Poor Woman with a Rich Man’s Vernacular
Content Note: The following essay will unpack my experiences of intergenerational poverty. I do not intend to perpetuate poverty porn; rather, I aim to explore classism through examples of my lived experiences and debunk unspoken social expectations and discomforts around being ‘poor’. This is my story of de-shaming a tale as old as time through the voice of an eldest immigrant daughter.
The following essay also refers or covers themes of intergenerational trauma, abuse, cancer, epistemic violence (trauma porn in academia), unmarked residential school graves, war, and death.
Exercising self-care is advised.
I grew up economically poor but culturally rich. My parents were both scholarship students born into intergenerational poverty. My siblings and I were fortunate to be raised in a household that valued critical thinking, civic participation, and artistic explorations.
That said, life wasn’t always peachy.
When we think of poverty, it’s often reduced to discourse between the haves and the have-nots. While that thesis is central to class struggle, what often isn’t discussed is the insidious ways poverty robs people of our humanity.
The more marginalized you are, the smaller your margin of error.
My Malay grandmother lost her mom at the age of 8 and left elementary school. She was parentified and became the family caretaker. Wan resented her illiteracy and watched her siblings achieve social mobility. She pushed my mom, the eldest daughter, beyond her limits.
Intergenerational trauma met with intergenerational resentment.
Intergenerational mommy issues and mother wounds.
I am the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter. I began babysitting at the age of 8. It was expected of me to help my brother with homework because neither of my parents spoke French. I resented them for sending me to French Immersion school with the expectation I would have straight As without a tutor but expected me to tutor my brother. I resented my mom for being softer on my brother without acknowledging he had me to lean on.
My tiger mom dismissed my grievances.
“What? You think you’re special?!” she often yelled.
But I am special.
I began juggling 4 languages at the age of six and the first in my family to be raised as a mixed-race diaspora with no cultural community or external family in post-9/11 Turtle Island. My parents were raised in their respective homelands as monoracial individuals. Neither of them could relate to my hyper-hybridized experience.
To ‘have-not’ is not limited to money. My parents came to Canada with no social capital. I had no elders or role models to advocate for me. And because Mak chose to be a stay-at-home mom, I didn’t have any examples of a working woman in my life.
My tiger mom’s expectations were unattainable. She wanted middle class results without accepting our working class realities and compounded traumas.
The more marginalized you are, the smaller your margin of error.
The struggle to survive made life feel like walking on a tightrope with no safety net. Like the glass episode in Squid Game, at any moment we could fall through the shattered glass. This fear was passed down intergenerationally and manifested in physical, verbal, emotional abuse and neglect.
I was 14 when Baba was diagnosed with cancer. Israa, my baby sister, was 1 year old. On days when Baba had chemotherapy and Mak couldn’t find a sitter, I would skip school to watch Israa so she could accompany him to the hospital.
My workaholism dates back to this period of my adolescence. I remember Baba in pain and still pushing himself to run the store. I remember using the water from the bucket we left under the leaking sink to flush the toilet to save money. I remember the snobby French Immersion students making value judgements about me because of the clothes I wore.
At 16, I scrubbed bathrooms for pocket money. I daydreamed about leaving London while blasting hip hop songs in my headphones to feel the fantasy of breaking free of poverty. I secretly wanted to use my earnings for singing lessons but the guilt of Baba’s cancer diagnosis directed me to put it towards university.
For three years, I volunteered for the university fair, collected catalogues, and made notes of the different programs offered. Western was not the school of my choice. In fact, it wasn’t a school I wanted to apply to at all.
My tiger mom guilted me by saying: “Don’t be selfish. You’re not an only child. You have to think of your siblings. ”
I didn’t have the courage to rebel at the time so I surrendered and became a student at a racist institution known as Western University.
My first love, Elie, my high school best friend, moved back to Korea after her first semester at Western. I planned to visit her and wanted to appreciate Korean culture. I enrolled in Korean 101, the sixth language on my roster.
“I’m sorry, I have family obligations, my mom needs me to babysit my sister,” I said with internalized shame to my Korean professor during tutorial.
