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How My Immigrant Parents Escaped Poverty (It Wasn’t Hard Work)

How My Immigrant Parents Escaped Poverty

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Many people think the American Dream is dead – but immigrants like my parents continue to escape poverty. Spoiler: it wasn’t primarily through hard work.
It’s ingrained in the national psyche that “all you need” to achieve the American Dream is to “work hard.” But there are plenty of day laborers and minimum-wage or gig workers who will never get ahead. Hard workers are not hard to come by, but hard work is not enough to succeed in America. Truth is, America has never cared that much about hard work. Why do we keep perpetuating this myth?
My parents came to this country with very little and are very comfortable now. My parents didn’t work that hard. And by that, I mean to say, they weren’t toiling in the fields, doing back-breaking labor. They weren’t working crazy hours hustling. They worked hard on a few finite items that I believe led to their ultimate success. Here are the reasons I believe they were able to escape poverty.

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America Loves The Overnight Success

America is a nation that loves effortlessness, or at least its appearance. Do you know how many hipsters we have? Haven’t we popularized athleisure? Didn’t we give the world the Kardashians? I have no doubt that the Kardashians work hard behind the scenes, but they certainly send a message of leisure.

In fact, we detest people who look like they’re trying too hard. America prefers overnight effortless successes -like being thin without starving. Americans hate the idea that it takes a lot of work to be at the top of one’s game. We tend to blame the lower class for not escaping poverty, but we don’t think about what it actually takes to get there. We lump it all under hard work and not under skilled work.

Why Hard Work Is Not the Answer

In Great at Work, Morten Hansen tells an anecdote about when he noticed that, though he killed himself working grueling hours, he still wasn’t getting the results of his colleague who worked far fewer hours. She was far less stressed and got better results. Do you think their employer thought he was better for working hard? Nope!
No one prefers the guy who works hard over the girl who works efficiently and gives better results. You may say, she worked hard to be so efficient- but the author admits that he has always put 100% effort into everything he does. He has always worked hard, but hadn’t learned to work smart.

The point of the book is that you have to focus your hard work on the important, specific small things in order to succeed. Too often, people focus on tons of unnecessary things. Like hard work. People work hard, but they never get ahead.

So if hard work doesn’t get us ahead, what does?

A Note About My Parents

Poverty is a loaded word with a lot of different meanings. I should specify that my parents were never trapped in a cycle of poverty and never lived on the streets. They were in some ways richer and poorer than what your vision of poverty might be.

My dad was born during the Great Leap Forward, when tens of millions were dying of starvation. Both my parents worked minimum- or low-wage jobs when they came to this country. They had no parental support. My mom used to eat rice and soy sauce as a complete meal.

When I say my parents escaped poverty, I mean they easily could have gotten poorer. They weren’t at the bottom – there was still a path downward. But instead, they took a path upward to escape poverty.

1. My Parents Made Safe Bets.

According to Thinking in Bets, we can’t know for sure what the best decisions are because we have imperfect and incomplete information. The best we can do in life is to make decisions that have a high probability of success.
My dad became an accountant and my mother studied math. These were and still are in-demand fields of study. I don’t know too many hardworking unemployed accountants or mathematicians (some but not a lot).

My dad told me that he used to do accounting for starving artists. They would sell their guitar in order to make rent and when they came into money, they would buy it back. He warned me about this. I’m certainly not so artistic that I would have pursued a career in the arts. But Asian Americans always want their kids to be able to support themselves. There’s always a push towards “safe jobs.” They want their kids to struggle less than they did. They do this by ensuring that their kids know a trade that is marketable.

What Happens When You Don’t Learn Important Skills

In addition to learning a trade, my parents learned other useful skills – like English. In contrast, I met this woman in China who told me that she traveled to the country for months at a time every year for 10 years. Then she turns around to the DVD vendor and says in loud English “FIVE!” and spreads her hand open to indicate the same. This woman, who had spent months and months living in China, didn’t even know the Chinese word for “five.”

Meanwhile, when I was cleaning out my parents’ basement, I stumbled upon my dad’s old English textbook. It’s pretty cute. In the margins, he writes “Study!”

