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3 Valuable Lessons My Chinese Family Taught Me About Sustainability

Some people think of environmentalism as a privileged cause for the white and moneyed. But, if anything, my family’s history has shown me that there are other ways to conserve.

Written by
Rachel Liu

You know that icebreaker question that goes: “If you had a TV show, what would its name be?” Well, Turn Off the Lights! would be the name of my dad’s.

My dad grew up in a small farming town at the foot of Beijing, China. When he was young, he would barter with his neighbors to trade his family’s eggs with their vinegar. He saved to eat, and he saved to study, and he saved to live, because that was what he did.

Even as he went to Beijing for college and eventually graduate school—then made his way to America with my mom and I—the habit never really died out. My mom’s side of the family, though a little more well-off, was much of the same. So growing up, I’d always been taught ways to be frugal and sustainable, even when we didn’t have the words for it. Here are three things I’ve learned from them.

3 Lessons I Learned From My Chinese Family

1. Never Waste What You’re Given

Whether food, resources, or opportunities, my family is a big proponent of not wasting what we have. This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, but a general guideline. When there’s more of something at home, we tend not to buy more of it. Although we try not to subsist on leftovers, food that isn’t eaten doesn’t get tossed into the trash at the end of the day. We don’t buy new clothes we don’t love and have use for. When we do get new clothes, we give old clothes away to family or local donation drives. 

We abide by the unspoken rules of this life philosophy for a good reason. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), we waste approximately 1.3 billion tonnes of food around the world each year. That’s one-third of all the food we make, and 2.6 trillion dollars lost. To put that into perspective, 1.3 billion tonnes of food can feed everyone who is hungry in the world... four times. 

Textile waste is a huge problem as well. In the past 20 years, the sheer volume of clothing Americans throw away each year has increased twofold, from 7 million to 14 million tons. But according to the World Wildlife Fund, a simple cotton shirt takes up to 2,700 liters of water to make. And when you throw your new Forever 21 romper away, it clogs up landfills, taking over 200 years to decompose.

From a cultural perspective, it’s also crucial for us not to be wasteful. There are different sayings, of course, but some say luck lies at the bottom of a bowl. So it’s bad luck to waste food. Gratitude plays a big part in this life philosophy as well. As a kid, I’ve always been told “every grain of rice is made from a drop of sweat.” It’s something every Chinese parent has probably threatened their kids with when they didn’t finish their meals, but it’s true.

Someone had to feed the pig you fry up as bacon, water the vegetables you roast, and cultivate the rice you eat. It's their labor that feeds you. Like this chef at Momofuku, I’ve learned to appreciate the work that goes into the food I’ve been provided. And what better way to honor this work than to thoroughly enjoy my meal? 

2. Reuse

Everything can be reused. Clothes, towels, plastic bags. Plastic bottles, pickle jars, and cereal boxes. Becoming environmentally-friendly first involves realizing that it's possible to reuse things.  

In my house, we use leftover Tropicana jugs and Costco mixed nut jars to store adzuki beans, mung beans, sticky rice, millet, and Job's tears. My dad composts egg shells in his garden, so every time I bake, he looks like a little kid on Christmas. Like most Chinese families I know, we keep all the plastic bags we get from the supermarket and use them as trash bags. Although we're far from being zero-waste, my family has taught me that being sustainable is not a daunting, singular task, but a long-term habit that needs to be cultivated with time. 

This growth mindset outlook is what we need to combat global warming and environmental degradation. With global plastic waste exceeding 270 million tonnes per year, maybe we can all benefit from a little environmental consciousness in our lives. 

3. Make It Your Own

There’s a Chinese expression I love that goes something like this: “Gold kennel, silver kennel, nothing beats your own kennel.” The meaningful part of any DIY project is not that it’s so much better than what you can buy, but that you can have fun making it yourself. It's yours. Really, truly yours. Plus, it helps that you’re doing the environment a favor along the way.

There are so many people taking things into their own hands when it comes to the environment. From DIY bird feeders to soap bars, start making your own metaphorical kennel.

The Takeaway

Some people think of environmentalism as a privileged cause for the white and moneyed. Social science research from the sociologist Ronald Inglehart seemed to support this claim. But, if anything, my family’s history has shown me that there are other ways to conserve.

Sometimes, it’s important to remember that environmentalism isn't a hobby. It's not a reason to hoard eco-friendly products you don’t use or something to clear your conscience at night. A sustainable life may not be easy, but it’s the life we walk toward simply because we can. Because it’s the right thing to do.