Fun With Frugality

My mother and I are walking along China’s premier shopping street, Nanjing Road in Shanghai. The store signs of famous brands such as Aldo, Pizza Hut, Swarovski and Tiffany and the frequent appearance of “foreigners” – Caucasians and others –carrying their shopping bags across the spotlessly stone-paved pedestrian street make me feel as thpough I haven’t left Canada.


We sit down on a stone bench to take a rest. I notice a nearby trash can has been pulled out from its clean stationary case. Its dirty opening looks like a wound on the pretty street. A middle-aged man appears by the can. He looks into it, reaches one hand in and comes up with an empty water bottle, which he throws into a black garbage bag. The bag looks half full with water bottles.


“He can sell the bottles at 10 cents a piece,” says my mother, who until two years ago lived in China.


A woman approaches my mother and asks her if she is finished with her water bottle. My mother shakes her head. My mother usually conserves water during outings and drinks it only when she’s thirsty.


A young man with a shopping bag appears beside the trash can. He turns over its contents with a stick, then walks away. A tourist throws an empty bottle into the can. Seconds later a neatly dressed tall old woman fetches this bottle. She saunters away with two empty water bottles.


“These people make enough money to each have a cell phone,” my mother says.


I suddenly feel that this clean street is environmentally clean as well — even if driven by money.

I used to consider my mother’s habit of conserving and reusing things excessively cheap. Now looking at the hazy sky of Shanghai, I feel the necessity for all of us to be cheap and frugal with our resources.


When I bought my first house, my mother decided to use the stuff put out by Torontonians on garbage-collecting days to build a shed. However reluctant I was to take part in this scavenge hunt, I obeyed her wish. We loaded our Chevy with used doors left on sidewalks and discarded lumber from renovation sites.

That summer, a new shed stood in our backyard, but only its shingles were brand new.


My mother and I were proud of our accomplishment. Yet it took me several months to get over the slight shame I had felt when I loaded those “trash” into my car.

“Think about it,” I said in justifying our deed to my friends, “If all those shed materials had to be trucked to Michigan to landfill, our city will have to pay for the collection of the garbage, the transportation and the fee for the landfill space – using our tax money. Not to mention the carbon dioxide produced by the truck.”


I used to think glittering, glossy extravagance a sign of modernity and progress. When I came to Canada in 1988, I liked the pretty plastic bags I received at the Dominion store. Back then, my mother and pretty much all people in China went shopping for groceries with bamboo baskets or nylon-net bags. Walking along Bloor Street to my University of Toronto residence, I carried two bags of groceries with my head high. Now my mother and I bring our own bags to No Frills and each time we save a few dimes.


Years ago I worked in a chemical lab. One day, I received a request from a client to find out why the transparent plastic wheels of their rollerblades turned yellow after less than a summer’s use. The client said that while the yellowing had not affected the wheels’ performance, it was a cosmetic problem that consumers had complained about.

While I dissolved the wheels, extracted their contents and analyzed them with liters and liters of toxic solvents such as toluene and tetrahydrofuran, I thought of the toxic vapour being released into the air through the fume hood, the waste solvents to be sent to a waste disposal company, and the many hours spent by me and many other workers involved in the process, all for a cosmetic concern by some picky consumers.

What a waste! Our pursuit of looking good all the time in all things fashionable might be the culprit of our own curse – polluting our planet enough to suffocate ourselves. Being consumers, we all need to be aware of the consequences that following our purchasing decisions.


I am going to support my mother’s frugality and follow another of her suggestions: cut up my old, worn-out T-shirts to make them into a mop.

———————————————-fun with frugality

This article was published in 2007 in The Globe and Mail, the most prestigious national newspaper in Canada. To view the published version, please click this link:

This entry was posted on Friday, May 30th, 2008 at 10:40 pm and is filed under Canadian, Chinese, Green Living, Published Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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