To my surprise, my prof, a Korean woman, responded with warmth and didn’t judge my absence. I fell behind in Korean class and I sabotaged myself into thinking my prof pitted me and was generous with my grades. Out of embarrassment, I didn’t enrol in second year Korean.
At 12, I dreamed of being a director but by 18 I thought being a diplomat was the better career path for achieving social mobility. I speak multiple languages so I figured it was a good fit. While I scored straight As in my global development seminars, it became clear to me grades had very little to do with ‘success’. UN internships were unpaid and the students in my class who could live in New York without worrying about rent came from a lifestyle alien to me.
I worked as a library assistant as part of my financial aid package. During my shifts, I overheard my classmates say: “Yeah, I’m not gonna write tomorrow’s midterm, it’s only worth 15%”. My work ethic wasn’t going to advance me in a world of Western nepotism.
Consequently, I double majored with media studies thinking I could use my global studies knowledge to make documentaries.
My media studies professors were the most phoney. I enrolled in Documentary Media with excitement. One evening, our professor, a white NYU grad, screened The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer. He gave us the wikipedia description: “a 2012 documentary film about individuals who participated in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66”, but didn’t factor in the need for safety and impacts of colonial racial trauma.
The closest I had to a cultural community in London was Mak’s Indonesian friends. Bahasa Melayu to Bahasa Indonesia was like Spanish to Portuguese. I couldn’t understand all the words but I could make sense of the sentiment behind the syntax.
The most haunting moment was when the soundtrack cut to songs I grew up hearing in the kitchen.
I became hypervigilant while watching the screening. My fingers were trembling so I placed my pen down. I scanned the room to observe my peers’ reactions. They scribbled down notes. I turned my gaze to my professor who gluttonously ate it all up.
The disgust I felt in that moment was the same disgust I felt watching the sex scene in Parasite.
When the screening ended, he gleamed about the filmmaker’s genius. There was no aftercare. There was no recognition of the traumatizing nature of the film. I was the only student in the sea of white that had ancestral roots in Southeast Asia.
I dropped out of the class because of the nature of this epistemic violence. It was too painful for me to return to lecture after watching that film with no critical discussion of trauma porn and fetishization of violence.
I hated — Yes, hated, every aspect of Western’s “student experience”. Wallahi, I wish I could say I didn’t participate in party culture was because ‘I am a good Muslim girl’ but truthfully, I didn’t participate because of classism.
Party days were money making days.
On HOCO or Saint Pattys, drunk students would walk in our store to buy snacks, chase, cigarettes. I dreaded having to manage pathetic privilege kids’ shameful behaviour. I shamed drunk frat boys who took our cucumbers to play with as swords by saying: “If you’re not going to buy it put it down. Stop embarrassing yourself, I have a store to run!”
Baba’s store was my primary social location for understanding the intersections of class, race, and gender. I observed Arab ethnocentrism by making the mental comparisons of how Arabs customers treated Baba versus how they treated me. I observed sexism by comparing how customers treated me versus my younger brother. And I observed classism by way of the dehumanizing treatment we experienced from customers who thought they were better than us.
While working at the store, I felt it was a cage. Now that I’m free from the immediate discriminations, I now see it as a window. The store served as a site for me to analyze social customs.
I learned from Baba when you come from nothing your character is your currency.
People talk so maintaining relationships and loyalty is integral to sustaining our family business.
“The worst is business you don’t know you lost,” he said to me in response to a customer telling us they walk the extra blocks to our store because the convenience store in their neighbourhood shortchanges customers.
My regulars taught me a lot about character and class.
The silver fox in the fancy suit regularly bought 2 DuMurier Silvers and was polite on the surface but I knew his “how are you?” was an empty question designed to fill dead air. Whenever I answered, he replied with “uhm, aha,” and intuitively I knew it was in one ear and out the other.
