5 Reasons My Parents Escaped the Lower Class (and No, it’s NOT Hard Work)

woman wears yellow hard hat holding vehicle part

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It’s ingrained in the national psyche that all you need to achieve the American Dream is to “work hard.” But there are far more people willing to work hard than people acknowledge. There are plenty of day laborers and people toiling away at minimum- or low-wage jobs who will never get ahead. Hard workers are not hard to come by, but hard work is not enough and has never been enough. Truth is, America has never cared that much about hard work. Why do we keep perpetuating this myth?

Why We Don’t Care About Hard Work

America is a nation that loves effortlessness, or at least its appearance. Do you know how many hipsters we have? Haven’t we popularized athleisure? Didn’t we give the world the Kardashians? These icons of our culture (they’re iconic in that they’re well-known) do not signify hard work. In fact, we detest people who look like they’re trying too hard. America prefers overnight effortless successes. America loves the idea of being thin without starving or craving. America hates the idea that it takes a lot of work to be at the top of one’s game.

So if hard work doesn’t get us ahead, what does? In Great at Work, Morten Hansen tells an anecdote about when he noticed that, though he killed himself working grueling hours, he still wasn’t getting the results of his colleague who worked far fewer hours. She was far less stressed and got better results. Do you think their employer thought he was better for working hard? Nope!

No one prefers the guy who works hard over the girl who works efficiently and gives better results. You may say, she worked hard to be so efficient- but the author admits that he has always put 100% effort into everything he does. He has always worked hard, but hasn’t really worked smart.

The point of the book is that you have to focus your hard work on the important, specific small things in order to succeed. Too often, people focus on tons of unnecessary things (like hard work). They work hard, but they never get ahead.

How My Parents Got Ahead

My parents came to this country with very little and are very comfortable now. My parents didn’t work that hard. And by that, I mean to say, they weren’t toiling in the fields, doing back-breaking labor. They weren’t working crazy hours hustling. They worked hard on a few finite items that I believe led to their ultimate success.

1. My Parents Made Safe Bets.

According to Thinking in Bets, we can’t know for sure what the best decisions are because we have imperfect and incomplete information. The best we can do in life is to make decisions that have a high probability of success.

My dad became an accountant and my mother studied math. These were and still are in-demand fields of study. I don’t know too many hardworking unemployed accountants or mathematicians (some but not a lot).

My dad told me that he used to do accounting for starving artists. They would sell their guitar in order to make rent and when they came into money, they would buy it back. He warned me about this. I mean, I’m certainly not so artistic that I would have pursued a career in the arts. But Asian Americans always want their kids to be able to support themselves. There’s always a push towards “safe jobs.” They want their kids to struggle less than they did. They do this by ensuring that their kids know a trade that is marketable.

In addition to learning a pliable trade, my parents learned other useful skills – like English.

Once, I met this woman in China who told me that she traveled there for months at a time every year for 10 years. Then she turns around to the DVD vendor and says in loud English “FIVE!” and spreads her hand open to indicate the same. This woman, who had spent months and months living in China, didn’t even know the Chinese word for “five.”

Meanwhile, when I was cleaning out my parents’ basement, I stumbled upon my dad’s old English textbook. It’s pretty cute. In the margins, he writes (in his beautiful handwriting) “Study!”

English is my parents’ third and fourth language. My parents made a concerted effort to learn English, which is the main reason my siblings’ and my Chinese is mediocre. They were constantly practicing and, though their grammar isn’t perfect, their English is far better than the vast majority of immigrants their age. I even remember my dad’s first pun (“I find hostels to be quite hostile.”).
I know people will say people don’t need to learn English. I mean, you don’t. But it’s going to be difficult for you in America, just like not knowing Chinese in China is difficult. Granted, if you’re reading this in an English-speaking country, you probably already know the language. But there are other skills you can learn that will be helpful and make you more marketable in your career. If you don’t have a marketable skill (like accounting) and you don’t know the language, employers are more likely to take advantage of you and you won’t know how to get a better job. You don’t necessarily have to use your survival skills, but you’ll be glad to have them if you’re in a pinch.

