I Don’t Believe in the American Dream
And I don’t feel bad about it.
I am the daughter of South Asian immigrants. My father was given the opportunity to immigrate to the United States in 1969 for his master’s degree in engineering. A few years later, he married my mom in India and they returned to the United States. They bought a home, had kids they sent off to college and graduate school, and successfully retired with pensions. Did they achieve the American Dream?
The “American Dream” was coined by James Truslow in The Epic of America as a “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
Yes, my parents sacrificed everything for their family. They left their parents, friends, and culture with no money. As a family, we rarely ate out or bought anything at regular price and vacations were spent in cheap motel rooms. I never understood how my white friends always had new toys and all of the Nintendo video games. My brother and I begged my parents for cable TV on multiple occasions and each time they said no, I resented their immigrant frugality more and more.
My parents succeeded in America through a policy that encouraged their education while they pinched pennies and gritted their teeth through racism. They couldn’t afford to be mediocre and still get by like their white counterparts. For them, mediocrity would result in failure — they couldn't take that risk. Through thick and thin, they achieved the idea of the American Dream, but at whose expense?
The past and present slavery of African-Americans set the stage for Asian immigrant success stories.
The civil rights movement highlighted the inequalities of the nation’s immigrant quota system, leading to the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The act provided preferences for people with technical skills and knowledge. While other black and brown people continued to be exploited for their labor, my father received a graduate degree in engineering. This targeted wave of immigration essentially created a classist model minority, and I was just born into it. Why couldn’t American policies promote the skills and knowledge of all people, especially the people they stole and stole from? To say “ability or achievement” are metrics for achieving the American Dream is simply a lie.
As a child, I cringed during the Fourth of July. The fireworks were pretty but I felt awkward wearing red, white, and blue. I was never afforded the same freedoms as my white friends, so what did I have to celebrate? They went out to eat at restaurants every week, carved pumpkins and sang Christmas carols while I dressed up as an “Indian Princess” for most Halloweens, wearing the traditional clothes I already owned from India. Maybe this sounds childish, but these cultural events are so central to being an American kid, and I was missing out. My white friends sat on their parents’ laps, costumed in American flags with curly red, white, and blue ribbons in their hair, while their all-American dads drank Bud Light. Several questions they asked my family pointed at how we did things differently rather than accepting us as we were. My parents turned on their white person voices and mannerisms to seem less like immigrants and more like the majority. At times, I felt the “you’re taking our jobs” glare through their questionably kind smiles. We were an other and I never forgot.
As I learned more about American History, I learned that racism was “gone” now because (1) slavery is over (2) Rosa Parks stood up for herself and sat in front of the bus, and (3) Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech. Little did I know about the past and current complicity of U.S. Empire in the human and economic ruination of the Dominican Republic, the CIA-backed coup d’etat in Iran, the installment of countless dictators for the benefit of American imperialism, and the continued oppression of black and brown people within its own borders. American political strategy creates conditions so people want to leave their native countries, creates limitations for them to enter the United States, and maintains divides along race and class lines.
I didn’t have to know these political facts as a child, I felt them. But now I can grasp the root of my otherness.
When I was in AP U.S. History, it hurt me to see that certain (white) people had such a concentrated amount of money and freedoms while others were poor. I wanted to believe that hard work got you there but was “there” where everyone wanted to be? Couldn’t we just be on the same level?
During class, I told my teacher that there had to be another economic system for humans to achieve equality. He asked, “What would that system be based upon?”
“Maybe love?” I hesitantly answered.
The whole class laughed at my naive response. My teacher half-smiled, took off his glasses, gave me a slight nod and chuckled a bit — he wasn’t laughing at me. His response told me that maybe I was naive but I sure as hell wasn’t wrong.
I am apparently lucky to have been born into a privileged minority that was encouraged to live in the United States because of their ability to produce capital for corporations and tools for the largest military in the world, the very tools that perpetuate political, economic, and social hierarchies. And when I propose an idea where economic and political systems center humanity instead of wealth, I’m a fool.
I wish my luck had a return policy. I wish my bootstraps were the same as everyone else. I wish my parents’ hard work wasn’t tied to the false American Dream. But it is.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a better life for yourself and your family and grabbing opportunities that seem to provide this life. But being grateful for opportunities without questioning their origin and who they ultimately benefit is dangerous. The American Dream feels like an infomercial — it looks shinier than it is and we toss it aside after realizing it was never real.
When I hear diversity, I hear tokenism. When I hear inclusivity, I hear assimilation. When I hear the American Dream, I hear my mom shuffling through her piles of coupons, my dad talking about inflation and tax breaks, and the bald eagle flapping its wings above me, about to dive down and snatch its prey.