What the American Dream means to a South Asian teen

Wajeeha Amir
Aug 14, 2020 · 6 min read
Collage of Ms. Marvel comic , Bronx Hall of Fame graffiti Statue of Liberty Pakistani food , Times Square and a Mosque
Ms. Marvel comic (top left), Bronx Hall of Fame graffiti (top center), Statue of Liberty (top right), Pakistani food (bottom left), Time Square (bottom center), Mosque (bottom right)

I love the aroma of samosas from the desi restaurants; their delicious and savory taste always makes me hungry. I have a taste of the culture that I was missing. I came from Brooklyn where streets are filled with graffiti with street vendors serving hot dogs and street performers. I was exposed to the American culture as a kid, and never really adhered to my Pakistani culture. But now, in my home in Chicago, I proceed to put chutney on my samosas and savor its minty flavor. I have Arabic calligraphy around my house instead of the graffiti I am used to seeing in Brooklyn. But I always thought to myself, do I not embrace and appreciate my culture enough? Is my American Dream just a dream?

The American dream, for some, consists of having the freedom of being whoever you want to be and not being judged by your complexion and being seen as equal to everyone. One of the most difficult things that my mother and I have experienced is the perception of Pakistani culture. My mother came from Pakistan and immigrated to New York in 2000. This was also the year before 9/11, and fortunately, she did not face any discrimination. This could have been because she had lived in Queens where most of the borough consisted of a majority of Sikhs who were racially profiled. However, since then, predominantly the American perception of South Asians and Muslims has been negative. Media portrayal and Americans’ view of Muslims indicates that Muslims have not been comprehensively understood.

We moved from Queens to Chicago into a diverse neighborhood that mostly had South Asians, so we feel comfortable living here. However, living in Chicago where there are people with generally liberal views, I still experience some judgments about Muslims. When my mother studied at a community college, she told me that her American colleagues assumed that she wore a headscarf because her husband forced her to. These assumptions are made from the oppression that women face in Pakistan, but my mother came to America for that reason. As a Muslim woman, she wears a headscarf to show her modesty — it’s her religion.

Despite this, living in America has provided my family many opportunities and easy access to basic needs that in Pakistan would be difficult to obtain if I had lived there today.

My mother was able to work as a cashier at Mariano’s, but back in Pakistan she wouldn’t even be able to get a job. Women in Pakistan have less freedom than they do in the US: at the time my mother immigrated, women faced many difficulties, they had low health status, and a lower social rank than men. Women were economically dependent on men and faced cultural oppression and educational disparities. They were judged for being independent and getting a job. While the fight for gender equality and women’s rights has improved some aspects of life for women in Pakistan, these issues still greatly impact Pakistani women today. This is one aspect of Pakistani culture that can be misleading, especially for Americans.

It’s certainly a challenge fitting in both Pakistani and American culture and what standards I should follow and should not follow. Occupying both worlds has given me great confusion. Gender roles are very different in American and Pakistani culture. For example, I completely disagree with many of the standards placed upon women in Pakistan. Many parts of Pakistani culture do not promote women being independent; they portray women as if they should be doing housework. Women are held responsible for being the typical “housewife.” In America, while women still face challenges, the overall views are changing and women are sometimes seen as powerful, strong, and independent, which differs from the portrayal of women in Pakistan. The traditional roles of women and men are still engraved in many Pakistani families in America too. I’m taught to wash dishes and do chores, while the same isn’t applied to my brothers. Being an independent young woman when you are perceived as someone who is only in charge of taking care of household needs is difficult. This applies outside of home too. On one hand I have the option to be independent and go to college out of state, but on the other hand my parents want me to choose a college in Chicago and stay close to home. It’s challenging to have a better life than my parents and being seen as independent while I still face these negative aspects found in many South Asian cultures.

I would describe my life like the character in Ms. Marvel comics, Kamala Khan — minus the superpowers. Kamala Khan, was also a Muslim Pakistani teen who battled with her religious and cultural conflicts.

To my mom and many immigrant parents, fulfilling the American Dream means providing a better life to their children than they had. Part of that dream is getting a higher education than my parents did , and it is coming true. I’m able to go to high school and plan on going to university. At times I do feel pressured to do well in school, because in a sense, I have an obligation to have a better job or better career than my parents. The quality of education here is more high quality and advanced than in Pakistan too. “You should be a doctor,” is a common phrase that teens with Asian parents hear and I’ve witnessed that myself. To others, the American Dream means being wealthy, and that is part of the reason why this stereotype is reflective of that.

But being wealthy and doing something you love is difficult to balance, and as a teenager, it is a double-edged sword. For example, I love participating in my debate club and I am interested in political science and law, but my parents don’t see the benefits of why I debate, or what I’ll get out of it. Regardless of facing the cultural barriers of challenging what a Pakistani woman “should” be, it is a privilege to have the opportunity for higher education in America and to be an independent woman in America.

However, there are other times where I can appreciate the beauty and positive aspect of Pakistani culture. During Eid, the religious holiday celebrated after Ramadan, every year I find a missing puzzle piece in my life, each one of them bringing me closer to my culture and appreciating the positive aspects of being Pakistani-American . I see the colorful and decorative Shalwar Kameez dresses worn by aunties and the smell of delicious Biryani and chicken tikka. It’s the Celine Dion CDs and the Bollywood films that I have stored in my living room; it’s the South Asian restaurants and businesses that make me appreciate the importance of why I live in America. The great opportunities that America provides have made me realize the value of hardship and struggles that my parents have gone through.

In Chicago, living in a supportive South Asian neighborhood gives me many opportunities while also allowing me to experience American culture too. Embracing my culture and fulfilling my American dream is a long ride, so while I experience barriers to understanding Pakistani culture, I still have the positive aspects to celebrate and enjoy.

As for what my American dream is, it’s having the opportunity to constantly be educated and having equal opportunities. It’s also being able to make decisions freely in life without being pressured and judged for who I am.

There is no universal definition for the American Dream. For some it means happiness or success. For others it means freedom or social mobility. To most, it means all of these values and more. And because immigrating to and living in America means many things for many people — whether it be for equal opportunity or for a better life — the American Dream can only be defined by the dreamer themself.

So, what is your American Dream?

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Wajeeha Amir

Written by

Wajeeha is an After School Matters research intern at Greater Good Studio

Greater Good Studio

Greater Good Studio is a design firm dedicated to the social sector. We partner with organizations and communities to design human-centered solutions and build capacity for social innovation.