The Quirks of Being Middle Class Indian (and how it benefits my wallet)

Regular readers of this blog are aware that I am an immigrant from India. I moved to the U.S. just two months shy of my 30th birthday. At the age of 37 I discovered the twin ideas of financial independence and retiring early (FIRE), and I am plotting to retire when I turn 42.

I recently filed for my U.S. citizenship and I found my thoughts turning nostalgically to my homeland. As I sifted through my memories of growing up in India in the 80s and the 90s, certain themes emerged; odd quirks that I associate with being middle class and Indian. That lead me to wonder: do the Indian quirks that I absorbed as a young, impressionable sponge actively contribute to my relationship with money?

Indian Quirk #1: The Law of Conservation of Clothing

Clothing can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another.

We had strict rules about what kinds of clothes were either inherited or bought, and what kinds resulted via a slow process of transformation. One could acquire clothes (rarely bought, mostly inherited from older cousins) for a party or for work or school. Clothes needed for any other purpose evolved from your party/work clothes with the slow passage of time. Once an item of clothing could no longer cover your body and still be considered decent, it transformed into a rag.

Indian quirks: the transformation of clothes

*Holi: The festival of colours. This is what your clothes look like after you’ve played Holi:

I took me over thirty years to rebel and buy my first pair of pajamas. It was the height of decadence.

Image Credit: SearchKashmir

 

Some enterprising clothes escaped the fate of being relegated to rags by being magically transformed into pots. There were women who would wander door to door carrying on their heads a giant basket of pots, pans and utensils. They would take away your old clothes in exchange for things that you needed in the kitchen. They took these clothes back to their villages, where folks did not have access to shops that sold ready made clothes, and they sold them there.

 

 

The result? I don’t believe I need special clothes to bike or work out. I value hand-me-downs and gratefully accept offers of used clothes for Toddler BITA. I still transform old clothes into rags.

Indian Quirk #2: The Quest for Eternal Youth

Indians believe that for certain consumer goods plastic is the path to everlasting life. I never once, in all my childhood, ever laid eyes on an unprotected TV remote control.

If we protected ourselves half as well as we do our remotes, we would have died out instead of growing to a billion strong. The apocalypse will be upon us and the dust from the mushroom cloud will rain down, but our remotes will continue to look spanking new.

New cars came with their seats covered in plastic. Removing that plastic was sacrilege.

We don’t always swaddle things up like little plastic mummies. Sometimes all you need is small plastic totem. You know that plastic film that is on the screen of your phone or ipad when you buy it? Woe betide you if you suggest that that should be removed.

Where we can’t use plastic we make do with cloth. Sofas almost always have a sheet covering them. You could live in a house for all your childhood and never know what colour your sofas actually are.

One of my friends once acquired a doll from abroad. The doll had blue eyes that opened and closed. It was as a thing of wonder. And being so wondrous, it was important that its wondrousness was preserved for this generation and the next to appreciate. So the doll stayed in the box in which it was placed by the manufacturer – you know the kind, a cardboard box with a plastic front through which you can see the doll. We played with her for many happy hours, cradling her and carrying her and feeding her, and all the while she never once emerged from her little coffin.

The result? My remote controls run wild and free and I peel the plastic film off my mother’s phone while she squeals in shock and horror. But I have learned to value the things I own, to take good care of them, and to never assume that they can simply be replaced with another. I have the mindset of a person who is only going to get one shot at owning a thing, and that has served me well.

Indian Quirk #3: Reuse Everything

Indians reuse everything. My home was like the Hotel California for any jar that was bought from a store. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. After we had consumed whatever was in the jar or box or container of any description, it would be washed and reused forever more. All of the spices in our kitchen, all the lentils, all our snacks, all resided in these repurposed containers. I remember the first time I laid eyes on an Ikea magazine. I was dazzled by those orderly rows of matching kitchen containers. It appealed to my aesthetic sense and I aspired one day to have a pantry that looked like that. Now though, I see the beauty of the mismatched kitchens of my youth.

