May 18, 2012

Is Green a White Movement? Lessons from My (Cheap) Asian Parents. ~ Jennifer Mo

The green movement is often seen as a white, Whole Foods loving, Prius-driving, upper middle class, left wing movement.

Which strikes me as sad because your ethnicity, car and politics have nothing to do with being a concerned earthling who doesn’t want to see humans screw up a perfectly good planet.

I’m green(ish), but I’m not white. My parents are Chinese immigrants, which makes me first generation Chinese-American. But I’ve never considered being Asian an essential part of my identity and am what you might call white-washed. (English major? Check. Has been known to eat fried rice with a spoon? Check. Please don’t tell my parents.)

Without ever being treehuggers, my parents raised my sister and me in a pretty low impact way. (When we were growing up, we thought of it more as skinflint-y, but the bottom line is what counts, right?)

I think Americans, including the green movement within America, could actually learn a lot from simpler, more cost-conscious immigrant lifestyles.

None of this ‘eco’ recycled plastic cupcake holder crap, please.

So here, in no particular order, are some lessons my [cheap] Asian parents can teach us about being green.

Lessons about food:

  1. Being able to cook is a critical life skill. Processed food is carbon intensive, produces a lot of packaging, and wastes a lot of money. It’s not good for your own body or the environment. Thanks to my mother, I grew up on mostly homecooked meals and still regard eating out and packaged foods as an indulgence.
  2. Meat isn’t the centerpiece of a meal. Homecooked Asian meals are mostly about lots of different seasonal vegetables with small amounts of meat. If you go to a Chinese supermarket and watch what people buy, you’ll see mounds of leafy greens and fresh vegetables on the conveyer belt with proportionately tiny amounts of meat and packaged foods. The traditional scarcity and expense of meat makes many Asian cuisines a lot lower impact than meat-centric western meals.
  3. Backyard gardens can produce surprising amounts of delicious food. Our yard was tiny, but I grew up plucking raspberries straight off the vine and polishing dusky plums on my shirt and eating them while they were still warm from the sun. I learned what fresh produce should taste like and where it came from.
  4. Lawns are a waste of water and space. See above.

Lessons from around the house:

  1. Function is more important than form. Our coffee table was a Goodwill reject, a graceless rectangular block of black press wood with chipped corners. (It was free.) Our dinnerware never matched. I survived 18 years of shag brown carpet turning green from the sun, and I turned out fine. Ironically, both my sister and I appreciate aesthetics and design now and like things to be both functional and beautiful, but we learned the difference between the two and choose things that don’t need upgrading every couple of years.
  2. Line-dried clothes smell better and save electricity. My mother line dried even in the winter, as long as it wasn’t raining. Our laundry line was jerry-rigged by my dad. Line drying might have been a chore, but it had its own quiet pleasures.
  3. Water is money. California was in a drought for part of my childhood, but even before that, my parents were water conscious. We saved the clean, cold water from running the tap for a bath or shower to water plants or flush the toilet.
  4. Knowing how to sew is not anti-feminist. There’s something to be said for a mother who could mend, hem, sew Halloween costumes and repurpose worn out clothes. She taught me, and I’m grateful.

Lessons about the car:

  1. Car trips should be minimized and consolidated. I can’t remember ever making impromptu trips to the grocery store for a single ingredient. My mother, a talented strategist, made lists, gathered coupons, and plotted routes before ever heading out the door.
  2. Stick shift cars get better mileage than automatic transmission. My dad’s car was a blue, budget Toyota Tercel with stupendous gas mileage (comparable to some hybrids) and no creature comforts whatsoever. For my parents, a car was something that got you from A to B, not a status symbol.

Random other lessons:

  1. Don’t have more kids than you can afford college educations for. The vast majority of Asian parents I know—the first generation to have access to good contraception—have one or two kids. A handful have three. While I’m pretty sure the cost of higher education was a major deterrent, as it turns out, not having kids—or having fewer kids—makes the biggest dent in your total environmental impact.
  2. There’s a big difference between what you want and what you need. My sister and I were not deprived, but our toys were modest, and gifts were generally reserved for special occasions. Neither of us had a cell phone or personal computer until college.

Ironically, I rebelled against a number of my parents’ teachings and only saw, years later, that they made a lot of sense from an ecological as well as economical perspective. The advantage of growing up as the daughter of immigrants is that I know for a fact that living this way is possible. Living simply, frugally, seasonally wasn’t several generations ago for me; it was my own childhood. And despite a brief detour into good old American consumerism, maybe it paved the way for a greener adulthood for me.

I’d like to see immigrants brought into the green movement. They clearly have a lot to offer— ideas, techniques, mentalities, inspiration.

What do you think about the whiteness of the green movement? How do you think we can open it up to more cultures and ethnicities?

Jennifer Mo is a concerned global citizen and a long time cat/book/tree person. You can follow her green journey at It’s Not Easy to be Green.






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Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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