Badge of Shame (#33)

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My Chinese-American boyfriend’s birthday came less than a month after we started dating. I got him a polo shirt, carefully cut off the tags, and wrapped it up in tissue paper. Andy opened it, thanked me, and sat in expectant silence.

I asked, “Do you like it?”

“It’s very nice. Soft.” Andy patted the material and looked at me again.

“Did I get the size right?”

Andy inspected the tag and nodded.

I said, “Um, I know it’s not a color you usually wear, but I think it’ll look nice.”

“Oh, yeah.”

More silence.

I said, “I know it’s, um, not a big present or anything, but well, we haven’t been together very long.”

Andy nodded. “That’s true.”

“Of course,” I mused, “My birthday is in four months, and of course by then we will be serious enough to give really expensive presents.”

Andy balled up some tissue paper and threw it at me. We moved onto birthday cake, but I was left with the nagging sense that he was waiting for me to say something else about his present. I just didn’t know what.

*********************

Growing up, I was acutely aware that there was not enough money in my family. It wasn’t a secret. I got free school lunches for a couple years, though I tried to pretend I paid for them like my classmates. If any kid needed money for a field trip, my dad painstakingly counted it out from the loose change that he kept on top of his dresser. This was so excruciating for Big Brother that he quit bringing home permission slips and skipped field trips altogether. (Yes, yes — for everyone who has been paying attention, OF COURSE this explains why Big Brother wound up a Senior Vice President at Bank of America.)

My dad went to private school, my mother was a freakin’ debutante. They were the country-club set. Until they got married young, my mom dropped out of college, and they had a ridiculous number of kids. Back then, there was no TLC show for idiots attempting to overpopulate the planet. My parents discovered that life was hard when no one hands you a reality show romanticizing the crap out of large families. There was an ugly divorce.   There was my mom trying to finish college and get through law school – while having MORE children with her second husband who was also in law school.   Meanwhile, my dad struggled to find work in the ever-shifting political landscape of DC. He, too, remarried, and then also had more kids because he was doing such a great job supporting the existing kids.

BIRTH CONTROL, young people. FAMILY PLANNING. I cannot stress this enough.

My sibs and I all knew that money was tight, but in true Anglo-Saxon fashion, we instinctively knew we were NEVER supposed to let on that we were not as comfortable as our middle class neighbors. Shame and secrets are an integral part of the repressed WASP heritage. So if young Doc Sis cried over being called “Safeway Shoes,” or I hid my “Kmart boots” in the back of the closet, we did it silently. At least we mostly had enough food. Mostly.

If there was ever a time for coupons, it was my childhood. Yet coupons were out of the question. My parents couldn’t keep up the charade of plenty by using coupons. Coupons were an admission that you needed a discount. Coupons were a badge of shame.

The first time I woke up to see Andy going at the papers and magazines with the scissors on Saturday morning, I freaked out.

“OH MY GOD. Did you get laid off?”

Andy came over and waved a hand in front of my face. “Are you awake?”

I shoved his hand away. “Yes. What are you doing?”

“Getting ready to go shopping.”

“When you’ve just been laid off?”

“You need some coffee.” He headed to the kitchen and yelled back, “Did you have a bad dream I got fired? Or did you think I was looking through the ‘Help Wanted’ section?”

“I thought you were clipping coupons.”

Andy came back with coffee and a perplexed look. “I am. Can’t go shopping without coupons.”

“Seriously? Always?”

“Well, yeah. Since I was a kid. I learned from my mom and Popo. Found a coupon that saved Popo five dollars once. She was so proud.”

I drank my coffee and tried to wrap my head around this.  Andy went back to cutting.

After a few minutes, he whipped out his phone. “Hey, did you know you can get this Paw Points thing for coupons and free kitty litter from Fresh Step? Want me to sign up Bat Cat and Commando Cat via email?”

“Oh…um, no, that’s okay. I’m not into coupons.”

“WHAT?! But you could save more than $3.00 on every box of litter!”

“Nah.”

Andy gaped. He couldn’t even process this idea. “But, but — it’s like…giving money away!”

And there it was. Truth, staring me in my proud, white face. Coupons weren’t a badge of shame. They were a badge of smarts.