Related Post: The Backstory Of Mrs. BITA

We had a plastic bag hanging from the kitchen door knob into which we stuffed every other plastic bag that crossed the threshold of our home, keeping them safe for future reuse. We didn’t get milk in tetra packs or gallon jars. We got milk in plastic bags. The bags were snipped, the milk extracted, and then the bags were washed, dried and made their way into the mother ship of plastic bags.

We used old newspaper to line kitchen shelves and drawers. Used tea bags turned into fertilizer. Water used for boiling potatoes was reused to clean silver.

The result? I reuse still, but I try to be mindful to not go sliding down the slippery path and turn into a hoarder. I have money plants growing in old beer bottles and a healthy collection of plastic bags lurking under the sink. When we travel these plastic bags come in handy to pack our shoes and to collect dirty clothes that accumulate during the trip.

Indian Quirk #4: Waste Not, Want Not

My people are not a fan of waste. I was never allowed to leave the table if there was still food on my plate. I remember once oh-so-slyly attempting to tip the plate to send the food to the floor so that I wouldn’t be forced to cram it down my throat. My mother fixed me with a steely eye and said, “If that falls down you are going to eat it off the floor”. She meant it too. Leftovers were never discarded. They appeared, grinning cheerfully up at you, meal after meal for what felt like weeks on end.

The waste not, want not credo applied not just to food. It applied to the use of electricity. Even battery power. Our precious plastic encased remotes ran equally on batteries and on slaps. When the batteries started to give out, there was no rush to replace them. Instead we slapped the remote silly and continued to use it. It was only when even slapping the remote into a coma yielded no results that the batteries were begrudgingly changed. It applied to water for a bath. We got one bucket per bath. No more. And later on in my childhood, when we did have a shower, we were never allowed to keep the shower running the whole duration of the bath. You could have it on for about a minute, then off while you soaped up, and then another minute to rinse off. If you stood luxuriating under the shower for too long, you would have a parent thumping at the door asking if water grows on trees. Failure to respond to this warning would result in the water being turned off altogether.

Indians don’t even waste minutes on their cellular plan. We use a concept we call the missed call. For example:

“I’ll pick you up and we’ll go to the mall together”.
“Great. See you at 5. Give me a missed call when you get here, and I’ll come down”.

When 5 in the evening rolled around, and your ride arrived, they would call your phone, let it ring once or twice and disconnect. You would not pick up when you saw it ring. You would just head downstairs. The missed call allows for communication without wasting precious plan minutes.

The result? I am still miserly with water in the shower. I still turn off the lights when I leave the room. I still feel immensely guilty if I ever throw food away. I don’t abuse my free-range remote though, I just change the batteries. I waste not, and thus far, I have wanted not.

In conclusion

My people have their quirks, and I confess that I have been guilty of mocking them (mostly my mother, really). With the wisdom of advancing age I realize that those little oddities and weirdnesses are part of who I am, and from a financial point of view, they have stood me in good stead.

What weirdnesses did you grow up with that have turned out to be assets on your path to financial independence?

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39 thoughts on “The Quirks of Being Middle Class Indian (and how it benefits my wallet)”

  1. Too funny. I think I might be half Indian 😉 Or it’s the frugal Scots-Irish blood since I was born in the foothills of North Carolina 🙂

    Other than the bags on the remotes we (and my parents) do pretty much all of that. I had to take the plastic film off the freaking HDTV when my dad refused to do so. It looked like total shit (worse than old fashioned CRT tvs) and it was driving everyone else in the household crazy. Why get 1080 pixels of resolution and have it blurred by a bubbly plastic film that obscures the picture!?!?!? But of course you’ve probably already struggled with that issue with your own family.

    I also have a Cambodian mother in law that accepts our used plastic grocery bags and old plastic sour cream and butter containers. She uses some in her tiny gardening sales biz. Otherwise they are so handy for giving away leftovers to people taking food home, storing random stuff.

    1. I have a hate-hate relationship with warped and bubbly plastic on screens of every description. It isn’t just the plastic, though that is bad enough. You know the little triangular piece of cardboard that obscures the corner of the screen on a new TV or computer monitor? The one that advertises the number of inches, or maybe the latest marketing keywords? That stays on too. So if you aren’t blessed with X-ray vision you better hope that no key portion of the plot plays out in the lower right hand corner of the screen, because if so you will be shit out of luck.