English is my parents’ third and fourth languages. My parents made a concerted effort to learn English. They were constantly practicing and, though their grammar isn’t perfect, their English is far better than the vast majority of immigrants their age. I even remember my dad’s first pun (“I find hostels to be quite hostile.”).

Skills Set You Up to Escape Poverty

I know people will say no one should need to learn English to live in America. I mean, you don’t have to but it’s going to be difficult for you, just like not knowing Chinese in China is difficult.

Granted, if you’re reading this in an English-speaking country, you probably already know the language. But there are other skills you can learn that will be helpful and make you more marketable in your career. If you don’t have a marketable skill (like accounting) and you don’t know the language, employers are more likely to take advantage of you and you won’t know how to get a better job. You don’t necessarily have to use your survival skills, but you’ll be glad to have them if you’re in a pinch.

2. My Parents Lived Within Their Means.

Well, obviously my parents had to be thrifty. They’re immigrants. My parents drove their cars to the ground and kept the same furniture for decades. We rarely got gifts (you have everything you need! my mom said) and we drove up and down the east coast for vacations. Not spending all their money helped them to build wealth and allowed them to weather financial storms.

When I’ve talked about “safe bets” above, there’s no such thing as complete safety. A lot of people get in trouble by making big bets that they don’t think are risky. Like spending $200,000 on a college education. But even with high-paying jobs, these are risky bets. You could still end up hating your well-paying job, and then having to work at it for years to pay for your outlandish college bill. Any investment of a large sum of money is risky. It often pays to cut these very large expenses as much as possible.

3. My Parents Were Entitled.

I don’t mean this to say that my parents thought things would be handed to them, but that they understood their own value and demanded nothing less. They hustled. And in my mind, they had a certain middle-class mindset – I call it entitlement.
My circle of friends includes a few people who grew up in the lower class. These people are generally better at everything than I was/am – there’s a reason they were able to climb social ranks after all. They’re super smart, with amazing willpower, talented, charismatic, good-looking. They basically rose through the ranks based on merit and not tricks. So I’ve noticed that they still have a tell-tale sign that they didn’t grow up middle-class.

My parents would never settle for less. They taught me to call up the bank to get my fees waived. They haggled. I remember a childhood of scolding them for being too aggressive. (“Guys, this isn’t China. Stop yelling.”) I’m a little more genteel than my parents, but the entitlement is straight up from watching their example. My parents weren’t necessarily persuasive, but they were persistent, and they believed in themselves and they believed that doors would open. This optimism transferred to me.

What Happens When You’re Not Entitled

Studies show that people who grow up in lower income areas trust people less than people who grew up in more affluent ones. For my ex, B, he had seen his mom make do with a lemon of a car, because that’s the only kind of car they would offer to someone with bad credit. They lived in whatever apartment they could afford. B grew up thinking that you can’t ask for help, or, if you do, people won’t give it to you.

I remember I was traveling with B, and we were running very late at LAX. The check-in kiosk wasn’t working so we were waiting in a very long line to see an agent to get our boarding passes. The minutes were ticking by, and B had resigned himself to missing the flight. But not me.

Learning to be Entitled

A new attendant appeared behind the customer service desk, but she was clearly working on something besides assisting customers. I slipped under the velvet ropes, bypassing the line, and she quickly resolved the issue. We ran up the escalators only to be greeted by a long security line. I heard our names called on the intercom for last boarding call. I then asked every single person if they would let us cut in line or we would miss our flight. They all said yes. Then we ran through the terminal and caught our flight just before it left (gate attendants love telling you how close you are to missing a flight).
Following my example, on our flight, B asked the man sitting next to him if he would switch seats with me so we could sit together. He never would have thought to do that without following my example. For B, he would have just sucked up the missed flight or the mismatched seats as fate and paid for another ticket. And when you’re not advocating for yourself, you stand to lose a lot.

4. My Parents Were Optimistic.

I assume people are willing to help, and that’s something I learned from my parents.

