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Culture and consumerism: How my Asian upbringing shaped my outlook

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SEPTEMBER 02, 2023

Growing up as a second-generation immigrant, my Taiwanese grandparents have always taught me to be frugal with resources. I would be reminded to “store away all plastic grocery bags to be reused as trash can liners,” “heat up a pen cartridge when the pen runs out of ink instead of throwing away the plastic body” and “eat every grain of rice on your plate because there are kids who don’t have any food.” We always needed to turn off the lights right after we left the room, shut the faucet when brushing our teeth, walk or bike within a five-mile radius and hand-wash clothes to make them last indefinitely. 

I would always think that their frugal habits were due to their humble upbringing and due to our scrimping lifestyles with our finances — we simply couldn’t afford to overextend our resources. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve begun to realize that these resourceful habits were not just good economic decisions. These environmental practices were valuable, as I was raised on the principle of not picking up wasteful habits that are prominent in many first-world countries. 

Every time I return to Taiwan, I’m humbled by the lifestyles of the citizens, but am also in awe of their preservationist landscapes. The small, buzzing communities that my grandparents live in consist of many natural parks and lush forests for people to explore and to appreciate nature. 

In high school, saving a dying houseplant thrown out under the scorching sun opened my eyes to the world of gardening. I took on a personal challenge to tend to all of the struggling greenery around campus. Whether it be the wilting sansevieria in my English classroom or the sun-scorched succulents at the gates, I eagerly researched each case to figure out the cause of their declining state. 

Each day, I would return with the knowledge and tools necessary to revive the withering shoots. My backpack, filled with extra water bottles, shears and fertilizers, produced a physical burden on my back but an infinite relief to my heart for healing life. My efforts may seem insignificant, but the results proved themselves to be more than rewarding. The browning dracaena marginata at the library began to liven up with greenery, the leaning ficus began to straighten itself and the brambly entrance bush bloomed its first rose. 

My rescuing did not stop at school grounds but expanded to my community, from weeding my local park every Saturday to rehabilitating houseplants thrown out by neighbors. Today, as the garden coordinator for the Housing and Dining Sustainability Advocates at UC Berkeley, I’ve reinforced my self-sustaining principles and value for growth. 

In America, where our lifestyles are charged by heightened consumption, it’s much easier to be a consumer rather than a producer. Every day, we’re bombarded with advertisements about the latest technology, new clothing trends and greater portion sizes that goad us into buying more than we should. According to the World Bank’s report, high-income countries with around 1 billion residents consume over 80% of global resources, whereas residents of low-income countries only use about 3%. This consumerism mindset of first-world countries like America is unfortunately directly linked to the exploitation of other less developed countries, such as Asian countries where my relatives are deeply rooted. 

With World Overshoot Day falling halfway through the year, in July, it’s important that we reconsider the rate at which we burn through natural resources before it is too late. The National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts defines Overshoot Day as the date when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year, resulting in our ecological deficit by resources allocated for future generations. In order to account for the rate of resource usage in the modern day, we would need 1.7 planet Earths, which is currently an impossible accommodation. 

This is exactly why I’m passionate about the conservation of resources and why I’m pursuing conservation as one of my concentrations of study. In this sense, I’m melding the consumption and production of natural resources into my identity, along with the green efforts to take less and give more back to Mother Earth — honoring the environmentally friendly teachings my grandparents have passed onto me. 

Today, I’m content with my usage of natural resources which stems from the habits of my grandparents. I will continue to conserve and push for the environmental movement. After all,  we should be trying our best to leave a positive footprint (not a carbon footprint) on this Earth for future generations to come.

Contact Elena Hsieh at 


SEPTEMBER 02, 2023