Our store is situated in an interesting part of London. Right off the 2 line, Western students frequented the store as it was on the way to and from campus. The neighbourhood itself, discounting the gentrified student housing, had its rough patches with the locals who relied on social assistance and struggled with substance abuse. Verbal harassment, theft, and racist remarks were the unfortunate reality we experienced with the majority white-disenfranchised folks. Despite these adversities, Baba taught us to support the regulars who kindly asked to put their items on a tab until their checks came in at the end of the month. He also gave me freedom to kick out any customer that gave me a ‘hard’ time. Unlike my other customer service jobs, I had autonomy to protect my dignity as Baba told us the customer is not always right.
One of my regulars was an indigenous woman who often bought pastries called flakies. She had a sweet demeanour and we would have conversations when the store was empty. Whenever she was short on change she always returned to the store to pay off the remaining cents. I admired her integrity because I often forgot the moments she was a few cents short.
On a cold winter day, she bought her flakies and took a moment to zip her jacket. Two Western frat boys came to the counter after she left and told me she stole the flakies.
I was shocked.
“Did you actually see her steal them?” I asked sternly.
“We saw her put them in her jacket and walk out,” they responded arrogantly.
“She paid before you walked in,” I asserted.
“Oh? Why would you think she stole? Because you saw her panhandling you made the assumption?!” I said angrily.
“No. You’re racist. That’s not cool. Please leave,” I said sternly.
What disgusted me most about the interaction was their arrogance and cowardice. The Western white boys wanted to ‘feel’ like good guys for outing her but they also waited until she left to speak. It was perhaps the clearest example of Canadian cowardice I had experienced to date. Their racism insidiously masked by their aggrandizing saviourism. A memory I find myself circling back to when reflecting on Canadian benevolence and arrogance.
What do white people think of me when I’m not in the room? I found myself wondering alongside that memory.
Upon graduating, I made the courageous leap to attend a summer film program in Toronto. I knew I wasn’t going to have parental support in the decision so I cashed in on my benefits while working for the bank. I took out a loan with the lowest industry rate and I submitted my resignation letter once the money entered my account. I landed a sublet on Bay Street (which became the subject of Imposter, one of my silent film assignments) and told my parents about leaving for Toronto after locking in all the logistics.
“You’re abandoning the family! You’re abandoning your sister! If you call me, I will not answer the phone!” Baba yelled in response to my revelation.
“I did my time! I served my sentence! You promised me if I went to Western I could leave London after!” I yelled back.
I left the store with hyperventilating tears. With the support of my friends, I packed up and moved to Toronto for the summer.
Working at the store robbed me of my exploration of feminine expression. Perverts would make remarks on days when I wore hoodies with nothing on my face but moisturizer and chapstick. I played into my own internalized sexism by thinking if I ‘feminized’ myself, I would be perceived as unintelligent. I learned to adopt bro-code to assert my dominance and challenge the male gaze.
My Toronto summer of 2017 was my summer of creative expression. I felt like an imposter while subletting a bougie condo on Bay Street. Fancy vocabulary and creativity masked my class position while also paying tribute to my artistic self-expression. My face served as a canvass for my make up experiments. I collected 75% off dresses to wear at art galas and film functions. Being conventionally attractive while spitting theory allowed me to navigate spaces that we designed to exclude working class women like me.
“You don’t need make up,” men told me.
Speak for yourself. Who said anything about “need”. I’m perfectly content with my face. Make up is an extension of expression, and yes, sometimes an expression of my vanity, but also a flex of my skills that I worked hard to acquire.
Jackie versus Marilyn? Well, that’s an unfair comparison.
I’m not one to pit women against each other as they’re both pathologized by patriarchy and misogyny. But if I had to pick a team it would be Marilyn in honor of her hustle.
Before “hustler” was co-opted to glorify internalized productivity and justify the sexification of late stage capitalism, its etymology or origins eluded to “thief” in 1825. In 1884, it meant “sense of “one who is energetic in work or business” — bear in mind it wasn’t a positive connotation in this period as it referred to drug dealers, mobster, and mafioso types. Patriarchy and the virgin-whore dichotomy metamorphosed the word to extend its definition to “prostitute” by 1924 before its contemporary take.
The contemporary term is fitting if you think about it. Selling bodies and selling drugs are about as entrepreneurial as it gets. Just look at the North American military industrial complex and big Pharma.
Killing one person is murder.
