Refugee Cheap

I’m not sure what it is about being a hyphenated American, but nearly every immigrant group seems to claim two qualities for themselves that set them apart from mainstream Americans. The first is that they’re not punctual. The second is that they’re cheap.  Indeed, ethnic stand-up comics often joke that their respective immigrant group functions not on regular time but on (Korean / Indians / Jamaican/ etc.) time and that their (Korean / Indian / Jamaican/ etc.) father was so cheap he would only let them use x sheets of toilet paper per bathroom visit.

yspsquareSome academic types may insist that such self-identifying as tardy and cheap by Koreans and others may serve as a subtle critique of what’s viewed to be an overly precise and profligate American mainstream. Others may suggest that such self-identification is, in fact, an implicit self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back for members of the immigrant group who are looking back on the sacrifices of the past that have allowed them to prosper in the present.  Indeed, the portraits of extreme stinginess are only funny if such deprivation has led to some material gain. But I’ll leave such conjectures and inquiries for far brighter minds than mine. All I can do is draw from my own humble experiences.

Did my family run on Korean time? No.

Were my parents cheap? Absolutely yes.

My family never ate out at restaurants or ordered take-out. My parents didn’t go shopping. As children, my brother and I routinely had to wear hand-me-downs that my mother got from other mothers at our Korean church and her network of ajoomas who ran drycleaners and let her pick from the piles of clothes that their customers had abandoned. The only sneakers my brother and I ever got as kids were whatever was marked down most at the local Fayva, and we had to wear those until they fell apart or our feet outgrew them, which took a lot longer than one would expect because my mother always had the foresight to buy shoes at least two sizes too big.

I wasn’t particularly resentful about this—at least not at first. It helped that on a day-to-day basis I didn’t feel especially deprived. Nearly everyone I knew in my Queens neighborhood was broke, and even though we kids often passed the time by teasing one another about whose family was the most broke, I was usually too busy playing outside to really care. Perhaps I’m guilty of submitting to nostalgia and looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses, but life in the States, especially for a child, did seem far less materialistic in the early 1980s than it does today. Indeed, there’s not a single brand name emblazoned conspicuously across any shirt or sweatshirt in any of my grade school class pictures. Whatever the case, I always just assumed that the reason I had to wear hand-me-downs as a kid was that my mother was cheap. Call me dense, but it never occurred to me until I was much older that there might be other reasons.

The Eureka moment came when I was a freshman in college, where I’d landed through a a very generous financial aid package and was majoring in Happy To Be Not At Home with a concentration in Holy Smokes! I Can’t Believe How Rich All The Other Students Are. My freshman English prof, a soft-spoken Southerner who had her students call her Nat, had us read Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The graphic novel tells two stories. One is the Holocaust ordeals of Vladek Spiegelman, the author’s father. The second is the author’s own struggle to maintain a relationship with the elderly Vladek, a man whom he loves and hates. I couldn’t get enough of the book. I immediately became engrossed in it because the elderly Vladek Spiegelman reminded me so much of my parents.

A particularly telling scene in Maus has an exasperated Art looking on helplessly as his elderly father badgers a supermarket manager to accept a nearly completely-eaten box of breakfast cereal as a return. Art is mortified by how closely his father resembles the stereotype of the miserly money-grubbing Jew to the world at large.  In another scene, Vladek, who regularly scolds his son for wasting money, rushes to pick up a bundle of electrical wire that someone has thrown out in the trash.

Such scenes were all too familiar to me. My parents routinely picked items out of the trash. More than half of our apartment was furnished with ‘antiques’ they had appropriated from the New York Sanitation Department. My father, who spoke no English and didn’t ever seem to want to learn how, regularly had me, a mere elementary school student, play interpreter and ask for a better deal whenever he needed to buy anything from American stores. “Ask the man to make the price cheaper,” he’d say to me in Korean, as if asking for a discount at Macy’s or Alexander’s were the easiest and most ordinary thing in the world. When I’d twiddle my thumbs and dawdle before timidly mumbling to the salesperson, he’d get upset and admonish me for being unprepared to make my way in the world. For decades, my mother carefully saved twist-ties, rubber bands, film canisters, and other similarly useless sundries. I have since learned that such behavior is common among people who have lived through traumatic childhood experiences such as wars and economic depressions, especially if these experiences involved prolonged periods of hunger.

