Four sustainability lessons I learned from my grandma

My maternal grandmother – my laolao – is one of the most important people in my life. Being raised by grandparents was and still is fairly common in China, and I was no exception. Laolao and laoye (my grandpa) raised me in xi’an until I was 12: biking me to school, taking me to weekend dance lessons, cooking elaborate lunch and dinners, and sitting by my hospital bed month after month (I got sick non-stop as a child). Though I did eventually move to Beijing to live with my parents, my grandparents are unmistakably the most influential people and role models in my life, who taught me everything from how to tie my shoes to how to be an honest person. Laolao is 85 now, and still a force to be reckoned with: she told my husband last week while we visited her that she’d “beat him up” if he ever did me wrong, as fiercely as she would scold the neighborhood boy who bullied my 8-year-old self at school.

I reflect often on her wisdoms, and the life lessons she’s taught me intentionally and unintentionally. And recently, as I scrolled through Instagram posts about sustainability one day, I thought: “haven’t I learned all this already from laolao?” Here are some examples.

Laoye, me and laolao. Circa 1993-ish?

1. Reduce, reuse and reuse some more

Laolao was a master at reducing, reusing and repurposing. She’d wash vegetables in a bowl, use the water to mop the floor, and wring out the mop into a bucket so we can reuse the water to flush the toilet. (This resulted in our toilet water looking grey all the time, but nobody in our family seemed to mind.) Plastic bags were used over and over again, old toothbrushes were kept to clean bottles/shoes/tile grout, and coffee tins were always saved as Tupperware. Lights were switched off immediately upon leaving a room, and water was never allowed running while I brushed my teeth.

2. Waste nothing

Surely most of laolao’s frugality came from wanting to save money, but she was thrifty long before “zero waste” was cool. As a child growing up in 90s China, we were taught by our elders that nothing is to be wasted, especially food. “Li li jie xin ku” (“every grain of rice is a drop of sweat”) was a line from a Tang-dynasty poem we were all taught in school, which described the hardship that a rice farmer must suffer through in order to harvest the rice that ends up in our bowls. To leave even one grain of rice was not only wasteful, but a disrespect to the farmers who toiled blood and sweat in the field so we could eat. To this day, my family goes through sometimes embarrassing length to pack up everything when we eat out, even the free fruit offered by restaurants as dessert.

3. Be skimpy on the right things

Laolao spoiled me to no end with her love, time, and attention, but I didn’t always get everything I wanted. Some years, I got a brand-new pencil box and backpack at the beginning of the school year, some years I didn’t. Sometimes I got the new shoes and dresses that everyone at school was wearing, other times, I wore sweaters knitted by my mom and dresses laolao made using leftover fabrics (she made me wear a hand-sewn silk tunic dress that I hated all the time, which I find so stylish these days!) Instead, laolao was generous on the things she deemed worthy, never skimping us on food, education, and experiences, whether it was costly or not (she convinced an old friend to give me keyboard lessons for free).

The silk dress in question.

4. Be happy with what you have

These days my grandparents are surrounded by loving family members who are always eager to shower them with new clothes, the latest gadgets, and nutrition supplements, but laolao’s most common response is “bu yao” (“don’t want”). At family banquets, she and laoye often remark about how far China’s economy and our personal wealth have come along, yet they are most grateful and proud of their children and grandchildren, and how much they feel loved and looked after.

Which reminds me – maybe I should stop writing this post and give her a phone call right now instead 🙂

What life lessons have you learned from your grandparents?