I signed my cats up for Paw Points. I collected coupons. And when I gave Andy a leather jacket for Christmas and he looked at me expectantly, I knew what to say.

“I got it at the outlet mall. Half price!”

Andy gave me a huge smile. “Good job, honey!”

“Yeah, but that’s not all! They were having a 20% off sale!”

“No way!”

“Yes, but wait! I had 30% off coupon!”

“They let you use it?  On a sale item?”

“Yes! And, get this, there was NO SALES TAX!”

Andy put on the jacket, pulled me into a hug, and spun me around the room: “Best gift EVER, honey!”

 Hooray for coupons.

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Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

33 thoughts on “Badge of Shame (#33)”

  1. Thank you so much for making me stare my own lower-middle-class attitudes in the face. (I’m not even sure I’m being sarcastic here.)

    I’m also amused to note that if your parents had practiced family planning, I wouldn’t be leaving this comment, but PSCS and I are practicing the hell out of it and will continue to after we are married.

    1. Oh, no. My parents (especially my mother) were staunchly *pro* coupon, because they did not grow up “lower-middle-class.” They grew up poor.

      The anti-coupon thing is entirely mine. I’m lazy by nature, I grew up in a suburb, and I Hold Advanced Degrees, which means I should not need coupons. I am, of course, wrong.

  2. Yeah. Poor will give you perspective. Andy’s mom talks about how great it was when her family worked in the bean sprout factory in Hong Kong. Because there were at least plenty of bean sprouts to eat.

  3. Great contrast of attitudes. Since coupons seem like too much work for me, I just look for sales and try not to buy too much.

    My Chinese husband came from a somewhat prosperous family, but he also lived on almost nothing and suffered malnutrition during the Japanese occupation. So I’m not sure how to categorize his background. But he did like to clip coupons and hunt for sales. (Maybe it’s a Chinese thing.)

  4. My wife and I got into couponing for a while. We made a game out of it and were so into it that sometimes we had to argue with the cashiers over which coupons could be doubled, tripled up. It was time consuming, but during those months we didn’t spend any money on toothpaste, shampoo, and other grooming products.

    A Chinese friend of mine would only buy stuff at more than 40% off retail, and he scoured the web for coupons. He was so disciplined about it that whenever his wife received a gift, her first question was, “did you get this for free again?”

    1. Ha! Sebastian, I totally empathize with the wife here. To Andy, it’s not a gift unless it was also a “deal.” But to me, I was always thinking, “What? You got me a gift on sale? Am I not worth FULL PRICE?!” I think that attitude lasted until we had a joint checking account.

  5. Great post! When my husband met me, he was shocked how I was getting all these great deals. I got this habit from my grandmother who was poor and had a hard life. I say the same thing about the gifts for my husband. Haha. “Did you know that it’s 70% percent with an extra $$ off?” He looked at the price, ‘How can that be?!” Or when we have a coupon for food, I say to him, “That sandwich you’re eating – it’s free.” Haha.

    1. Hey, Eileen! Wow, so you and your Chinese (Taiwanese?) husband are the opposite of Andy and me. Is this grandmother from Maine? My Boyfriend-Stealing Baby Sister, New Hampshire native, is a most relentless coupon queen. Her Badge of Shame would be paying even half-price!

  6. Nicki, long after Andy and I got together, I discovered that the Chinese had a reputation as bargain hunters. I don’t know whether it’s cultural, or a survival skill, an outdated stereotype, or a combination of all of the above, but here’s one story:

    I had one girlfriend who was Korean-American, and another who was Japanese-American, and they laughed hysterically at my cluelessness when I mentioned Andy’s startling couponing skills. They quickly brought me up to speed on Asian stereotypes: in LA, the Korean-Americans are known for their “bling,” while the Japanese-Americans are known for their exquisite politeness. Meanwhile, they informed me that the Chinese-Americans were known for being the “Jews of Asia.” This was interesting, but also troubling on many, many politically incorrect or even racist levels.

    I went back to Andy and asked if he thought there was any truth to these stereotypes. He was outraged: “Are you kidding me? That is all messed up. China was around long before Israel! It should be said that the JEWS are the CHINESE of the Middle East!”

