Shteyngart writes about a family trip to Florida during which, among other things, he really wanted to eat at McDonald's, but his parents, being Russian, packed their own food everywhere. Which is sometimes and in some ways a good thing, but we take it to excess. He wrote,
I considered the possibility of redeeming my own dignity, of leaving behind our beet-salad heritage. My parents didn’t spend money, because they lived with the idea that disaster was close at hand, that a liver-function test would come back marked with a doctor’s urgent scrawl, that they would be fired from their jobs because their English did not suffice.
It's sometimes hard to separate what's Russian-Jewish from what's Russian or what's Jewish, and very often hard to separate what's any or all of the above from immigrant. Almost every ethnicity identified with "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," and so did I even though I thought the movie sucked. Several months back a Chinese friend confided that she grew up believing her family was constantly on the brink of poverty because of the way her mother talked about, dealt with money, and my mother was the same way. Although in my mother's case, it's hard to separate what was concern about money from jumping on any opportunity to make me feel guilty. There's an earlier post about the hiking book incident in Arizona; there was the time I wanted to make sushi and my mother started seething when she found out the powdered wasabi had cost $3; and, perhaps my earliest memory, which was so traumatic I had long blocked it out, there was my tenth or eleventh birthday party, which was actually my last as a child (and now that I think about it, it's probably why I hesitate to celebrate my birthday to this day, and rarely do).
My mom wasn't the only, or even primary reason that the event was traumatic, but she certainly moved the knife around in the wound. My best friend at the time and her sister were very wild, rowdy, and demanding of attention. The theme of the party was one of those murder mystery dinner party things. I think I'd been to another child's party of that theme and liked it. I don't remember exactly what happened, or even vaguely what happened, except that best friend and sister were impatient with the game, started acting up, started throwing food, and the party quickly got out of control. No one could get it back under control, so it was dispersed. Best friend and I fell out, pretty much forever although we probably continued to see each other, but I don't think it was the same and we eventually did fall out of touch.
At the time, I was crushed over this failed party, as any child my age would have been. I suppose, thinking about it now, one option for my mother would have been to comfort me; instead, she guilt-tripped me about the $24 wasted on the dinner game. It's only thinking about it now that I realize that none of it was my fault; I mean, I was ten, or eleven. The dinner game sat there in my room, unopened. It became a fixture eventually and less of a reminder of the disaster that was that birthday party. I'm not sure why she didn't return it. I wonder if it's still there now.
While this is my earliest memory of my mom's making me feel guilty about money, I'm not certain it was the first time it happened.
My mom still packs massive amounts of food everywhere she goes, usually to my annoyance, because it takes up so much time. I still pack food, but only food that packs well, and when it's worth it. I acknowledge that while financial responsibility is important, it shouldn't come at the expense of familial stress, particularly when one isn't constantly on the brink of poverty, which I eventually realized we weren't. Sooner than that, though, I realized that obsessing over money, not to mention using it in psychological warfare against your family, will only make you miserable.