2.  My parents lived within their means.

Well, obviously my parents had to be thrifty. They’re immigrants. My parents drove their cars to the ground and kept the same furniture for decades. We rarely got gifts (you have everything you need! my mom said) and we drove all up and down the east coast for vacations. Not spending all their money helped them to build wealth.

When I’ve talked about “safe bets” above, there’s no such thing as complete safety. Part of making the “safe” bet on engineering, is giving yourself room in case your plan fails. A lot of people get in trouble by making big bets that they didn’t think were risky. Like spending $200,000 on a college education. Buying a $1M house. People think, oh education and housing are solid investments. But even with high-paying jobs, these are risky bets. You could still end up hating your engineering job, and then having to work at it for years to pay for your outlandish college bill.

My parents went to state schools and my siblings and I also went to state schools. Living within our means for education and housing expenses has given us more flexibility in pursuing our careers.

3.  My parents were entitled.

I don’t mean this to mean that my parents thought things would be handed to them, but that they understood their own value and demanded nothing less. They hustled. And in my mind, they had a certain middle-class mindset.

My circle of friends includes a few people who grew up in the lower class. These people are generally better at everything than I was/am – there’s a reason they were able to climb social ranks after all. They’re super smart, with amazing willpower, talented, charismatic, good-looking. They basically rose through the ranks based on merit and not tricks. So I’ve noticed that there’s still some tell-tale signs that they didn’t grow up middle-class.

For my ex, B, he always assumed that you get what you are offered. You can’t ask for help or if you do, people won’t give it to you. (Studies show that people who grow up in lower income areas trust people less than people who grew up in more affluent ones).  He had seen his mom make do with a lemon of a car, because that’s the only kind of car they would offer to someone with bad credit. They lived in whatever apartment that could fit their rent. Because this is what he saw, he learned to take what he was given and he didn’t ask for more.

My parents, on the other hand, would never settle for less. They taught me to call up the bank to get my fees waived. They always checked for and contested incorrect charges. They haggled. I remember a childhood of scolding them for being too aggressive. (“Guys, this isn’t China. Stop yelling.”) I’m a little more genteel than my parents, but the entitlement is straight up from watching their example.

I remember I was traveling with B, and we were running very late at LAX. The check-in kiosk wasn’t working so we were waiting in a very long line to see an agent to get our boarding passes. The minutes were ticking by, and B had resigned himself to missing the flight. But not me.

A new attendant appeared behind the customer service desk, but she was clearly working on something besides assisting customers. I bypassed the line under the velvet ropes and presented my tickets to her, saying we couldn’t check in at the kiosks. She quickly resolved the issue and we ran up the escalators to the long security line. I heard our names called on the intercom for last boarding call. I then asked every single person in front of me if they would let us cut in line or we would miss our flight. They all said yes. Then we ran through the terminal and caught our flight just before it left (gate attendants love telling you how close you are to missing a flight). Following my example, on our flight, B asked the man sitting next to him if he would switch seats with me so we could sit together. He never would have thought to do that before. For B, he would have just sucked the missed flight or the mismatched seats as fate and paid for another ticket, and whatever other costs were associated with that, and sat separately. I assume people are willing to help, and that’s something I learned from my parents.
I think how I act is very normal for a middle-class person. Lower-class people never expect anything good and upper-class people may have never felt the need to haggle. But the middle-class, we are all about that hustle. Hustling saves money but it also gives you a certain bit of confidence. I don’t believe in “The Secret” but I do believe that optimism can lead to good results. If you believe something good might happen, you’re more likely to try new things, which is more likely to get you somewhere good than sitting on your butt. That optimism is very middle-class, very American.

4. My parents chased the jobs.

My parents were unafraid of switching jobs when it suited their needs. My mother actually moved to Virginia by herself when I was 9 to follow a new job. She rented a room and visited us on the weekends, while my dad took care of us in New Jersey. (It was around this time that I learned my dad was actually a very good cook; he just didn’t care enough about cooking to make anything besides spaghetti for us. But one time he whips out a shrimp with lobster sauce and I thought, who are you?? Why have you been feeding us vienna sausages all these years!).

