Hakka discrimination beginnings. The ancestors of my wife and me were Hakkas living in the southern mountains of China. They were highly discriminated against by the earlier arrived lowland people who pushed them away to live up in the mountains. So that the lowland people could continue to farm the fertile plains.
However, the great thing about discrimination is that it’s a training ground for resilience. Thus our people, trying to create farms on rocky hilly land, were often considered the most resilient, and able to withstand harsh trials. Poverty was a big issue, and it was important to be frugal and save as much as possible. To not waste a drop!
Pollyannaish. We recently watched the classic movie Pollyanna where the hero girl always played the game of “glad”. She could always imagine good things happening out of bad. Usually people think that’s so unrealistic, even childish. I can definitely be accused of being “Pollyannaish”, since I’m really fond of the encouragement to “Rejoice always”, from the Good Word, because I know bad things can indeed turn out to be good!
Throughout our long life, we have often merged our ancestral Hakka frugality tradition with our “optimistic life attitude”. In some mysterious way, we feel that saving every drop gives us even greater Pollyannaish opportunities for the future!
Spatula lickin’ good. Do you even know what a food spatula is? Especially one with the rubber flexible end? And do you know how to use it well? In our Hakka DNA home, we do a thorough job with it. If you’ve ever done spatula scraping of the last remnant of anything creamy and tasty, you know that it’s a fantastic invention. So simple, yet so effective. A variant of “finger lickin’ good” tastiness!
Even with just a little bit of leftover ice cream, you can retaste and relive the ice cream experience that “keeps on giving”. You can surprisingly spend quite a while doing that, all the while reminding yourself that you are doing a great good! For your taste buds, the economy and “world waste reduction”, isn’t that amazing. Try clam chowder, yogurt, curries and anything saucy!
In Cantonese, the spatula stick is colorfully and lovingly called a guhon gwan, 孤寒棍, literally a stingy stick, for good reason. Gu1 hon4 gwan3, if you want to be precise.
在粤语里，刮刀的亲切又生动的称呼是“孤寒棍”，字面意思“吝啬的棍子”，这在合适不过了！准确的发音是 gu1 hon4 gwan3。
Squeeze and poke. In our home, we treat the ordinary toothpaste tube seriously as a classic challenge when the tube gets thinner and thinner. It feels satisfying to squeeze out the last bit of the toothpaste, till the end! None of this American throw-away culture when the tube is still 2/3 full!
Going even further, recently I found that small cleaner-brushes for between-teeth brushing also can be poked into the tube outlet to penetrate the last bit of toothpaste. Every happy little drop can be used on receptive teeth. In Cantonese, m4 hou2 saai1 zo2 keoi5, “not good waste really it”. Nothing wasted for sure!
Last exorbitant eye drop. We never realized that eye drop medications could be that expensive. I was using a medication that cost $400 for 60 days or about $6 per drop! Never had I seen (or paid for) something like that. Practically a meal in Cincinnati, though not enough in Seattle!
Our natural Hakka every-drop-counts frugality came to the rescue. By squeezing carefully each drop, so that not too much, or too little, came out, my super-Hakka wife could literally extend the life of the drops! And the last drops were indeed precious.
Fortunately we later found a better price, though still too pricey for us Hakkas. Every drop counts still meant every dollar saved! Thank our ancestors indeed.
Checkout counter little encounters. My wife’s superior instincts on counting each dime came in extremely handy at some grocery stores where she was able to catch the cashier’s missteps, though fortunately for mostly small charges. Clearly American high school mathematics classes could be improved!
However, the flip side to this careful mathematics is that my dear wife could spend 20 minutes at the manager’s office just trying to return money that was accidentally given to her because of a technical or cashier error. Oh well, it should work both ways! Frugal to us should be frugal to them also.
Baby haircut inspiration. My wife was very impressed by a picture of my surgeon dad giving me a haircut when I was only a few years old. She thought it was the cutest photo. I suspect that one picture inspired her to cut my hair for 40 years, definitely in line with our frugality theme. After saving by my guesstimate nearly $4,000, I think she finally got tired of saving(!) and sent me off to the hairdresser.
This savings is actually more inspirational to us than the legendary “one less Starbucks Coffee a day saves a fortune” over one’s lifetime. Which of course we definitely and easily nail at 15c a day with ready-to-mix good enough Vietnamese or Indonesian coffee.
One hair trimmer hair-dresser. All through the decades, Esther used the same hair trimmer given by friends at our wedding! 56, years ago. Probably our most useful (and frugal) wedding gift, out of lots of impractical ones that have totally disappeared!
I for one have been thoroughly impressed by my dear wife’s singular professional and artistic haircut act, for all these years. She was called out of hairdresser retirement to reactivate her skills, when Covid-19 hit, to add one bonus year of pandemic home haircuts.
Takeouts that linger. We have Chinese friends who insist that no one should eat rice that has been cooked/heated twice. gaak3 je6 faan6, “overnight rice”, a pejorative term in Cantonese! I guess that’s a holdover from old days without refrigerators. One friend gave us a scolding for doing that! However we regularly break this tradition and buy Chinese takeouts that we could string out for a while. I hear that’s what non-Asians intelligently do anyway. A wonderful way of prolonging the lingering joy of Chinese, Thai or Korean food for us. Every last leftover forkful or chopstick pinch.
Sourcing frugal medical supplies for missions. Our ancestral drive became extremely useful when we collected medical supplies and equipment for medical missions in Asia. We knew well the tremendous waste in US hospitals, totally useful materials just thrown away because of habit, without thinking how it could be either reused or saved.
But once we alerted our hospital nursing staff that we were collecting materials for missions, the response was tremendous. We satisfied both our charitable and modern day recycling instincts! Frankly our ancestral instincts were truly ahead of the times, recycling being an ancient Hakka last-drop tradition!
Mission and poverty full circle. So in a sense, I have come full circle from my relatively poor ancestral frugal roots, to modern day frugal practices, to helping promote frugality as a connection between past and present, both useful and emblematic.
“Not rich nor poor. ” I love the principles in the top bestselling book, which urge us to desire to be “neither rich, nor poor, in order to be neither prideful, nor jealous to steal (1)!” 1 I think frugality throughout our lives has readily helped us to be safe from being poor. But also, in the right spirit, frugality can help remind us to give to those less privileged, which might help keep us from being rich and prideful. The practical beauty of frugal last drops!
1. Proverbs 30:7-9 NIV