My parents both survived the Korean War as children. My mother was 10 when the war broke out in 1950. My father was two years younger. My mother and her family left Seoul and fled on foot to the countryside, joining millions of other displaced refugees. My father and his father hid in the mountains of North Kyoungsang Province and lived in makeshift shelters dug out of hillsides until the war ended three years later. They were both old enough to know and remember exactly what they saw–horrific things including death and executions—and they both knew intense hunger. My father says that his only wish as a boy was simply that one day he would be able to eat enough so that he would know what it was to feel full.

I was born in the early 1970s. We immigrated to the U.S. as a family in the summer of 1980, but the Korean War followed us even across the ocean, impacted our day-to-day life for decades, and continues to influence my life, specifically in my relationship with money. Put simply, it has made me a tightwad who compulsively picks up pennies off the street.

All this isn’t a complaint, however. Indeed, like most writers, there are plenty of things I fault my parents for, but being stingy isn’t one of them. As a 40-year-old father of an angelic two-year-old, who seems to have a knack for getting what he wants and has killer negotiating skills to boot, I am grateful for the lessons my parents instilled in me through their example. Sure I might have appreciated having nicer sneakers as a kid, and there were plenty of times when I resented and couldn’t comprehend what I viewed to be my parents’ extreme stinginess–there was even a time in my early 20s when I rejected their values, and befitting a prodigal son, racked up a mountain of debt–but I have learned from those things. Like the proverbial apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree, my relationship with money today is much closer to that of my parents’. I know the value of a dollar. I rarely take cabs and will willingly walk 20 blocks instead of taking the bus or the train. I buy generic brands whenever possible. I cook at home. All those frugal lessons that money gurus often preach in difficult economic times, I already practice. I do so because time has provided me with the distance needed to recognize the value in what my parents taught me about saving and not letting materialism cloud what is truly important in life.

What precisely do I mean by that?

Later that freshman year, after I’d read Maus a half dozen times and had coasted to a solid B in Nat’s class, the First Persian Gulf War broke out. Immediately I was summoned home by my parents. They sat me down, and then handed me two thousand dollars in cash with explicit instructions to go directly to Canada should the U.S. government institute a military draft. I later found out that during the Korean War they’d seen both South Korean and North Korean soldiers indiscriminately round up all available men, including old men and even teenage boys, and force them to fight for their side. Having seen what they had, they were genuinely shaken that the U.S. was going to war. To me, their worries seemed wildly overblown. Neither I nor my parents were going to be displaced. The war, which was telecast and resembled an Atari video game, would soon be over, and there wasn’t going to be any draft. But all these quibbles came only later. My most immediate reaction was: where the heck did my parents get two thousand dollars?

It turned out that even with their very limited income, by saving a little here and there, they had built up an emergency fund and wanted to use it to make sure I wouldn’t be roped into what they saw as a senseless war—like many survivors of war, they saw all wars as fundamentally useless and stupid.

Both lessons about war and money have stayed with me. They are lessons that I hope to pass on to my own son. In the meantime, I am pinching my pennies and saving as much as I can in honor of my refugee parents to make my son’s life more comfortable and to help him get to Canada should the need ever arise. Knock on wood that it doesn’t.

yspsquareYongsoo Park grew up in a tenement in Queens and now lives in Harlem with his wife and son Isaiah. He is the author of the novels BOY GENIUS (2002) and LAS CUCARACHAS (2004). He teaches writing at the School of Visual Arts.