I went to a birthday party recently, my daughter’s friend’s party to be exact because once you are a parent you don’t get to attend a birthday party as the guest anymore, your kids do. It was a warm outdoor party, and we were aptly served Ice Ganefo – frozen snacks made by freezing flavored liquid in a clear and slim plastic tube. It is also known as ‘Es Lilin’ in Indonesian.
The thing about this Ice Ganefo is, it brings me back to my childhood. Fond memories, they are. No, I didn’t grow up eating it, I grew up hearing about it. It’s my father’s favorite topic of preaching, his kind of ‘table talk’.
“You bunch of ungrateful brats, be mindful of how fortunate you are! When I was your age I would be out there under the hot sun selling sticks of ice Ganefo on bike!”, he would start his lecture and we would roll our eyes thinking “here comes the ice Ganefo. Again..”
My parents were very strict about how money was spent. As was common for the Indonesian Chinese of their generation, they grew up in a tough time. They knew poverty and were acquainted with wants first hand.
“Finish up your food!”
While we were never denied the food we crave, leaving food to waste was a big sin in our family. “How ungrateful! In our childhood, we didn’t even dream to enjoy what you are wasting now. Wonton noodle is a once a year treat, you know!” And don’t get him started on the curry fish; “…we eight siblings would carry an empty pan to buy only one curry kembong fish while asking for a full pan of gravy…”
On toys, my father was no less strict. I still remember the two times I pressed him hard to buy me certain toys. One was a purple teddy bear, I was in my kindy. We visited the mama-shop several times with me nagging constantly before I finally got the teddy. The other one was the Playstation set, probably when I was in grade 4. My younger brother and I pestered him a lot and for a long time, he gave in but not without nagging back at us with “Right, your father is a money printer.”
Topping the class regularly had no bargaining power on him. Toys for score? Our purpose of education was never for something so banal and shallow.
Resources were to be used thriftily. As kids we dreaded the moment when our father would declutter the TV cabinets, which he did unpredictably once in a blue moon. We would all quickly siam* to the bedroom at the first sign of it. Because soon enough, he would be heard nagging while digging out many of our ‘supposedly-already-gone-missing’ erasers, pencils, and whatever sorts of stationary. “Everything buy new, buy new, buy new…”
My late paternal grandmother was even more strict. I was once strongly rebuked by her for asking for a new pen, having misplaced one previously. “What a young spendthrift! What will you be when you grow up?” No Montblanc here (not that a grade two kid would know a Montblanc anyway), just a simple pink with white stripes pen all the 90’s kids probably owned before. “See, it’s running in the bloodlines,” we cousins would gossip among ourselves. The Hainanese pride themselves for being frugal, or so we heard. But to us kids, it was just plain stingy. And three of our cousins are from a paternal dialect group that is known to be even more frugal. We bid them good luck.
We were trained to use water and electricity mindfully. (After years of being nagged at, turning off the switches when leaving the room just became a second nature, as if an alarm would go off if you stepped out while leaving one switch on). Having pails of water in our modernized bathroom is also common.
“Sit here and try selling this Kerupuk Jangek (fish cracker) then you’ll know how much effort goes into earning your 500 rupiahs.” (That’s probably the equivalent of 10 cents in Singapore currency of that time.) Money is valued by the amount of real work, so we are to base our calculation on this when spending. It’s hard-earned money in its literal sense. When I first came to Singapore to study, I lost 8 kgs in the first 6 months. Just as my two younger brothers did as they went to major cities for further study as well. Coming from a small town as Pematangsiantar, the cost of living, or a mere meal, in big cities is many times our normal. So we naturally skimped on meals to ease our guilt for spending so much of the hard-earned money from home (to our parents’ heartache of course).
With so much talk about thriftiness and frugality, one would probably think of my father as a scrooge who clutches his wallet tight unwilling to part with a buck. But our weekly family dining out and his approval for my mother’s occasional wardrobe spending and charity commitment proved otherwise. The key is probably not ‘not spending the money’, but rather ‘spending it wisely and responsibly’. Indeed, its meaning lies in its spending, for an idle, or permanently kept money is as no-good as the buried talent in Jesus’ Parable of The Talents, or the buried gold coins that were stolen away in one of Aesop’s fables, being good for nothing in the keeping.
While it is important to acknowledge the importance of money, one must also guard against magnifying it unproportionally. “In your mind, do not enlarge the coin to the size of the cart wheel, ” is my father’s regular advice. And it provides the much needed balance to our view of frugality.
Today, as we run our own household and parent our own kids in a generally comfortable life in Singapore, the need for practicing frugality may be virtually nonexistent. It is inconvenient, it is uncomfortable, it is unpopular. But we are fooling ourselves and our children if we are to believe frugality is merely a response to hard times. The contentment, modesty, self-discipline, responsible stewardship and empathy towards the needy it instills, the extra resource for charity it affords; virtue makes us better human. As William J. Bennett pointed out, children, human, are essentially moral and spiritual beings and the central task of education is virtue.
My father, and the elders who insisted frugality on us, might not be the most likable adults of our childhood (as if they’d care). But no discipline seems pleasant at the time, only later does it produce a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Looking back, I admire and am grateful for the persistent pursuit of a frugal life instilled by our elders, and I wish to carry this legacy forward to the next generation.
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.” – Saint Paul
*siam: evade in Hokkian/Singlish.