National Edition

Foreign ideas: What immigrants think about Americans and money

Published: Monday, Jan. 20 2014 4:20 p.m. MST

Jorge Ortega, who grew up in Mexico, now lives in West Valley City, Utah, and loves his new country.

Michael De Groote, Deseret News

Bo Lu remembers the first supermarket he ever saw. He was only 7 years old when his family emigrated from China to Morgantown, W.Va., in the early 1990s.

"Here we were in a Podunk supermarket in the middle of Appalachia," he said. "And yet the massive variety of items was incredible to us."

In China, he remembers, stores had seasonal and regional differences. You bought fruits and vegetables if they were grown in that area and if they had been recently harvested. But in America, everything was always available.

"Everywhere you go in the U.S., we bought the same stuff," said Lu, who is the CEO and co-founder of FutureAdvisor, an investment management firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Like many immigrants and visitors from around the world, Lu was seeing the sort of things that only someone raised in another place and culture would notice. And seeing through the eyes of immigrants gives insights to how Americans can approach their own finances and save money.

Shopping from the edges

One of Lu's earliest memories of life in China is of when his father, an electrical engineer, brought a live duck home from the market after work. Well-educated, urban professionals would buy their own animals, he says.

Lu's dad hacked off the duck's head outside their home to prepare it for dinner.

"The headless duck then took off running," Lu said. "My dad, briefcase still in hand, ran down the street after it."

Common experiences such as this lead to a preference for fresh and simple foods and ingredients. So when Chinese purchase foods in American grocery stores, Lu says, they have a tendency to shop along the edges and buy raw ingredients — vegetables, fruits, unprocessed meat and so forth.

As horrifying as performing a duck decapitation may seem to some Americans, Lu found the opposite horrors in the U.S. when he met his first hot dog in the school cafeteria.

"I asked my friend what was in it," Lu said.

His friend didn't know. Lu says he couldn't figure out what it was, either.

"It didn't look like any animal I knew," he said. "It was this incredible thing to me that you would put something in your mouth that you didn't recognize."

This built-in prejudice against processed foods removes half the grocery store from consideration, Lu says — and in the process takes out some of the less healthy and more expensive items.

Russian bear mom

Like Lu, Alina Adams immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was 7. Adams, who is now in her early 40s, was born in the Soviet Union in Odessa (now part of Ukraine).

One of the things she likes about living in New York City is how she is able to stock up on low-priced and sale items for her husband, her three children and herself.

"In the Soviet Union, you couldn't stock up," she said. "You couldn't plan ahead because you didn't know what was going to be available. People got in lines without knowing what the line was for — and they took whatever they gave you."

As a columnist on frugality for the New York Frugal Family Examiner, Adams loves the freedom to plan but worries about how some Americans exercise the freedom to get into debt.

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