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Pet Sins July 2001

When recycling and maximizing resources is seen as pathology - an unexpected culture clash

Through my work, I met many people from various countries, and became friends with some of them. Not surprisingly, when people from different countries come to the US as expatriates or as immigrants, there will be culture shock. Some of my friends have related their experiences with adapting to American society. Surprisingly, the recurring cause of conflict/disagreement I've heard from different foreigners (who are also culturally distinct from one another) is not with people making fun of their accents, nor is it with people staring at their foreign clothes, nor is it with communications issues. True, some of these things have happened to people I know, but by far, the recurring culture clash that happens with far more regularity (at least within my circle of acquaintances) is over the issue of resource management, or frugality.

Take for instance, my Indian former coworker P. P. had lived and worked in the US for a good number of years. One day, when P. held a party at his home, he asked his guests not to discard the plastic plates and utensils because he wanted to put them through the dishwasher and reuse them. Whereupon one of his American guests told him that he was being 'cheap.' P. was very offended. As he explained to me, his motivation was not even saving money. P. is a well-paid engineer and could afford to discard the party dishes. P came from the standpoint of reducing waste and having less impact on the environment. If the dishes can be washed and reused, why not reuse them? P. said to me that such a misunderstanding would never occur in India because it was normal for people there to reuse intact, undamaged items the way he did. The friendship between P and said guest came to an end.

Another friend, Y. who is Chinese, had a similar conflict with a Chinese American friend (now ex-friend). Y. asked her visiting friend not to throw the 'disposable' plastic forks in the trash. The friend told her that these things were meant to be thrown away. Y. said they could be put in the dishwasher and reused for many more times. The American friend started taking issue with Y. and her 'stingy' ways. Now Y. isn't a poor person and had never been poor. Like her American counterpart, she was a middle-class individual who never went hungry or homeless for a single day. But their attitudes towards reusing reusable items are very different.

My Indian friend R. also had repeated culture clashes with her child's daycare providers. She would put her child's lunch into a box, expecting the daycare workers to let her child eat out of the lunch box. Instead, they would empty the box into a paper bowl that is then discarded after the child was done with lunch. Time and again, R. would try to tell the staff to let her child eat out of the lunch box so as to spare the pointless soiling and discarding of the paper bowl, but the daycare workers could not understand her concern and never heeded her request. R. also finds it mind boggling that all her daughter needs to do is to make a single mark on her notebook page whereupon her daycare teachers would consider that page 'used' and rip it off and throw it out. "Going to school in India," my friend said, "we used every line in a notebook page before we moved on to the next page." R. is from a wealthy family, but I've read in a news article that in India, even rich people generally don't throw out things that can be reused.

One might argue that China and India are 'poor countries', so even rich and middle class people there have a lower standard of living than the average American. I'm not sure if this is true, and I've also met foreigners from developed countries like Japan, Taiwan and Singapore where standards of living are comparable to the West, and these people too are unaccustomed at our widespread waste.

A Japanese acquaintance was appalled after going on a date with an American woman who tried four or five dishes at a restaurant, puckered up her face at each of them, and pushed each dish out of her way, saying that they were all not to her taste. She did not want to box them to go either. She would rather discard them. Waste was not an issue, since the man was quite willing to take the leftover (basically intact) disehs. But still, the man was a little upset at how she did not value food. The woman defended herself by saying that it was her inalienable right to be a picky eater and that if people have the right to be gay, black, or whatever, they also have the right to be picky eaters. He accepted her argument for the time being. But after visiting her family during a holiday party, he was even more appalled at how she, her nephews and nieces piled their plates high with food they did not finish. There was not a single person at the party who ate their plate clean, he said. He stopped seeing this woman, unable to reconcile in his mind how she would go on and on about being 'broke' and having to buy her clothes at the thrift store (something he does not mind) and how she wastes food. It was a contradiction, he said. And this man too was raised in a middle-class family and has never lacked food. He simply doesn't see the need to waste food.