    1. Autumn, Andy makes me laugh. That sounds so Chinese. When we lived in the Philippines, my husband commented several times on the similarities between Chinese and Jews and their long history in trade and business in that part of the world.

      1. Yeah, although in the case of Europe, many/ most trades were closed to people of the Jewish faith. If Jews were not expelled directly from a country, the attitude of their countrymen was often: “Here, you can be…a money lender! What? You want to charge me interest?! I shall call you a ‘cheap bastard’ and mock your entire faith. Shakespeare! Be my PR man and get on this!”

        1. I think the major similarity b/w Jews and Chinese is there diaspora. Besides Israel, Jews reside in many Western and Middle Eastern countries. On bigger scale,..besides China, Chinese are the majority in HK, Taiwan, Singapore and have significant population in most Southeast Asian countries (e.g. about 40% of Thais have some Chinese ancestry) and a few Western ones.

          1. That’s a good point, PT — but in the case of the Chinese, wasn’t it more of a case of immigration? The diaspora of those of the Jewish faith was often forced — the pogroms of Russia, the expulsion from Spain, for example.

            But I could easily be short of information regarding Chinese history. I think I only took Part I in college, ending before 1500 AD. Now I’m off to hunt for stories of mass expulsion in China…

  7. After four months we will be serious enough to buy expensive presents? Did you really say that? HAHAHA!

    We don’t have this coupon culture in Spain or China, but I do definitely love a bargain 😀

  8. This post is so awesome! I love it… and it’s so true!!

    My Chinese boyfriend would never pay full price for anything (unless it’s shoes, mattress or food, he says). I guess the Chinese like to bargain for a reason, huh? I swear, I bet bargaining and shopping on a budget is a national pastime for China.

    My aunt (who is also Asian, Vietnamese) is actually pretty well-to-do. Still, she clips coupons every weekend and ONLY buys things if she has a deal on it (like those crazy Macy discount cards). While I don’t know how much she’s actually worth (millions, probably), most people would probably think she’s just an average little Asian lady. I guess she probably made all those millions from all those years of coupon cutting, haha.

  9. I just burst out laughing (mostly because of one of the comments where you mentioned the Jews and the Chinese). Oh, yeah. China people would argue over the price so much. xDD

    By the way, he was first staring at you and waiting for you to say something because he was hoping you got his first gift on discount? o.o (In here, we try not to say what were the costs of the gifts we are giving away. xDD)

  10. A friend told me about a dinner he had long time ago. When the check came at the end of the dinner, one of the attendees slapped on a 2 for 1 coupon and expected it to be payment for his share.

  11. This is so true! Usually my Chinese fiance and his family are quite pleased with my purchases because I too am into value for money but I made a very “white person mistake” recently when I purchased a gift for someone at work. I bought a clock with something humorous written on it online, I knew it was overpriced but it was a gift and it was funny so I bought it. My fiance looked at me in shock – you bought THAT for XX amount of money??! It would have only cost a few dollars to make. That is minus a thousand Asian points!! He then put a battery in it only to discover that it didn’t work. I thought I was going to have to send it back but he got his engineer on and took it apart, fixed it, and put it back together (muttering that his time was worth way more than I paid for the stupid clock that didn’t even work). I think we both won in the end though because I find his ability to fix things super attractive and I am pretty sure he secretly loves fixing things (he often looks at me and says “why did I choose to be with someone with SO many problems!!”)

  12. I am also proud of you. 😀
    It is impossible to get so many discounts here, or use so many coupons at once.
    They show it on TV how to go coupon shopping in the US haha.
    When I was in NY, I also got addicted and fished for any possible discount, and I did great. 😀

    Mr. Panda is also a pro to find anything for the most cheap price possible. I am always so amazed. I just tell him what I want, and a few days later he finds it at least -20% somewhere. O_O

  13. I know, those Extreme Couponing shows are crazy. I’m not sure it’s worth the time it takes.

    But now, if I’m ordering something online, I’m hunting through Retailmenot to make sure there are no coupons.

  14. Well not all Chinese collects coupons(but they do go for sales and discounted items)….because shops (or supermarkets in our case) are run by Chinese, and Chinese companies never giives coupons to their customers (well, rarely) ….

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