My parents uprooted their kids from New Jersey to Virginia because of their jobs. Now I know some parents would judge them harshly for this.  They should have thought of their children! For me, I think it was rough changing schools but it was ultimately one of the best things that happened to me. The kids from my small hometown in New Jersey would hang out at the local grocery store parking lot for fun. Virginia, on the other hand, has some of the best public schools in the country.  Instead of parking lot friends, my peers are teachers, doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Further, the DC metro area is prosperous and well-educated and my entire family lives in the area to this day. I think it would be pretty unlikely that we would all  be within a half hour drive of each other in our little town in New Jersey. I’m just going to say here that sometimes you have to move to get a better job and kids are pretty resilient.

5. My parents were equals.

I note something else significant about our move to Virginia: I don’t know too many couples where a man has followed a woman for HER job. I don’t know too many couples where a man takes care of three kids and the house by himself while his wife is away without complaining. I don’t know too many couples where the wife will move away from her kids to pursue her career. (And by the way, my dad has always made slightly more than my mother, so it wasn’t an obvious economic choice).

Personally, I think this was pretty badass all around. When I look at my parents’ careers, my dad always took the route that would make it easier for my mom to stay at her job. We moved houses so she could be closer to work, even though it made his commute longer. My parents were long-distance for a year and we ultimately moved to Virginia because of my mom’s job. My dad has never ever mentioned this; it’s just something I’ve noted from looking back. I don’t think he thinks it’s notable.

It occurred to me later in life that a lot of men will block their wives from advancing in their careers and, those who don’t actively impede are still unlikely to do much to support their wives, particularly when such support is to their own detriment, and if the wife is not earning as much.

I realize it sounds like a small thing – my dad was not a complete obstacle to my mother’s career. But I have seen the reverse pretty frequently, even in subtle ways. My very favorite political story, and this is a category without a lot of contenders, is a weird and controversial one. It’s Ted Cruz buying 100 cans of soup. It didn’t resonate with most people because they don’t live in the same bubble as I do. I know so many hetero couples where, even though the woman is poised for an excellent career, the man still expects her to have domestic duties. This story was that rare opposite – it was Cruz making a gesture that he expected his wife to pursue her own career and that he was perfectly happy to take care of himself. (Also, I’m impressed with how spare his life is. PF blogger in the making right there!).

My mom is an all-around superhuman. I mean, she moved out by herself for a new job in her 40s and commuted between Virginia and New Jersey for a year. Before and after that, she worked full-time and cooked us dinner every night, which we ate sometimes as late as 9pm. But my dad played a significant role in helping my mom’s career, something I think is notable and rare. Having two income earners really helped their financial stability.

Closing thoughts.

My parents’ route is not the only way to success. Obviously a lot of immigrants start businesses. They take riskier routes. This is just my parents’ story. Of course there’s a fair amount of luck involved. My parents are still married. None of their kids had health problems. They didn’t get sick. They weren’t unemployed for long stints.

But the point I’m trying to make is, it’s not all about hard work. I mean, my parents worked, but they focused on the right skills, rather than focusing on working round the clock. People in America don’t really get ahead by working hard at their jobs (but they do need to work at least hard enough not to get fired before finding a new job). Do I feel bad that other people work harder than me and get paid less? No, it makes me feel good because it means none of us have to kill ourselves to get ahead. You need results, not exhaustion.

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3 thoughts on “5 Reasons My Parents Escaped the Lower Class (and No, it’s NOT Hard Work)

  1. nice story. it’s really a mindset thing. my folks were middle class money-wise but lower class mentality-wise. they didn’t even think i could attend college despite top grades and scores. i had to figure it out on my own and the result is being proudly self-made and not taking crap from anybody. somebody else can do the 80 hour weeks. i’ll take the 40.

  2. I liked your story about catching the flight at LAX.

    Having this kind of “entitled” attitude is definitely important. I’ll also be the one to run for the bus or subway in the chance of just making it. Sure, I look a bit foolish, but most of the time this few seconds of effort ends up saving 5-10 minutes.

    This attitude extends from the small things to more important aspects of your life. Negotiating salary, finding the better deal on the house, not settling for “just okay”. Knowing what you are worth and having the determination to make it happen is key!

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