As far as memory reaches, my parents have drilled a certain Chinese phrase into my mind: “先苦后甜” — literally translated as “first bitter then sweet”. It’s a Chinese idiom that may be familiar to many of my friends, as it represents some of the core values that we grew up with.
The future-looking self
I grew up in Singapore, which is a metropolitan melting pot of cultures from all around the world. The children here are exposed to both Asian and global ways of thinking (and language, of course) since birth. I think of it as an interesting petri dish, a cross-section, of all sorts of world views and beliefs.
One of the starkest traits I’ve observed is the focus on the future. Almost everything orients itself around the idea of “what I can do now that will be prudent for my future self”.
High savings rate
A key manifestation of this principle is the high savings rate locally (and in Asia). Here’s the thought process: “Better save now for the future, since you never know what happens.” Literally the first bank book I ever had (they give these to children with much fanfare) read “Saving for Rainy Days” on its cover.
Sometimes people even make it their personal resolution to save more than 70% of their paycheck each month! This isn’t a bad thing at all, I suppose — I think it’s important to live within our means — as long as you’re not suffering or shortchanging yourself today by doing it. I’ve seen people go without items that they really should have, or should replace, in pursuit of this goal. I think there’s a certain level of comfort that we should aim for, and saving shouldn’t get in the way of that! (Besides, if you’re working so hard, you deserve to care for yourself a little, I say.)
Keeping things for “later”
Recently, my parents-in-law bought a new car. They immediately started discussing the sort of seat covers they should use in order to protect the beautiful leather seats that came outfitted with the car. I almost burst out laughing (but of course you can’t do that to your parents-in-law) but asked them for their rationale. Mother-in-law said since it’s new, we should take better care of the seats and then maybe sometime later we can choose to remove the covers. My husband helpfully reminded them that they never got around to doing that after 10 years with their last car.
I’m always a little bemused (and amused) by our urge to buy something meant to weather and age well, then decide the best way to “use” it is to cover it all up and never ever see or touch it. I catch myself at it sometimes; “Oh I have this nice thing that I should save for later” and then never find the right “later” that justifies it.
These days I try to enjoy whatever I have, right here and now. The key is to mindfully enjoy it so you don’t regret the time you spent using or consuming it, I think. Enjoy the sweet while it’s still sweet!
Work first, play later
Now, this being Asia, our discussion can’t stray too far from being a good student. My parents constantly framed it as: “Do your homework (hard/bitter things, bitter indeed) first, then enjoy your play time (sweet!) later.” To be fair, they are probably right, and precrastinating on homework instead of guiltily playing a game until time for bed is the right approach. (Unfortunately, young people have underdeveloped prefrontal cortices, resulting in reduced self-control.)
Anyway, the point is that, having experienced a lifetime of being told that I should work first and play later, I’ve realized that sometimes you end up just working and not playing. Or maybe you end up wishing you would work while guiltily playing until the last possible moment. Either way, there is a certain unkindness to prescribing norms and judging children on them without helping them to develop habits that help them to achieve these norms successfully.
Perhaps having the right amount of play time, or even making work more fun, is the right approach. Education shouldn’t be tedious, after all; and even work can be fun if you gamify it for yourself or track peripheral stats. The point is to balance the bitterness and sweetness in the grand scheme of things, so you enjoy them both well and not at the expense of the other.
Other day-to-day quirks
The way this belief in “bitter then sweet” has manifested in my everyday life, apart from some of the above, has been funny for me to observe. Some interesting ones I’ve noticed in myself:
- Always eating the things I dislike most on my plate first, going item by item until I finish with the thing on my plate I like the most. (I mean! 😪 )
- “Saving” my fresh teas until they become aged teas. A different experience, but not what I really wanted!
- Doing tedious tasks on my list first so I get them out of the way. (Or I oscillate between proactively blasting them out of the way, or procrastinating on them for days.) It’s definitely not ideal — see our To-Do Matrix for the system I’m using now to prioritize better.
- Working out before dinner because the meal counts as a “sweet treat”?
- Feeling guilty about spending on something I like. I get the sinking feeling I’m failing at saving every penny I’m supposed to.
- Generally, a willingness to “suffer” late nights and busy days in order to build a better future that I can be proud of. I tell myself on days I experience flagging motivation that it’s hard now but will be worth it in the end. A classic example of the “先苦后甜” ethic!