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May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and this occasion has prompted me to reflect about what it means to identify as AAPI and how that impacts my daily life.
Previously, I haven’t shared much about how my AAPI identity relates to the world of personal finance, but I think it’s time that changed.
My parents and I were born in China. When I was three years old, we left in search of better pastures. My father is a professor and received postings around the world — including in two different countries in Europe — before arriving in the U.S. about 25 years ago. My mother and I moved with him each time. She was a stay-at-home mom until I turned 10, then she went to work full-time as well.
I saw firsthand from my parents what it meant to apply cultural values from our Chinese background to succeed. My parents never let their immigrant status stop them from doing their best. They painstakingly learned how to speak different languages as working adults, emphasized the importance of education, and encouraged me to get good grades so I could attend a good university and get a good job.
Phrases like “the early bird eats the worm” and “work hard and you will be successful” were common around our house. My parents weren’t afraid to talk about earning and investing money, and were transparent about money with me from a young age. They hoped I would perpetuate the immigrant dream and become wealthy, which would give their hard work meaning and worth.
With their guidance, as well as financial support for college, I gained financial literacy and the tools to be financially independent at a very young age. My 20s were spent working in management consulting, then in technology, and corporate retail. I made above-average income in all of my careers, and I saved and invested every penny from my side hustle — a wedding photography business — which made about $200,000 in profit over 10 years. I saved and invested this money in index funds that I held in work-sponsored retirement accounts, IRAs, and taxable brokerage accounts. I reached millionaire status and the ability to be work optional in my early 30s.
But while working at my first job, I realized that some of what my parents had taught me would be counterproductive to my personal finance goals. I knew there were three components to building wealth: saving money, investing money, and increasing the gap between income and expenses. This last component led me to learn skills of self-advocacy, taking big risks in entrepreneurship, and being brave enough to buck the trend.
All of these traits go against the very grain of Chinese culture that had been fed to me for decades. To continue building my wealth, I had to begin the process of “unlearning” a few lessons my parents had taught me — and gained new insights along the way.
Accomplishments Can’t Speak for Themselves — You Need to Self-Advocate to Get Ahead
Growing up, I was discouraged from boasting about what I accomplished. “Your merit and your accomplishments should speak for themselves,” my father would remind me. I can see from their cultural background why my parents would shy away from standing out. They survived brutal periods in China’s Communist history, where you survived by not speaking out against the government and just did as you were told. To survive was to blend in.
However, I grew up in the democratic country of the U.S. and my entire working life has taken place here. I witnessed at my workplace how co-workers who learned to speak up during a meeting with senior leaders were praised for their courage, and promoted more quickly than me.
I had to unlearn the values of being a quiet, good person, and learn to self-advocate, promote my own capabilities, and get guidance when things become difficult. I learned about power dynamics and gained sponsors at work — people who not only mentor you, but go out of their way to make sure you get good opportunities.
Eventually, I overcame my shy tendencies and learned to enjoy speaking in front of an audience. I was coached on my executive presence, and now speak in front of CEOs and senior board directors as part of my daily work life. None of this felt natural — it felt in some ways that I was shedding a part of my identity — but it was all necessary to get ahead in my career.
The Risky, Unknown Path Can Lead to Success
My parents always hoped that I would end up being a doctor or engineer. I’m sure many immigrant Asian-Americans can relate to this, as both careers are a very safe path. Doctors and engineers are well-paid, well-educated, and can pass on many comforts to their children. However, the thought of cadaver class ruled out being a doctor for me, and I wasn’t interested enough in the hard sciences to become an engineer.
The wild world of business was my choice, and I wanted to become an entrepreneur in my early twenties. My first venture was a wedding and portrait photography business. My parents were very much against it. They felt it was a waste of my time, education, and money. They didn’t like that I would need to hustle for every client. They were scared for me.
Every sale I made and every rejection I faced was a new experience. I learned to develop thick skin and “pound the pavement” like the high school kids I saw selling Cutco knives or passing out non-profit fliers in busy cities. I had to focus on marketing myself, which is something that wasn’t talked about in my Chinese upbringing. My business ended up being very successful and I sustained it for 10 years before focusing on other priorities.
Buck the Consumption Trend and Make Your Own Goals
By many measures, I would have been considered very successful by my mid-20s. I reached a six-figure salary in my day job, which was in technology at the time, my side business as a wedding photographer was profitable, I graduated from two top schools, and I was about to be married.
My parents figured that I should be enjoying life and the finer things. Then my husband and I made the radical decision to become extra-frugal so that we could reach a 50% savings rate, invest, and reach early retirement.
This was such a foreign concept to my parents. In the Chinese culture, if you’re financially successful, you exhibit this success through a nice house, nice cars, designer clothes, designer handbags, and fine dining. While my husband and I could afford those things, we chose not to indulge. That lifestyle didn’t make sense for us.
My parents were dismayed to find out that I cooked frozen foods, avoided eating expensive meats and seafood, took public transportation instead of cabs and Ubers, bought used clothes, stayed in hostels often when traveling abroad, and kept a minimalist wardrobe, among many other habits, to reach our savings rate.
Within about five years of adopting these new frugal habits, we successfully accelerated our savings and reached the ability to be work optional. This meant that a few years later I could focus on our family by taking a one-year maternity leave, then transition to working part-time in early 2021, without ever worrying about finances. My husband and I made these very intentional choices because family and community mattered more to us than conspicuous consumption.
In many ways, my upbringing was traditionally Chinese-American, and when I became an adult, I had to find a voice and identity that took my ethnic background into account, and evolve it to help me achieve my goals.
It wasn’t easy to balance the desire to honor and respect the good lessons my parents taught me with the need to stand on my own in a competitive American private industry. However, if I hadn’t unlearned some of these Chinese values, I’m not sure that I would have reached my goals in such a short amount of time.
I don’t regret the evolution and unlearning I had to do, and appreciate that I did a lot of these things while being completely scared about losing a piece of myself. I learned that it’s okay to be scared, and to not always know what will come next.