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

Via elephant journal
on May 18, 2012
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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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6 Responses to “Is Green a White Movement? Lessons from My (Cheap) Asian Parents. ~ Jennifer Mo”

  1. Jill Barth says:

    Jennifer! Great piece.

    One of the dysfunctions of the 'green movement' (if you will) is the fact that it has spun into a marketed, materialist, consumer arrangement in many ways. Your points above refocus the action on simple, authentic choices that often prove to be frugal as well as good for the planet…products with no marketing, such as a homegrown eggplant or the fresh scent of real air via a clothesline, tend to be affordable and make ecological sense.

    Your message needs to be told again and again so that people of all backgrounds make sense of greenwash and understand that our eco-mind can follow the path of common-sense, home-spun solutions.

    We start where we are…that's the way.

  2. ailanna says:

    Thanks, Jill. It also concerns me that environmentalism is sometimes marketed as a movement about buying differently, not making do with less and living more simply. I think it can be pretty daunting to embrace less voluntarily — I know I'm still more wasteful than my parents since I didn't grow up in poverty, and everything around me makes it easy to consume more. The laundry line (and I'm grateful there's one at all) is definitely further away than the dryer! The key is to take these teachings from our immigrant parents and continue to apply them even in a culture that encourages excess.

  3. shaydewey says:

    Posted to elephant Green and Work and Money Facebook.

  4. Jean LeBlanc says:

    As a general rule, I make sure to buy as much food as I possibly can from immigrants, especially Southern Europeans and Asians. They tend to care most about their food.

  5. […] Choose Energy Star rated appliances and windows, which designate energy efficient products. An old fridge can use 15% of the electricity consumed in a house heated by […]

  6. Mark Ledbetter says:

    I'm too white and not sufficiently green to answer your question. Still, after 30 yrs in a different culture, I figured I should have some insight on why the green movement isn't able to become much more than a white movement.

    The best I could come up with is this: It's the ol' hierarchy of values thing again. What's at the top of the hierarchy for green whites is generally lower for other cultures.

    Too general. Not helpful. So I didn't write.

    Then today another thought hit me. Why just talk about 'other' cultures? If we expand our minds to include the 'other' within our culture, we just might stumble across some values that are attractive to people of other cultures.

    Ever hear this adage?

    Liberals should identify the problems and conservatives should solve them.

    It'll never ever happen because it requires each side recognizing some value to the other, and neither side is willing to do that. But if we could open up a bit to the supposed enemy within, we might be more attractive to the desired friend without.

    Ok, still way too general! But I kind of like it so I'll post it.