My father’s best friend once told me a story about his formative years. He grew up in a neighbourhood with a bunch of kids from two distinct families; one was rich, and the other poor. The rich kids never got to go out and play, and they were extremely picky with their food (silver spoons, golden mouths). The poor ones though, they ran everywhere, played every time, and ate everything… most usually scraps from trash and leftovers from other people’s plates.
That was the first time I heard of the Hokkien term 垃圾吃, 垃圾大, or “rubbish eat, rubbish grow” (the saying that sparked the food blog of the same name) .
He told me the rich boys were frail and thin, and constantly fell sick. The poor kids, though, managed to live through eating their scraps, rotten fruit and vegetables from the market and basically lived like kampung chickens; all muscle, no fat, and seriously strong immune systems.
One of the rich kids died young. His brothers and sisters were never happy, and grew up bickering and estranged from their own families. The poor guys stayed loyal friends, eking out businesses for themselves and never hesitated to pool together for each other during hard times.
While there are important life lessons to learn no matter what walk of life one hails from, my dad’s best friend learnt about roughing it out no matter what the circumstances, loyalty and adaptability from the kids who lived off scrap. And he inspired my dad to do the same. People always ask how my father would manage to bring up 4 kids and put 3 of them through uni (he wanted me to go too, but my brain had other plans). Within our family, we all knew it was because my dad’s best friend pumped in money to supplement my sisters’ educations, which he had from his HDB shophouse furniture business. And because of the story he told me, I knew the friendship they built was learned from the 垃圾吃，垃圾大 kids.
Recently a friend of mine took offense to the phrase being used on her child, and I took the opportunity to tell this story, in part because my father’s best friend, who died years ago, has been on my mind quite a bit since my own father passed away. Many of us may have heard of – or even used – the phrase being used as a rude remark, but thanks to him and my father, the phrase holds a very different meaning for me.
We know what we want our own children to grow up to become. We care in the ways we know best, and only we know best. People will judge and that’s up to them. We really have only our own children to answer to, and as far as I’m concerned, whoever says that to be mean, doesn’t even know what it means. In fact, I’ve shut a few aunties up before when they use this line of talk with us, by explaining what I understand of the term.
So next time someone says this to you about your kid, maybe take it as a compliment. There’s a very high likelihood that your child is going to grow up blessed with good health and a great personality.