By: Revanche

Generational Poverty

February 21, 2011

The question of motivational staying power was raised on Twitter.  @add_vodka asked:

@RevancheGS @GrlRedBalloon @serendipity85 How do you keep motivated to make sure you don’t give up?

My gut response felt too flippant to say aloud. It wasn’t meant to be but I could see how, for people who don’t know me well or haven’t read this blog, could hear it as a dismissal of their very real issue.  So I dug deeper.  I asked PiC how to explain how I stay motivated because it’s not something I think about.  And in the asking, I realized my answer, in large part.

My short answer was: Generational Poverty.  I’m never going back and neither are my parents.

My long answer?   In my matriarchial line, I need to break the cycle of poorness.  You see, as much as I carry my patriarchal grandmother in my spine, I carry my mother in my soul.

Mom grew up, impoverished, in the depths of rural Vietnam.  Her father was a schoolteacher who earned just enough to feed his family for a number of years, but not much better than that.  I expect they married too young, had her – the first – too young; had too many children, period.  Month to month, their family stretched a single small sack of rice bought on credit against the next month’s paycheck.  They ate rice porridge, supplemented by some fish if the kids could catch any, flavored with nuoc nam (fish sauce) if they couldn’t.  She was cooking, cleaning and raising her three younger siblings by the age of 8, and more kids were always on the way.  There was love and support from her grandparents but nothing in the way of money.

As the oldest, she was expected to fend for herself.  Needed a new pair of pants?  She had to raise a chicken, sell the eggs, and save the money long enough to buy cloth and sew it herself.  The same went for school supplies, or any other needs. Not wants, needs.  But, if a sibling needed something before she could make her clothes, she had to give it up for him or her.  The family was utterly poor, and she was expected to bear the heaviest burden.  The burden wasn’t just in taking care of herself far too early, it was to provide for her siblings, and that lasted well into adulthood.  While she shouldered it without question, she was bound and determined never to struggle at that level again.

Fast forward about forty years, she’d worked herself to the bone running two small businesses with my dad only to find her health declining, her son a mess, and no trace left of what was meant to be our family fortune. A modest fortune it would have been, but sufficient to buy a home, send two kids to college, and keep my parents through their retirement. Business hadn’t been awful but life happens, as it does, and she found herself both in the same place she’d sworn never to be again, the place she said we would never be exposed to, this time without the ability to bootstrap her way out of it as she had always done.  Her parents and siblings were fine, but in the process, she had sacrificed herself.

It tore my heart to see her struggling, helpless, against the twin depredations of disease and remembered and oncoming poverty. The first preceded the other, as is so often the case with many stories of financial ruin, but not by much.  It wasn’t just the disease.  It was the combination of family illnesses, debts, and lack of informed financial planning that meant she couldn’t simply seek treatment and recuperate.  Financial instability added anxiety and depression to the toxic mix of medical conditions complicating her health.

Had they planned for the future better, had they saved more carefully instead of taking care of her myriad family to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, had they been more cognizant of all the emergencies that could and would arise: all the if onlys, we should haves, they could haves intertwined and spiraled into the mom I know now.

Personally, I never want to go back to my college days. Working 80-100 hour weeks, school 40 hours a week, sleeping a few hours a night, and still slaving over a checkbook scraping the pennies together at the end of every pay period, under a tiny lamp light.  That was miserable. But memories of personal misery fade.

The memories of my mom and all she’s sacrificed for me. The memories of how hard she worked, how determined she was to lift herself and her family out of their dirt-grubbing poverty. Those ghosts are in my marrow, my tissue, the air I breathe.

So when someone asks me about my motivation, about how I keep going, how do I not give up, the simplest answer is: I don’t know how.

When I took over for her, it began as a fight for survival.  Now, it’s fully ingrained.  The responsibilities and emergencies will only grow in greater proportion with time. I have my parents to take care of. I have myself to take care of. I may have future generations to educate and support for some time.  And the only way to do it is very careful and diligent financial planning.  That’s how my motivation is sustained.

It’s a very different answer, I think, than the one that @add_vodka was looking for, which was more practical stuff, so I saved this longer answer for the blog.

The more practical simple answer is, of course, to set goals and align your goals to your values. But there’s value in knowing why you’d want to do any of that in the first place.  The Great Big Why of it, if you will.

Thanks to AddVodka, Serendipity and Red for starting the conversation!


My thanks …..

to Ben at moneysmartlife for hosting this week’s Carnival of Personal Finance and for picking my post Parents: The top bread slice to be an Editor’s Pick!  Be sure to submit to next week’s Carnival.

22 Responses to “Generational Poverty”

  1. Karen says:

    Considering all that your mother has done for her siblings, I’m amazed at they way they have treated her. Hopefully, they become more supportive.

  2. The Quest says:

    It is not easy to watch our parents age and even more difficult when they are afflicted with ill health. Stay strong! Know that you are not completely alone as many of us are either beginning to deal with this same situation or are already in the middle of it too. I never cease to be amazed at the non existent safety net for caregivers in this country given the continual budget cuts 🙁 I hope your father can work out some respite care.

  3. Wow! What a stunning piece of writing!

    Powerful motivation. Very powerful.

  4. This was a beautiful post, Revanche.

    My dad is also from Vietnam, and there were some very terrible times. His family also grew up poor, and my dad being the oldest, has supported all of them (in one way or another) until their thirties. Unfortunately, they don’t all appreciate him, and it is hurtful, as his child to understand this when I’m older.

