The first time I really comprehended the weight of our situation was late last year, when I was sending standardized testing scores to colleges. The fee came out to around $200, and my mom offered to pay—but said she needed to confirm first if she had enough. I inquired, and she told me we had maybe $300 in the bank right now.
It took this brief, nonchalant exchange to finally wallop me with the realization that my part-time minimum-wage job had accrued me more savings than my parents held at any moment.
You wouldn’t be able to guess our financial condition from a glance. That’s because my family wasn’t always poor: my parents had run a thriving business at one point in time, and during that period they splurged constantly on name-brand clothing as well as the finest-quality equipment (thus how I get to walk around carrying a Leica camera).
I wasn’t present to witness much of that era. To focus on their entrepreneurial ventures, my parents sent my brother and me to live with relatives in China for a few years. By the time I was swooped back home at five years old, we had sold a home worth millions today. This was two years before the 2008 recession sent us into a downward spiral that only continues to take its toll.
My family’s business shut down. My dad, once retired, now struggles to rake in revenue through whatever occasional means he can. My mom has worked daily from noon till the a.m. as an Uber driver for the past three years.
Neither of my parents speak passable English, nor do they wield college degrees from any institution at home or abroad, so our options in society remain pretty limited. Yet somehow, they’ve always kept us afloat.
From San Marino to Arcadia to Diamond Bar (among other towns), I’ve been fortunate enough to receive education from a series of highly competitive school districts throughout my life. Living in these neighborhoods was a privilege typically reserved for those upper-middle-class families who could afford housing in such reputable L.A. County suburbs, but we invariably managed to rent out some small place close enough so my brother and I could still enroll in their schools.
Of course, I did notice a few comical disparities between me and my more affluent peers:
- Test prep courses, tutoring centers and college counseling were simply social norms.
- My schoolmates have driven me around in countless BMWs and quite a few Teslas.
- Every school break I would see friends jetting off together to Europe or East Asia.
- People whose parents own mansion-esque homes in gated communities with two to three high-end cars parked in their garage can genuinely believe their family is not well off.
But truly, the differences in lifestyle didn’t cause me much discomfort, because I had such a rewarding adolescence filled with fun and adventure regardless. Instead, it was the feeling of being unable to relate. All anyone wants at a basic level is to be understood, and I was terrified that no one around me would. So I never opened up.
I avoided inviting friends home so they wouldn’t see the piles of broken clutter squeezed into our tiny space. I felt the heat of embarrassment every time I was picked up or dropped off in front my peers by the dusty old vehicle my dad borrows, with its broken bumper and steering wheel that only turns when greased. (We do, however, have a nice car for my mom’s Uber gig that we’re still paying off.)
I would deflect questions about my parents’ occupations, and I wouldn’t even admit when I received fee waivers for college applications. Every time my boyfriend probed why I was adding a low-wage job to my plate of other stressors by asking if this was necessary income right now, I couldn’t supply a good answer.
Meanwhile, my mom worked tirelessly behind the scenes to grant me access to all the opportunities I yearned to latch onto.
When my dream summer trip—two weeks in NYC to study journalism under the direction of actual New York Times reporters—dangled tantalizingly within reach after I received an acceptance letter, I didn’t know how I would fund my attendance even after generous financial aid.
While I was still seeking a job without success, I decided to bite the bullet and try what to me was the most humiliating course of action: crowdfunding. Don’t take this the wrong way; there are definitely situations for which crowdfunding is respectable, but my house didn’t burn down nor did I have a life-threatening medical condition. I was just trying to participate in an opportunity I wanted intensely, but didn’t need.
At some point I worked up the courage to film a GoFundMe video and promote it in every social media circle I could. Some weeks later, I heard a friend jokingly remark about “Angela asking for money.” That was perhaps the lowest I’d ever felt about myself.
I didn’t know until after the trip that my mom, after her own bouts of tears behind closed doors, also sold her best camera—her most valuable asset as a photographer—to help finance it. My grandparents ultimately covered the remaining expenses so we could afford to return to Shanghai for a visit before my grandfather passed.
Do I regret it all? That summer program gave me some of the most exhilarating memories and friendships I’ve ever made, but to make it a reality meant a lot of sacrifice and a lot of pain. That’s the balance poverty forces you to straddle.
My dad knew an expensive summer program was just a taste of what’s to come. I can only imagine how daunting it must have been to be raising a daughter approaching college age with dreams of attending out-of-state, private, big-city East Coast institutions.
Spoiler: I received a full ride from a school I love with all my heart, so everything turned out alright!
So, here’s what I learned from my dad over a coffee one afternoon as we finally conversed about the past and future:
I asked why he never pushed me to do well in school, and he confided that it wasn’t because he didn’t believe in me, but because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to send me to college even if I did indeed end up with an acceptance letter to some school I really wanted to attend. And that fear pushed him to distance himself over the years because he didn’t know how to reassure me about our financial state if the topic ever came up. He didn’t want to face the possibility of disappointing me.
He told me that his lackluster response when I informed him of my acceptance to Boston University was due only to his regard of the institution as a rich kid’s school (which is justified: tuition + other costs add up to $72,000 a year). Otherwise, he was aware of its reputation and chose not to relay his own delight because he didn’t want me to grow unnecessarily excited.
When I lightheartedly spilled the story of me sobbing it out to my journalism teacher over wishing I could afford my dream school (before I found out about the scholarship), I spotted his eyes reddening. It was the first time I’d ever seen my dad hold back tears, so that was a little uncomfortable, but hey, it was also the first time we were able to look toward the future with a sense of true hope and closure.
Can I be any luckier? The experiences I’ve undergone hold a sort of value no amount of money could match. I’ve learned to be resourceful, to be independent, to work hard for what I’ve got. And I’ve managed to have so much fun while I’m at it. My childhood has molded me into someone ready with boundless excitement for the world out there, and I wouldn’t trade all that for anything less.