I think how I act is very normal for a middle-class person. Lower-class people never expect anything good and upper-class people don’t need to haggle. But the middle-class, we are all about that hustle. And the more you ask, the more you get. Sure, you get turned down, but people are ultimately willing to help others out. And the middle class requires some help from others – maybe less than the poor, but definitely more than the rich. The ability to ask for more is a key component in moving up, in my opinion.

Hustling saves money but it also gives you a certain bit of confidence. I don’t believe in “The Secret” but I do believe that optimism can lead to good results. If you believe something good might happen, you’re more likely to try new things, which is more likely to get you somewhere good than sitting on your butt. That optimism is very middle-class, very American.

5. My Parents Chased the Jobs.

My parents were unafraid of switching jobs when it suited their needs. My mother actually moved to Virginia by herself when I was 9 to follow a new job. She rented a room and visited us on the weekends, while my dad took care of us in New Jersey. (It was around this time that I learned my dad was actually a very good cook, a secret he had been nursing for years).

My parents uprooted their kids from New Jersey to Virginia because of their jobs. Now I know some parents would judge them harshly for this. What about the children?! For me, it was rough changing schools but it was ultimately one of the best things that happened to me. The kids from my small hometown in New Jersey would hang out at the local grocery store parking lot for fun. Northern Virginia, on the other hand, has some of the best public schools in the country. Instead of parking lot friends, my peers are teachers, doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Sometimes you have to move to get a better job and kids are pretty resilient.

6. My Parents were Equals.

I don’t know too many couples where a man has followed a woman for HER job, where he takes care of three kids and the house by himself without complaining. (I also don’t know many women who would trust their husbands with this task). Then again, I don’t know too many couples where the wife will move away from her kids to pursue her career. (And by the way, my dad has always made slightly more than my mother, so it wasn’t an obvious economic choice).

Personally, I think this was pretty badass all around. When I look at my parents’ careers, my dad always took the route that would make it easier for my mom to stay at her job. We moved houses so she could be closer to work, even though it made his commute longer. My parents were long-distance for a year and we ultimately moved to Virginia because of my mom’s job. My dad has never ever mentioned this; it’s just something I’ve noted from looking back. I don’t think he thinks it’s notable. But I do.

What Happens When Your Parents Are Equals

This sounds like a small thing, but my dad was not a complete obstacle to my mother’s career. I have seen the reverse pretty frequently, even in subtle ways. A lot of men will block their wives from advancing in their careers, even when it  harms them in the process. Other men do little to support their wives’ careers, particularly when such support is to their own detriment, and if the wife is not earning as much.

Similar to my parents’ story, my very favorite political story (and this is a category without a lot of contenders) is a weird and controversial one. It’s about Ted Cruz buying 100 cans of soup. It didn’t resonate with most people because most people dislike Ted Cruz. Still, it touched my heart. I know so many hetero couples where, even though the woman is poised for an excellent career, the man still expects her to have domestic duties. This story was that rare opposite. It was Cruz making a gesture that he expected his wife to pursue her own career and that he was perfectly happy to take care of himself. (Also, I’m impressed with how spare his life is eating canned soup every day. PF blogger in the making right there!).

My mom is an all-around superhuman. I mean, she followed her career. She worked full-time and cooked us dinner from scratch every night, which we ate sometimes as late as 9pm. This is not to mention that she moved across the world to a country where she had no connections, little money, and didn’t speak the language. (Same for my dad). So yeah, my mom is amazing. But my dad played a significant role in helping my mom’s career, something I think is notable and rare. Having two income earners really helped their/our financial stability.

Conclusion – How My Parents Escaped Poverty

My parents’ route is not the only way to success. Obviously a lot of immigrants start businesses (i.e. they take riskier routes instead of making safe bets). This is just my parents’ story. Of course there’s a fair amount of luck involved. My parents are still married. None of their kids had health problems. They didn’t get sick or disabled. They weren’t unemployed for long stints.

But the point I’m trying to make is, it’s not about hard work. My parents worked hard, but they focused on the right skills, rather than on working round the clock.

Do I feel bad that other people work harder than me and get paid less? No, it makes me feel good because it means none of us have to kill ourselves to get ahead. You need results, not exhaustion. Work smarter, not harder. Be united. Stay optimistic. And hey, always remember to ask for more.

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