Illustration by Brintha Koneshachandra
The other day, I was making us breakfast and I reached into the fridge to grab the container of yogurt to eat with our puri. Now, you would think, having done essentially this every weekend of my entire life, I would not screech, “Ugh! Mom, where is the yogurt?! Why do you have to put the daar in the yogurt container?!” But here we are.
I shouted at you, irritated, yet knowing that I do the exact same thing. I save every yogurt and take-out container; I even have favourites.
If I ever need a container, I’d know exactly where to look. The dishwasher. “Dishwasher guilt” is nothing new. For a variety of psychological and economic reasons, refugees and immigrants tend to resist using this appliance. The idea of saving water and electricity is an important aspect. I turn the tap off when I am brushing my teeth. I turn the shower off when I am conditioning my hair. By this logic, the dishwasher is simply a nuisance. It is often used as additional storage—a glorified dishrack, the perfect place for mountains of reusable containers. There is even a common joke that not using the dishwasher for its intended purpose is the quintessential sign of one’s immigrant roots.
And as you can guess, Mom, when I moved out, I too did not use the dishwasher.
When I moved out, I didn’t downsize. I wear clothes from over 10 years ago. I love receiving hand-me-downs from my bhabi, even at 34 years old. Sometimes, even my close friend offers up clothing that she is ready to part with. I love thrifting. There is no shame in sharing.
And you, Mother, taught me that. I wore many hand-me-downs. But you made it my own. You put hairspray in my hair, lent me your pretty earrings, and told me I looked great. Your friends, with daughters quite a few years older than me, would give you bags of their unwanted clothes. Sure, I didn’t particularly love wearing clothing three sizes too big for me to school, but I certainly did make the most of it. In Grade 3, did you know my best friend and I wore those giant jackets together at recess and lunch? Her arm through the left, my arm through the right, holding each other in the middle. We would zip it right up and walk around scaring people: “We are the two-headed monster!” It really provided endless fun.
And, when I need to repair a beloved clothing item to prolong its longevity, Nani always has my back. Again, I know just where to look. The deep blue, circular Royal Dansk Danish Butter Cookie tin. Yup, this is where you store the “sewing kit.” Nothing goes to waste.
There were never a lot of strict rules in our house, were there? But one was always implied, right? Don’t waste. Thanks, Mom.
Just like the chai you sip (and remove the single teabag to reuse throughout the day), our past is steeped in conservation. Maybe these practices support the stereotype that South Asian people are cheap. What most do not realize is how deeply these habits are ingrained in our history of imperialism, instability, and corruption. It is really no surprise that protecting our resources has been passed down through generations. From being forcibly expelled from your homeland with nothing, to living as a single mother—whether it is about scarcity or logic, this is how we live.
Looking back, our culture and communities have been practicing sustainability for centuries, perhaps respecting and appreciating the abundance of what we had, not the lack of it.
So, I am writing this letter to thank you, Mom, for teaching me about sustainability, long before it was cool.
With love and gratitude,