    I know that my parents have also given up so much for myself and my siblings. I save because I want to be able to take care of myself, and eventually be able to take care of my parents when they need me to.

  5. As always, I’m in awe of your spirit. I think that immigrant consciousness is a powerful motivator. I see some of the weakening of that consciousness in myself (only 1 parent, no grandparents born in US); it’s weaker still in my children.

  6. I loved this post – thank you for sharing these hard details of your life with such beautiful writing.

    Nothing more to add, just thank you!

  7. Daisy says:

    Wow! Your a really great writer. My mothers side of the family has a similar story, so I love that you posted this – because, as I was searching for motivation on twitter the other night (and thank you for answering & joining the convo!), I never thought of my own family this way – of breaking the bonds that I, myself, have with financial struggles due to my past.
    Thanks for the perspective on things. I really appreciate you discussing this with me on twitter & your post about it now. You never know what motivates others!

    -Daisy (@add_vodka)

  8. yourfablife says:

    This post brought tears to my eyes. My parents are Asian as well, and it’s completely true – when people ask what motivates me, I sincerely respond “I don’t know”.

    I admire your tenacity and though I’ve never met you, I’m proud of you for what you’ve done and wish nothing but more success and happiness in your future. 🙂

  9. Tina Marie says:

    I’m agreeing with everyone else what a beautiful post. I can emphasize with having a parent w/illness and can feel the pain of generational poverty. All were trying to do is break the cycle so hopefully our children and their children won’t go through what we had to.
    I’ve said many of times to my family this year that the bank is closed, I can no longer support them or bail them out at the detriment of my own financial health. But that doesn’t mean I would turn my back on them when the chips are down. Just that they can no longer rely on me to solve all the family finances.
    I love reading your blog and talking to you on twitter keep up the good work and maybe one day I will share my story as you so beautifully shared yours.

    Take Care.
    Tina Marie

  10. This hit close to home because both of my parents came from generational poverty as well.

    My mother worked hard but still didn’t know how to manage her money, and my father.. well.. he’s more laissez-faire about life, let’s just say that.

  11. Red says:

    What a beautifully written post! It’s eye-opening to read an in-depth account of what keeps an individual person motivated to be financially responsible. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  12. FB @ Fabulously started this conversation for me too and today’s post is about me growing up poor. For the generation that grows up in the U.S. coming out of a line of poverty it is easy to see where the motivation comes from to never be in the same place again.

    It KILLS me when people talk about immigrants sucking up everything here. Some have no idea how hard we work to make sure that we are not a burden.

  13. Jimmy says:

    Giving up shouldn’t be and isn’t an option. It’s harder for me to whisper “I give up” than it is for me to scream “I will fight until I’m dead!”

  14. Kathleen says:

    Very moving story–some of it resonated with me as I am also a second-generation Asian American whose parents were pretty poor in the home country. My mom is the oldest of 9 and she had to sacrifice a lot for her siblings like your mother, though thankfully, I think most of her siblings are grateful and show it. My dad’s family was even poorer than my mom’s. They’ve done well for themselves here in the U.S. and we are very fortunate to be where we are today.

  15. Grace. says:

    I have no idea what to say to you, Revanche. But this is a very powerful post. And a lovely one, in its way.

  16. LBC Teacher says:

    That was an amazing post. It makes me think about how quickly I complain about being “broke” or “poor.” None of us are, when compared to many others. Thanks for sharing that.

  17. Shawanda says:

    I don’t say this often, but I’m moved – truly, sincerely moved. I admire your commitment to your family. When it comes to motivation, some people just have it. They possess a burning passion to change their circumstances. They carefully devise a plan and then execute it. When faced with challenges, they either overcome them or work around them.

  18. This is a beautiful post. Your mom’s story would make a great book. And I know exactly what you mean. My life’s motivation has always been to never be poor again. I grew up the oldest of 6 and was raised to never ask for anything for myself. I was led to believe if I did so my parents wouldn’t be able to buy formula and baby food for my younger siblings. I and the 2 siblings directly under me had trouble even asking for money for our school lunch. I purchased clothes and anything other than basic necessities with my babysitting earnings. At 18 I left home never to live there again. Unlike your mother, I never helped support my siblings. I could barely support myself. I eventually graduated from college and became an accountant not because I was enamored with numbers (though I do like debits and credits), but because I thought accounting would provide a descent wage.

    To this day I have a hard time spending money on myself Similar to an anorexic that controls her/his life by not eating I control my life by not spending. I also have a hard time watching others spend money recklessly.

    Lately, I have been feeling as though I need to change. It is time to stop hoarding and start enjoying life a bit. It helps to know why I am the way I am and to understand my motivation.

    Thanks for sharing.

  19. Working hard is always preferable to poverty. I totally agree that the desire to stay with your head above water comes naturally after a while.

    I think if the option to work is taken away from you (like a layoff, illness, etc), it’s then that you start appreciating how good you had it.

  20. Layla says:

    That must have been very difficult for your mother.

    And I can’t imagine doing what you did during school. Did you fail any classes because you chose sleep over school? When did you have time to shower? Didn’t you go crazy with no time to yourself to tidy up or get yourself organized?

  21. […] But the anger, bitterness or sad would ebb, and I’d move on. There was work to do. Family and friends to care for. Things to fix. […]

  22. […] getting into the details of their lives before us, some of which you can read here about my mom and a brief synopsis here, there was plenty that they did right and much they did to have inspired […]

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