My family is obsessed with the cost of things. The two questions I hear most often are: “Did you eat?” and “How much was that?” Discussing the price of something is like breathing to them. You can’t make a purchase in my household without talking endlessly about how much the item cost, how much everyone thinks it should have cost, how much it cost on sale versus full price, whether or not you used a coupon, and if not, why not?
My extended family lives in Hong Kong, where my grandparents grew up during the Japanese occupation. Like a lot of people raised during times of severe deprivation and loss, they became understandably obsessed with security. Their children — my mother and her siblings — inherited that scarcity mind-set. In short, they think a lot about money.
I live in Los Angeles, where I make a decent living as a television writer, and my mother and father live in Dallas, where, as a preschool teacher and part-time pastor of a small church respectively, they live modestly and have little savings.
Every summer for years I have taken my mother back to Hong Kong to visit our many relatives there.
For my family, money isn’t just something to hoard at the cost of enjoyment; it’s also a way of ranking each other socially. On a recent trip to the Hong Kong Palace Museum, we all stopped for lunch at the on-site restaurant, where I ordered a latte that was pretty weak.
We chatted for an hour or so before I started feeling fatigued again and got up to buy an espresso — something to power me through the rest of our six-hour walking tour. When I returned, my eagle-eyed aunts noticed the cup in my hand.
“How much was that?” Dai Ji Maa, my eldest aunt, asked.
“30 HKD,” I answered (then around three U.S. dollars).
A murmur rippled through the group.
“Wow! That expensive for something so small.”
My family conferred among themselves and agreed. It was too expensive. The cup was too small. The ratio of liquid to dollars was all off.
“It’s smaller,” I said, “but has more caffeine.”
Kau Mou, my uncle’s wife, said, “It’s OK, she must be rich!”
For the next 24 hours, I was roundly trolled for spending three dollars; it was as though I had single-handedly caused the wealth gap. All in good fun, but proof that in my family no dollar spent goes unnoticed.
The next time I returned with a drink, and they asked the price, I overdid it. “It was free!” I said, holding up a huge cup of cream. My family nodded approvingly.
Money took on a whole new importance for all of us, however, 10 months ago when my mother learned she had Parkinson’s disease. Not just any Parkinson’s, but an atypical version that doctors said was advancing much faster than normal and included elements of dementia.
She’s only 63 but suddenly her hands were trembling, and then she began forgetting words. Her personality remains the same — upbeat, playful and positive — but her decline has been rapid and alarming. She can no longer work, and we worry it won’t be long before she can’t take care of herself.
She has needed all kinds of new resources, not just copays for her medical bills, but a handle for the shower, a cranial red light therapy machine, slip-on shoes with traction, weighted utensils to help with tremors, a bidet and so on. No one in my immediate family has the funds to cover all of this, and I, as the child with the highest salary, have chosen to handle a lot of it myself.
“How much was it?” asked my mother when I came home with a Uniqlo haul of elastic, easy-to-pull-on clothing.
“Gong ni di,” I said, which is Cantonese for: “It doesn’t matter.”
And it doesn’t. This is what money is for. It took a long time for me to break free of the fear that I could suddenly lose it all, but I have accepted that money is OK to spend, and not only on essentials.
On our recent trip to Hong Kong, I noticed my mother playing a phone game called Ball Sort Puzzle. It’s exactly what it sounds like: You sort balls into a tube by color and win points when they line up.
“Good for cognitive,” my mother told me.
“How do you find games to download?” I asked.
“Advertisement,” she said.
“So when you’re online, an ad for a game will pop up, and you’ll just click on it and download it?”
“Yes,” she said.
I finally understood why every few minutes, angry commercials were blasting from her phone. “You’re bad at this!” one of them screamed. I’m not sure what it was selling — a different game?
My mother patiently waited for the verbal abuse to end before playing another round.
I gently took her phone and downloaded the ad-free version for $1.99.
“How much was it?” she asked.
“Free,” I said.
Even in death, my relatives, like many Chinese people, don’t stop thinking about money. This year, the same as every year, my family made the pilgrimage to Wong Tai Sin Temple, where my grandfather’s ashes are stored in a columbarium. We headed to a table in the courtyard, where some women bustled around stuffing bags with joss paper money. It’s a Chinese tradition to light fake money on fire so your ancestors can receive it in the afterlife — like Western Union, but arson.
“Not just money,” my uncle said. “Also traveler’s checks, bitcoin, Canadian dollars, and Apple and Tesla stock. So grandfather can be rich!”
I asked what he would need the money for in heaven.
“Playing Mahjong,” my uncle said. “He needs to buy a lot of chips. Also, they have a jockey club, and he may want to bet on horses.”
If you overlook the horrifying implication that capitalism follows us into the afterlife, it’s a nice idea. Families continue providing for each other even though they’re a bunch of ghosts.
These are the times when my family has never complained about the price: the taxis we took every day because my mother could no longer ride the subway, her acupuncture appointments (thinking it might help with Parkinson’s), her herbal medicines, goji berries, dried scallops, jujubes, a sippy cup to prevent spills, smiley-face squishy balls for hand exercises, spa appointments, melatonin for sleep and walking sticks she won’t use.
At the end of our trip, my uncle sat me down, and we had a frank discussion about what it would cost to take care of my mother as her disease progressed.
“Can’t you hire a full-time helper, like So?” he said, referring to So, our grandmother’s caretaker. In Hong Kong, helpers are common. A middle-class occurrence. Domestic labor in Asia can come incredibly cheap. A live-in caretaker who cooks, cleans and takes care of both the elderly and children around the clock, will cost you about $500 U.S. dollars a month.
“We don’t have helpers like that in the States,” I told him. Even if I hired a full-time caretaker, they probably wouldn’t also cook Chinese food or clean, and the price would be more than I could afford.
“How much?” my uncle said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe $40,000 a year?”
He took out his glasses and a phone calculator and started doing the math.
“OK,” he said. “Let’s say you need help 24 hours, and they only work eight hours a day. One cooks, one cleans, one takes care of your mom. Then you need nine full-time helpers. But they don’t work on weekends or holidays, so you need a separate rotation of helpers for that. Let’s say an extra nine.”
He typed more numbers into his calculator. It took so long that it was clear he was doing a bit. “So, you need 50 full-time helpers for two million dollars a year. Easy!”
We both laughed.
“I don’t make enough to pay for one full-time helper,” I said, “let alone 50.”
“Well,” my uncle said, “you can always ask me.”
I suddenly started to cry, overwhelmed not only by his generosity but by everything. My mother’s rapid decline, her uncertain future, the host of new worries for my struggling family and me, this looming sense of loss.
“You don’t have to help,” I said. I was worried about the cost. He makes a decent living in Hong Kong running a small I.T. outfit, and he’s a single man without a family, but he isn’t exactly worry free.
“I am her brother,” he said. “I will help you pay for one caretaker. Of course, you will have to pay for the other 49.”
We laughed again, tears flowing.
“In this case,” he said, “the cost does not matter.”