Saturday, July 28, 2012

school of hard knocks

Another academic year, another round of grants.  That’s what has been on my mind this past month, as I started a new grant at work and already started planning for the next.  You might think that because I do research, I am oblivious in my academic ivory tower and am totally clueless about money.  Far from the case.  There’s a saying in our department, “You eat what you kill,” which sounds like kind of a crass macho thing to say, but it is really the truth.   I am always planning, writing, and revising grants to support my salary. I discuss my salary support on a regular basis with my research mentors.  I advise trainees how to plan their careers for financial success.

Most importantly, I discuss our family’s finances regularly with my husband.  I remember early in our relationship, we talked a lot about our financial situations—past, current, future.  My husband pulled out his financial accounts; we reviewed mine. You might think it blunt and indelicate. I found it both romantic and practical.  My future husband and I thought it important that we be able to discuss our finances rationally. 

Rationally. That is the key word.  Because there are so many emotions tied up in money. Who has money or not. And if you do, how to spend and manage it (cf Mitt Romney’s offshore accounts).  We may say we define ourselves by our families, background, education, and personal accomplishments, but money is always the elephant in the room. Our values are defined by how we choose to spend our hard earned cash.  And in this economic climate, whether or not the average family has enough to get by, not to mention save for their retirement and their children’s education—the state of our domestic economy has become a political battle cry.

My parents and I were refugees from Vietnam in the 70s. We came to this country with the proverbial clothes on our backs.  They left behind all they had worked for in their 20s—their home bought outright in cash (forget about mortgage financing), their budding careers as a lawyer and physician—I can’t imagine how hard it was for them to start over from scratch in a foreign country. My mother tells the story of their first Christmas here, with a meager $10 leftover after their paychecks were spent on the essentials; my father bought me a small stuffed animal and a rose for my mother. They sacrificed and worked hard—rebuilt their careers, bought their own home, put both kids through fancy private colleges, and saved for retirement.  Without ever complaining.

Thanks to my parents, I have had a relatively privileged life. Sure, I remember being in the bay area as a struggling graduate student during the dot com boom.  My friends just out of college, living it up with six-figure salaries, while I was at home studying pathology and eating PB&J.  But that is small potatoes, really.  And thanks to my parents, I have been able to enjoy a little more luxury than they ever allowed themselves:  a gourmet meal, a pair of designer shoes, the occasional pedicure or facial.  Still, my parents have instilled in me a strong work ethic—to work hard and save for the future, for my children and for my retirement. I was brought up with values not only of frugality, but also of financial independence.  To be content with what I have, and moreover to be self-reliant, in order to have the freedom to live as I please.  This is why they came to the US from war-torn Vietnam in the first place.

So from the outside, I may look like the typical gentrified Cantabrigian: pushing two kids in the fancy stroller, talking on my iPhone, wearing my Ray Ban sunglasses.  But don't let appearances fool you.  My family came from the school of hard knocks, and no matter how far we’ve come, we’ve got deep immigrant roots.

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