  2. Ahhh, I think Holi looks like so much fun. 🙂 I really love the idea of conserving clothes. I think America is too happy to throw away perfectly good clothing.

    The remote /plastic-covering thing was new to me, hahaha. But hey, you’ve got to take care of your stuff, after all. I probably am a little too unkind to my remotes, now that I think about it.

    Although these are quirks in America, it sounds like they’re great ways to save money and live consciously.

    1. Holi is awesome. The bath after Holi, much less so. You have to scrub like a maniac and you still look faintly pink for days afterwards. And there is no way to get that colour off of your nails. Ever. Oh, and a Happy Holi to you and yours (it is tomorrow).

      Sadly, India is following in America’s footsteps. As the middle class has more money to spend, it is becoming less and less common to reuse clothes and everything else with the same vigour that was applied when I was a child.

  3. It turns out that apparently my kind of Asian could be mistaken for Indian! Every single item on this list had me laughing with tears in my eyes. I currently bathe JuggerBaby with one bucket of water! Ze gets to play in it, while I soap and rinse zir. My phone before this one had that stupid plastic cover 98% of its life with me, I only took it off three weeks before selling it. (Which still isn’t as bad as a friend’s dad who purchased a sheet of that plastic to REAPPLY when the original sheet managed to escape Alcatraz!)
    I’ve got a bag of rag clothes in the closet that I’m determined to send to recycling because we simply cannot have any more rags in the house and that plastic tub of yogurt in the fridges smells faintly of fish because it’s being reused as Seamus’s sardines container. JuggerBaby doesn’t share zir classmates’s mom’s difficulty with shopping for a picky toddler because ze has never gone shopping for clothes. Ze wears all hand me downs, no choice in the matter, and only gets new shoes from my beloved older cousin (whose old clothes I used to wear)! The list just goes on.

    I love that we retain lots of the old ways. It doesn’t just make me feel good that my money stays where it belongs, I also love that being frugal is good for the world. I also fondly remember seeing Grandma’s hoard (the non-clinical sort) of carefully rewashed and stored containers on her farm and being SO PROUD that they said I was just like her.

    I’m so sad that we’re going to miss Holi in the city again this year, our friends have been so good about finding the good ones and inviting us but we keep having calendar conflicts.

    1. Kneel! I hereby knight thee an honorary Indian. Rise Lady Revanche.

      “It doesn’t just make me feel good that my money stays where it belongs, I also love that being frugal is good for the world.”

      Yes, yes, so much this. I love how holy I feel when I follow some of the ways of my people. I get my daily shot of holiness, and can venture forth halo shining brightly. It is a good feeling.

      Buying a new sheet of plastic when the old one gives up the ghost is……dedicated. I’m sorry you missed Holi, better luck next year.

  4. I have several bags of plastic bags hanging up in my pantry, and I wash and reuse plastic containers. They’re great for storing small toys (large pretzel containers) or packing ingredients when camping (fluff containers). My youngest son also uses them as toys-he likes to stack them high and knock them down again. The pretzel containers are the perfect size for a toddler, and they stack into a great big tower! My mother also saves sour cream containers and reuses them. I think these tendencies came from my grandparents, both born during the Great Depression. I have a number of small glass jars in my garage that were my grandfathers, used to store screws, nails, hinges, and other small miscellaneous things. We have the nails in them still, and I smile whenever I look at them.

    1. I think the fact that you use your grandfather’s jars is very cool. I’d rather have that as an heirloom than say an ugly vase with altogether too much gold on it.

      Plastic containers make the best toddler toys. Toddler BITA has an entire ‘kitchen’ of old containers. She still greets each ‘new’ one with crazy enthusiasm; you’d never know that she already had twenty, the way she squeals with joy.

