food in the table, miserly pennies for food in school, and hand-me-down clothes from our older cousins. But if there’s one thing in abundance in the house - it was books. Books were the only thing my father would invest in. He strongly believed in education as the only vehicle for upward mobility. I remembered him asking me one day if I would like to own a set of LIFE Encyclopedia. Back in the 1980s, that series of encyclopedia was a huge deal. Having developed a love for books and reading in me since I was little, I of course said yes. I didn’t think he was serious when he asked me for my opinion if he should purchase the whole set from my cousin, at a used rate. But he was. He negotiated the price and bought it for a hefty thousand dollars (a brand new set cost $2,000).

I was both thrilled and confused. Thrilled at having a whole collection of what I thought then to be a window into the world - I could learn anything and everything, from that huge volume of encyclopedia - at my disposal, for my reading at my whim and desire. Confused that my highly-thrifty dad would splurge a thousand dollars on a set of encyclopedia on his 10-year-old daughter. It baffled my young mind.

Now more than 20 years later, I’m testament that my father’s investment in our education has paid off. I had a rather long career in law, not as a lawyer, but as a legal assistant, as I couldn’t tolerate the academia and what seemed a dry and monotonous routine of a practicing lawyer. I also had my fair share of fun as an audio editor and a creative writer and researcher producing documentaries for big-time broadcasters including Nat Geo, Discovery, Lonely Planet and the History Channel. I’m not earning millions right now, but the foundation in education that he gave me through instilling a love for books and knowledge in me helped to shape my destiny today.

For all of his imperfection and extremely stern upbringing where I was repeatedly caned till I was 17, I appreciate all that he did, in his best capacity as the head of the household, the man in the family, the leader of the tribe and a father to a bunch of very obstinate children.

Having grown up in a rather impoverished household with only our bare necessities provided for by our sacrificial and hard working parents (they often had two jobs each), up till today, I struggle to break free from the gripping mentality that I don’t have enough and I should always measure the value of the things I spend on. Every time I stand at the counter prior to a purchase, my eyes would be scanning the figures while my mind would be churning and clicking numbers to give me an evaluation of whether item A or B would give me a better bang for my buck. And that’s the truth - that’s my purchasing decision - price versus my perceived value. It’s tiring to live like this, and I’m no prouder of it than I am to confess it now, but I do try, every time, to break free from that crippling poverty-limited mentality and to make a conscious paradigm shift on the concept of money and value. I’ve had several well-meaning friends who have observed that uncomfortable trait of mine concerning money, and many a times, when they jokingly poke at my extreme thriftiness, a cloud of shame would shadow me and I’d retreat into an invisible corner of self-reprimand, reminding myself to step out of that poverty hole and to learn to practice generosity. I try, and still am trying, so my friends, please be patient with me. My husband, who fortunately grew up in higher middle income family, has been key in helping me to take baby steps out of my poverty-stricken past into a life-giving lifestyle.

We live and we learn. In documenting my struggles, I’m coming face-to-face with my weaknesses, shedding light on them and with direction, support, and conscious decision, I can only get better.  

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