Growing up I always felt like a bit different.
I grew up in a fairly affluent and mostly Caucasian town in NJ. Aside from being Asian with a surname that even some of my best friends can’t pronounce or spell… while my classmates spent their weekends playing in little league games, or at the shore… I spent mine selling watches at flea markets.
In my writing workshop class at NYU freshman year, I wrote a paper about working in the flea markets growing up. My friend who was reading my paper made the comment “that’s such a sad way to grow up, you didn’t get to have a childhood”.
I told her I was grateful for how I grew up. Growing up working in the family business taught me so much that very few people my age would have been exposed to. Besides teaching me the value of money and work ethic, it gave me ‘street smarts’ … it taught me how to be savvy.
Watching my parents build and manage their business, from how they interacted with customers to choosing what merchandise to sell, has taught me more about business than any MBA ever could. I learned how to negotiate, build relationships, make money, and arguably most importantly, how not to get screwed.
My parents are immigrants and built their lives in America from almost nothing. At an early age, the value of a dollar was instilled. We were efficient with money and only bought things when they were on sale. Every Sunday I sat with my Mom as she looked through the grocery store circulars and helped her cut coupons.
We made things go farther and found ways to do more with less. I was scolded for being wasteful, paper towels were rinsed and reused, containers were washed and repurposed, and I was expected to happily finish everything on my plate no matter how long it took. I sat at the dining table a really long time some nights.
Another valuable resource that was not to be wasted was time. My father worked a full time job on top of the family business he and my mother ran. Everyone chipped in where they could. My sister, almost 10 years older than me, carried the responsibility of babysitting me and my brother until she left for college.
When she did, my father switched his schedule at work to the early shift, leaving for work at 5AM so that he could pick me and my brother up from school. He’d then drive us to our family store to relieve my mom so she could head home to make us dinner. That was Monday – Friday. On the weekends, we set up stands in flea markets and street fairs. Sometimes our family worked all together, sometimes we worked in 3 different locations.
When I started this site, I struggled with what to write in the ‘About Me’ section that would give readers context about what qualifies me as someone ‘savvy’ and worth investing time in. I started off with a generic bio, but quickly ruled it out, it didn’t tell my story.
I felt different growing up, and I still feel different, because I am different. Over the years, and now as an adult, I’m constantly defying misconceived perceptions based on assumptions people tend to make about someone who works on Wall St., lives in Manhattan, and travels as much as I do.
People just don’t take the time to get to know one another nowadays. In a society where information is so readily available, it’s something I haven’t been able to grasp. Perhaps it’s that people are too focused on the next thing, and perhaps this is more prevalent in the circles I am exposed to working in banking and living in NYC…
But for me, understanding what molds someone is really important. At work, it makes me a more effective manager, and more generally in life, I think I’m able to be more empathetic and compassionate, enabling me to manage relationships and situations better, whether it be how to help an upset friend, or how to deal with a subpar contracting job.
My brother and I talk about this a lot, and when reflecting on our own lives, two specific influences that we agree have molded us into the people we are today: 1) growing up selling watches and 2) our parent’s story.
My family immigrated to the US in 1979. They were known as ‘boat people’. (Click here for an article from 1979).
After the war ended, the Viet Cong forced men who had been government officials in the South Vietnamese government into re-education camps. My father having been a first lieutenant prepared to leave my pregnant mother and sister, 3 years old at the time, for what he thought would be ten days.
Two years later, my father met his new baby daughter for the first time after the camps finally allowed visitors to bring food and supplies to the detainees. My father was finally released after spending a total of 31 months in the re-education camp.
After the fall of Saigon, the VC confiscated things from people in the South. Everything my parents worked to rebuild, the VC would just take away. Like many other Vietnamese people, my parents decided that if they had any hope for a better life, they had no choice but to try to leave Vietnam.
The rich were able to leave the country safely by commercial boats, but for many, including my family, the only choice was a dangerous journey on a small fishing boat. My family saved enough money to arrange for a trip and in October 1978, my family got into a truck with 40 others and drove 150 miles from Saigon to board a boat jammed packed, like sardines, my father would tell you.
After four days with no food and little water, the boat arrived to a small remote island of Malaysia. My second sister, age 3 by this time, did not survive the journey and my parents were forced to throw her body overboard. My mother used material from her clothes to wrap my sister’s body but without anything to weigh her down, she remained afloat and washed on to shore where my father was able to put her to rest.
They stayed on the island where they had little supplies or food for 5.5 months until they received word one day from the Red Cross that they were being allowed to immigrate to the US. With one-way tickets to JFK and the clothes on their backs, my family made their way to America to start their new lives.
As much as I love to travel, aside from hitting the jackpot, I will never quit my day job to travel the world. Not out of fear or lack of desire, but out of respect for the sacrifices my parents have made to provide me the life I have today.
When I research for trips I’m planning I often come across blogs from people who have become career travelers. I also find tons of sites and blogs specializing in luxury travel, or backpacking, but I don’t find a lot of help or guidance on general advice for what most of us are, people who love to travel, but only get a couple of weeks a year to make the most out of.
I’m fortunate enough to have the ability to take a couple of pretty cool trips a year. When I come home from these trips I share pictures with co-workers and friends, and many are awed. It’s harder when you have kids, but often I get responses that they can’t take these trips, it’s too much work, it costs too much, etc. Trip planning is really not as daunting as it may seem, and there are so many points and rewards programs that can be leveraged to help bring down costs.
People tend to over-complicate things which costs time and money, precious resources my family couldn’t waste. My parents taught me how to do more with less, the value of working hard, but more importantly, the value of working smart.
When I’m not traveling, my work schedule can be quite intense. Despite demanding hours, I tend to cook most of my meals; breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’ve figured out methods that are efficient from a time and cost perspective. Friends tell me that they don’t know how I do it, and don’t believe that the dishes I post pictures of only take 20-30 min… one night with me and I prove them wrong.
My savviness is truly a by-product of my upbringing and my parent’s encouragement to be smarter, stronger, and above all else, grateful for what I have. I hope my stories inspire you to live savvier.