Killing one hundred thousand is (foreign) policy. Non?
Exploitation is just a fancy way of saying theft of humanity.
Are settler-colonizers not hustlers? Are colonizers not thieves?
I resent(ed) the ruling class for their mastery of re-branding their demons, death, and destruction.
I resent(ed) the middle class for their arrogant ignorance of buying the bullshit.
As a simple metaphor: If the ruling class were the popular kids and bullies of an All-American high school, the middle class would be the pathetic wannabes who participate in upholding the hierarchy or the nerdy bystanders who foolishly think if they stay silent they won’t be the next target #modelminorities, meanwhile the working class are the school rejects who get senselessly bullied, excluded, and neglected.
There’s power in numbers.
Together, we could challenge the bullies and popular kids but the middle class and model minorities have a lot of unlearning to do.
“Poor people need to work harder” is the biggest lie ever told.
The more marginalized you are, the smaller your margin of error. So really, there’s little to no room for error.
In my experience playing double agent in white collar spaces, I haven’t found white collar work ethic to be particularly remarkable or the average corporate worker’s intelligence to be particularly memorable. I’ve just found that corporations/organizations have successfully weaponized shame to scare workers into submission and settle for less while demanding more. I observed negligence, incompetence, gaslighting and deceit as commonalities.
I have yet to meet a Bay Street Bro with Big Brain energy.
Fake til you make it? Well what if you don’t make it? Then you’re left being fake.
Privilege to me means the power to outsource discomfort.
Without ever even mentioning the days Baba had cancer, I sensed discomfort any time I referenced a whiff of poverty and struggle to members of the white collar world.
“Male fragility”. “White fragility”. Well, what about class fragility?
Would there be so much fragility if Canadian society wasn’t met with collective coddling?
White collar spaces also have perhaps the most unoriginal and culture-less conversations I’ve had the displeasure of participating in. Networking spaces with vastly empty conversations about dogs, cottages, and sports.
I don’t like dogs.
No one in my immediate social network owns a cottage.
And I don’t watch sports.
So, I found myself unsuccessfully working a traditional networking event.
In my transnational privileged experience of travelling, I’ve found Canadians as a collective to not have mastered the art of conversation. By analyzing speech patterns, I’ve found that Canadians collectively use a restrictive range of vocabulary. Our words and expressions lack colour and vibrancy.
Canadians are known for having more conversations about the weather than our own politics. We arrogantly participate in the spectacle of American politics while brushing off our entitled ignorance with: “it’s worse south of the border”.
“Canadians are polite”?
Well, to me, not necessarily.
It’s Passivity passed as Politeness.
And it is in that passivity that we mask our demons and destructions.
White snow and white lies blanketing over indigenous children’s bodies.
Histories of genocide told through the lies of benevolence and saviourism.
The so-called first world: a psychological horror film.
A world where billionaires can fly to the moon and houseless folks are left on their own devices on -23 nights.
Mediocrity masked as Meritocracy. Most people I’ve met in the white collar world simply got lucky and won the generational wealth lottery.
And yet their arrogance and entitlement have them foolishly thinking they’re better than people like me.
It’s high time the Western world honoured humility. I’m tired of managing emotions and playing mommy.
I am an eldest immigrant daughter.
A poor woman with a rich man’s vernacular pivoting between blue collar bluntness and ivory tower elitism.
At 6, I juggled 4 languages.
By 19, 4 languages expanded to 6.
At 23, I led an equity advocacy education group.
At 24, I broke free of parental expectations and left for summer film school. At 24, I returned to London with my tail between my legs because I wasn’t landing jobs and couldn’t afford Toronto rent.
At 25, I managed a municipal campaign. At 25, white feminists sabotaged my team’s efforts.
At 26, I produced a web series. At 26, racialized misogyny destroyed my dreams of directing.
At 27, I owned my first Queen size bed upon relocating to Toronto. At 27, my creative partner betrayed me due to jealousy and emotional immaturity.
At 28, I was displaced for 10 weeks. At 28, I experienced precarity due to poverty.
“It’s not polite to talk about money” the Western world told me.
Well, we can’t eat etiquette now can we?