  5. Love the image of all the items still covered in plastic years later! It reminds me of an Everybody Loves Raymond episode where they pull the couch cover off and everyone is terrified of sitting on the unprotected couch😀. Most of these quirks also remind me of my grandmother, who was the type to save wrapping paper after gifts were opened and then fold it up neatly for another use. That Depression-era mindset impacted a lot of decisions for the rest of her life, and I don’t think in a bad way. We Americans are extremely wasteful, and I know I’m guilty of it too!

    1. Hahaha. I had forgotten about that episode. Yeah, you are right; I think anybody who grew up in a world where things were hard to come by and not easily replaceable shared certain frugal (and sometimes a little weird) traits.

  6. We’ve done many of the same things (we as poor to lower middle class white americans growing up in the heartland). All my clothes were hand me downs from my older sisters, or from the thrift store. Asking Mom what was for lunch, and being told the leftovers in the butter container. Only to open the fridge and having to hunt for it because there were 4 butter containers in the fridge! We also save plastic bags. They’re excellent for ferrying used kitty litter out of the house and into the garbage.

    1. I like thinking of these as our secret superpowers. Let those who are born with a silver spoon in their mouths enjoy their inheritances and trust funds. We have our superpowers – butter containers, plastic bags, and ever-transforming clothes : )

  7. These cracked me up. It may be programmed into the Indian genes, because my family left India for the Caribbean in the 1800’s and I grew up following all of these rules.

    Regarding #4 When I was little we used to flex our abs and claim that we were so full that we our stomachs had become rock hard and we couldn’t eat another bite. It didn’t work.

    1. Oh wow. I knew these traits were powerful, I didn’t realize they could withstand being transplanted halfway around the world two centuries ago!

      Our mothers were pretty smart, weren’t they? All my various efforts were always greeted by a “think of the starving millions”, followed by the Look that indicated that the conversation was over. I’m a mother now. I’m still trying to master that Look.

  8. Girl, I’m dying! I love hearing the quirks of other cultures but you got me at “does water grow on trees?” Too funny! I find myself saying similar things to my BF’s kids about electric waste and what not and all they say is “why do you care? You aren’t paying for it.” Wrong! I do pay for it but who cares who pays for it – you are still wasting a resource! Haha – kids.

    I love how resourceful your culture is – the ultimate in reduce, reuse, recycle. The hierarchy of clothing is awesome but the use of plastic is really fascinating. When I saw the remotes I had to laugh – I have just begun doing a similar thing while in hotel rooms. Not to keep them new, but to protect myself from whatever disgusting creature picked his/her nose and used it just hours before I arrived. I now use the ice bucket bag to cover my remote…I realize I am now becoming a germaphobe and I am OK with it. 🙂

    1. Kids can be oblivious. I know I was. My entire childhood I did things like save water only under duress. It is only now that I appreciate the value of the values of my parents.

      And thanks for that gross mental image. I’m never going to be able to look at a hotel remote quite the same way again. Ugh.

  9. I am laughing out loud about the protected remote controls. My wife does that and I know that she inherited that trait from her parents. I think it’s so funny because I definitely didn’t grow up that way. Especially since if your remote stops working you can call up the cable company and they’ll give you a new one for free 🙂

    1. Yes!!! My husband, who’s from Chile, does the same thing. Won’t take the plastic off anything!!! Drives me crazy, because growing up, the people with the plastic on their sofas were “tacky,” in the parlance of my Southern mama. But I have to admit, it definitely does protect your electronics. 🙂

    2. We didn’t have cable TV until I was 16 years old. And then it didn’t come with the kind of cable modem thing that you have here – we literally had a cable that plugged directly into the TV. I never saw cable boxes and their associated remotes until I moved here. Our remotes came with the TV when you bought it. I kind of understand where you wife is coming from – when you are programmed to do these things as a child they can be really hard to shake off – I know I’ve felt like a true rebel every time I’ve decided to go against my ‘training’.

  10. I knew you were a bad-a@@! You bought pajamas! Almost every sofa was covered in a heavy plastic slipcover where I grew up in Brooklyn. I remember going to a friend’s house during the summer and wearing shorts, and my legs stuck to the sofa.

    1. I am the poster child for a rebel without a cause.

      I know all about sticky legs. Car dies in the summer in India were a nightmare on those plastic covered seats. On the one hand it was thrilling (you are in a car! Imagine that!). On the other hand, yuck.

