As I begin to cross the threshold of the store, the automatic doors swoosh open. The fan above me thrusts cold air onto my body instantly cooling my skin and sends my long black hair flying wildly. As we travel down the aisles of the market, my mind rifles through an internal rolodex of recipes. A stop at the butcher could mean ground pork or chicken wings. I’m already salivating visualizing the steam rising from the wok set atop the stove as Mom uncovers my much beloved savory Cantonese steamed pork cake. How many of these trips would we take with Mom over the years? Too many to count. On all of the trips, as we checked out, I would position myself to the right side of Mom watching as she pulled out her navy blue faux leather checkbook. On this particular day, nothing about the transaction is telling. When we get home, after putting the groceries away, she sits at the dining table and balances her checkbook. She remarks that the check she had written was exactly how much she had left in her account. How many times had the worry of bouncing a check been her primary thought while crossing the threshold of the automatic double doors? Too many to count.
I started working as soon as I legally could. My very first job had me clad in black leather work boots and navy blue Dickies. On top, I donned a navy blue and red vertical striped polo and a visor. In this first job at KFC, I did everything but fry the chicken. I cleaned tables, scrubbed floors, made coleslaw, added far too much butter to the biscuits, and learned all the chicken parts in Spanish to accommodate the largely Latino population of the city I grew up in. I came home with an oiled up greasy face, smelled heavily of fried food, but carried with me a sense of pride. The independence of making my own money was invaluable but so was the relief I felt knowing that I was one less burden weighing on Mom.
My younger self wasn’t enlightened enough to appreciate the fact that my parents were doing the best they could to provide for us. Instead, I found it frustrating that Mom would ask me not to offer rides to friends that lived across town. I didn’t understand then that having enough money for gas was an invisible weight on her shoulders. I wish I could say that I wasn’t embarrassed by the squeaky brakes from Mom’s 1988 Toyota Camry that she drove well into my college years. But this is the truth, I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. The deepest desire I had upon leaving high school and the city I grew up in was to never return to this feeling of not having enough.
The experiences I had growing up fashioned a definition of success that I’ve unlearned since. If I could go back in time and give my 20-year old self a lesson, it would simply be that you’re not rich until you have something that money can’t buy. Starting from those first paychecks I received from KFC, I spent a lot of time in malls accumulating things. As I grew older, these things became an extension of my self-worth. And when I entered the adult workforce, they became measures of whether or not I had made it. There’s a photo of myself that’s still currently my Linked In profile picture where the outfit and handbag I’m wearing totaled upwards of $6,000. I wasn’t unhappy with this life. I was young and I was fabulous. I suppose growing up, more specifically parenthood, has a way of putting life into perspective. These days, l am grateful that I didn’t have everything handed to me.
The effects of money scarcity have been lasting. It is one of the very few things that create tension between Dave and I. I continue to be in a defensive position, manufacturing worry at times, saving for a rainy day. Dave, on the other hand, brings his finance background to the table and finds it difficult to relate with my anxieties having little experience with money scarcity in his upbringing. While it remains a struggle to shed the worry of someday not having enough, my definition of success and what I need to feel fulfilled has evolved over the years. Without a second thought, I’d sell every last dust collecting handbag if I had to. We have a roof over our heads, my children are well-fed, happy, and healthy and so is my marriage. I can’t put a price on what it does to my heart in those moments when I’m witnessing pure joy pour out of my children. But I can tell you those moments are worth more than any material object I could ever own.