The Asian Pursuit of the American Dream

As second-generation Asian-Americans, we have all heard stories of the struggles our parents faced in their home countries. I have heard from my grandmother and mother about how they spent years trying to sponsor their family to the United States, find a home, and get a job. To them, America was a shining diamond in the distance that they had to reach. But why? In asking the question, I’m only to expect a similar response: “We did this all for you.”

Such a simple statement holds a much deeper meaning, and it can all be tied back into one popular term: The American Dream.

What is the American Dream?

According to Oxford’s dictionary, the American Dream can be defined as “the ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.”

Many of us are well acquainted with this phrase, whether it be through news channels questioning whether the dream is “dead” or “alive,” or maybe when you picked up F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and accompanied Jay Gatz through his unsuccessful attempts at trying to achieve it. Yet we sometimes fail to realize that this phrase not only had a large impact on our parents’ journeys here, but had also shaped our lives as second-generation Asian-Americans today.

We are expected to make the most of our education.

Recollecting my days in preschool and elementary school, I am inevitably brought back to memories of studying. I was a stellar student, but I was always tutored after school to achieve perfection. I distinctly remember forcing myself to stay awake to get a 100 on a reading exam in the 2nd grade, and I also remember my mother’s disappointment when I got an 87 on a math exam in the 3rd grade; it was my first time in my life getting below a 90. Growing up in a household that strictly reinforced academic success, I naturally find myself “lacking” if I receive something less than a 4.0 GPA.

Asian parents see education as the only key to success, and they expect their children to strive for nothing less than the best. They came to this country with almost nothing just to create a bright future for us. Therefore, as immigrants, they believe that a strong education is the foundation for a successful life in America. If, as minorities, we cannot economically surpass others, then with academic success we can be one step higher in the socioeconomic hierarchy. Like the definition of the dream states, it will take hard work, determination and initiative to do so.

With the expectation of such high credentials, the next step would then be choosing a career.

We are expected to pursue jobs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field — predominantly in medicine and engineering

Lucky for me, I do want to become a doctor, but when talking with my other Asian friends, they often complain about how their parents are forcing them to go to medical school.

Medicine and engineering are known to have the highest paying salaries, and a steady income is an essential for the American Dream. Success in this situation corresponds to monetary prosperity, hence an artistic career is most likely going to be frowned upon by our parents and will earn you a talk about the future. What is most important is stability and prosperity, as that will allow you to buy a big house, pay your bills, support your family, and provide for your parents when they retire.

The American Dream drives Asian immigrants to outline a structured future for their children, as this structure is seen as the only path to social and economic mobility. But what does this entail for the children growing up to pursue that dream?

There is undoubtedly a great deal of pressure that comes along with the burden of fulfilling this whole future that was planned out for you. It’s a burden that is less common to first wave European immigrants but largely prevalent in Asian families.

But doesn’t the American Dream guarantee success with hard work and determination?

Despite that quixotic description, such hard work hasn’t always been fruitful. Asians often face discrimination in the college selection process, for example, due to their high population in schools such as Harvard. Score requirements were then, in turn, much higher for Asians than for other applicants. College Apps: To Check or Not to Check Asian, an article by fellow Young Asian Leaders of America (YALA) writer Jacquelyn Kim, covers the difficulty of applying to colleges because of this.

Furthermore, even though there is a desire to climb socioeconomic rankings, in the workplace, discrimination against Asians is still prevalent. They are seen almost as invaders who are “taking away jobs from Americans.” Despite all this effort, it looks like the gap will still prevail, especially since the efforts of Asians are perceived negatively by others.

In short, the American Dream is highly valued by Asian immigrants and their children are expected to acknowledge the struggles their parents had in coming to America by fulfilling this Dream. This discourages their children to explore their own interests and desires, forcing them to live their lives according to the happiness of their parents. Successfully fulfilling that dream also comes with difficulty, as Asians are not acknowledged for their work but are rather faced with cases of stereotyping in schools and in jobs, which automatically discounts the phrase “equal opportunity” that is core tenant of the Dream’s definition. It’s emotionally taxing for second-generation Asian-Americans, especially for those like me who are going to start their journey in higher education.

Fulfilling the Dream is encouraged and glorified, but at what cost?

This article was written by Rhema Matcha and edited by James Noh.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Young Asian Leaders of America.

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