  11. As Americans, our current ethos seems to be “everything is replaceable,” and that ethos costs a lot of resources (not to mention generates a lot of waste.) We could learn a lot from cultures that don’t think of easy replacement as the obvious answer. Repairing, conserving, reusing…it saves money (and the environment.)

    1. Sadly, my home country seems to be adopting the American way far faster than the other way around.

  12. As a child of immigrants, I think my parents have ingrained these habits into my head and I continue them…well some of them. Here in NYC, they are planning to charge people a few cents for plastic bags to prevent waste and help the environment. I always reuse plastic bags or use them as trash bags…doesn’t everyone do that? I guess not.

    1. My city has banned single use plastic bags altogether – stores aren’t allowed to provide them to customers. While I think this is a good thing, it has certainly put a dent in my collection of plastic bags.

  13. Is it a worry that I read this as a list of great ideas? 😀 My cupboard is already overwhelmingly filled with jam jars, spaghetti jars, yogurt tubs, butter tubs.. anything I can get my hands on. The batteries get a gentle turning off and on again, and I have eaten slightly mouldy food because I hate waste. That one was probably a poor choice, but I definitely have an iron stomach.

    Something I’m looking to try that might fit nicely into the ‘Waste Not Want Not’ ideology is turning used tea leaves into pot pourri. Not black tea, but a nice cinnamonny, nutmegy tea my friend called ‘Christmas Cookie’ I shall report back if there is any success!

    1. Mouldy food is where I draw the line. My stomach is made of stern stuff, but my sensibilities are more on the sissy side of things.

      That is an interesting pot pourri idea. I look forward to hearing how that turned out.

      1. The mould was intentional ignorance! It was only a little bit of white fuzz so I told myself it was just moisture crystals 🙂 next time I went back the muffins were blue and white, then I tossed them to the hens!

  14. We reuse a lot of containers, and save plastic bags, and more on that list, but the plastic remotes is definitely a new one. My current phone is about 2.5 yrs old and still has the plastic cover over the screen. 🙂 I actually removed it from its protective case last week and realized it still had the plastic around all of its sides. I did peel those off, but walking around without the bulky cover on my phone feels so risky and freeing!

    I am wondering how to get these ideals into my kids heads because man do they love to waste food. Mrs. SSC says she eats leftovers, but more times than not I find myself eating them. She refers to me as “the human garbage can” because I’ll generally eat whatever she doesn’t or the kids don’t. Although, that could be why it’s so ahrd to knock off these last 6-8 lbs…

    1. I am itching to peel that plastic off your phone. Are you going to Fincon?

      Mr. BITA plays the same role that you do and demolishes our leftovers. He is also our “edge eater”. You know when food is on the edge? A box of leftovers that has been in the fridge just a tad too long? Not obviously spoiled yet, just suspiciously old. He is the one who eats that stuff so that we don’t have to feel guilty about throwing it away.

      1. Yep, I’m going to FinCon. With the amount of money that’s involved at this point, only death or amputation would keep me away. 🙂

        I’m also the “edge eater” in our household. Sometimes it’s for nothing more than that same reason of not wanting to toss the food out, so I eat it.

        As far as the plastic, I thought, “Well, it’s a free screen protector for now” and unlike real screen protectors I’ve bought, I haven’t had to replace this one yet. 🙂 Win? hahahaha

  15. Just loved this post! I’m another proud grandchild of immigrants who learned similar frugal/Eco-friendly yet sometimes hilarious waste not want not tips. Happy to have found your blog through 1500 days!

    1. I’m glad you found me too, and thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

      I hope that I can do as good a job as your grandparents and parents and successfully pass on some of my Indian values to my toddler.

  16. Ahh, I love the plastic wrapped remotes! My best friend (and many of my close female friends) are Indian and this is definitely a quirk in their parents’ homes 🙂

    1. Woe betide any alien species who ever decided to disguise themselves as middle class Indian and then forgot to wrap up their remotes. We would find them out in a heartbeat. : )

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