Another expatriate from Singapore related the experience of taking a group of American children (including the children of immigrants) to KFC. All of a sudden, the children started giggling and gesticulating at him in wonder. He asked them what the matter was, and they said, "Oh my... , you ate the chicken bone clean!" He realized with surprise that they had apparently never seen anyone eat a piece of chicken down to the bone. Now this chicken bone picker was a professional who came from a middle class background. He could afford to waste food if he wanted to, but his rationale was, "If there is meat left on the chicken bone, it is of better use in my tummy. Why leave it on the bone?"

Come to think of it, he does make sense.

The behavior of people from other places may look strange to us, but a lot of practices we take for granted do seem strange to other people, as the experiences above indicate. By no means should we indiscriminately emulate all foreign ways, and certainly, there is a case to be made for the 'American way' sometimes - after all some people from other countries credit their time in US with acquiring positive skills and values. But in some cases, the perspectives and values of aliens actually make more sense, and I think in this case they do.

It is sad that we express intolerance for those who have a different lifestyle (being more frugal) when we would do better for our pocketbooks and our environment if we emulate them. The giggles of children at a chicken bone eaten bare is one thing, but an adult publicly putting down someone as 'cheap' for reusing plastic plates is something else. I can tell you many more examples of this strange American intolerance towards those who waste less and save more, but I will leave you with just one more story that shows how different people from different countries view the same behavior:

A young South Asian man was interviewing for a mentoring volunteer position dealing with youth. When asked about what he considered his positive attributes, he listed frugality as one of them. He related how he had slept on a mat for his first two years out of college, postponing a bed purchase so that he could build up his savings. (The work desk purchase couldn't wait, though ;-) The man was shocked when the white American social worker told him he 'needed help', and that his lifestyle of 'self-denial' was self-abusive and 'wrong', and that she could not approve of him being around children and youth. Really, all he was doing was telling her something he mistakenly thought would impress her - behavior that showed financial responsibility, frugality, and the self-control to postpone gratification. But she didn't see things the same way. What was admirable self-control to one is unhealthy self-denial to another. Sure, people have different perspectives, but I think the white woman went too far in this case, and she was intolerant and disrespectful of lifestyle diversity. From her extreme, dismissive reaction, all the more insulting for its professional jargon about his psychological inadequacy, you would think the young man told her he had sick fantasies about children or something.

In short, she said that his frugal behavior was pathological. In contrast, my East Asian friend expressed admiration for this young South Asian man's lifestyle and values. "What a fine, responsible young man, to build up a solid nest egg first before making less-than-urgent purchases!"

I have since learnt from talking to friends that many South Asians, even well-off ones, don't mind sleeping on the floor. One of my Indian friends claimed it helped with his back problems. At any rate, whatever their motivation, they don't see sleeping on the floor as "pathological behavior" or "cruel and unusual self-abuse."

I am by no means implying that all Americans see material self-gratification as the sign of a healthy psyche, regard waste as normal or put down any kind of self-denial or frugality as 'sick'. Nor do I believe that all foreigners are conscientiously frugal - I've certainly seen wasteful behavior from individuals from all over. But the incidence of wasteful behavior seems to be much higher in our society compared to the rest of the world. Our wasting of food and other resources may seem like a separate issue from our disrespect for people who don't conform to our materialistic, "buy it now!" culture of instant gratification, but I think they come from the same root - a take-for-granted attitude towards the general affluence that surrounds us, and seeing the ability to spend carelessly as 'cool.'

I do wish to point out that there are many Americans who make it a daily priority to reuse, recycle, and generate as little waste, and use as little energy as possible. But unfortunately, these priorities are not as mainstream as they should be.

We make such a big deal about being a world leader in environment protection and resource preservation, but ironically, many of our citizens despise people who are cautious about spending their resources or frugal enough to reuse what we consider 'throwaway' items. We would do well to Saturn's tagline: "Just because you have money doesn't mean you should waste it."

Aug 2007