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International Voices

De-Mystifying the American Dream

We hear time and time again about the abundant opportunities America offers to its citizens and prospective citizens. It’s a blaring symbol of a promising future, or a blank canvas for a new life. Whether you were born in America or dreamed about moving here in hopes of fulfilling all the advantages this nation seems to have, for many being successful, in a variety of different forms, is a popular goal.

I’m a first generation Chinese American. Both of my parents were born in Hong Kong and moved to the United States with their respective families when they were about 5 years old. Although they weren’t old enough to truly know why they were moving, my grandparents had one thing in mind: a hope for a better life.

As both sets of my grandparents acclimated to life in the U.S., it wasn’t always easy. They both worked tirelessly to keep all their children in school, four on my dad’s side, six on my mom’s. As my parents got older, they took on jobs themselves to try and alleviate the financial burden. My mom, along with almost all of her siblings, worked since she was in high school. They took on odd jobs to help pay for tuition in school, and then began to pay their own way through college. Similarly, my dad and his brothers were working from an early age to support their parents and earn extra money on the side. My parents met during high school and realized they shared a very common narrative. Theirs wasn’t a new story, with many of their friends having a comparable journey of coming to America, but it was still a similar ground and a history they would never forget. As my parents got older, they gained some success. My mom, along with her siblings, all paid their own way through college and were hired at amazing jobs. Likewise, my dad and his siblings created rising businesses to work in what they loved. That was it, the American Dream. At its core, the “Dream” is the idea of coming to America and making a great life from something much smaller. More often than not, this manifests itself in a stable job, concrete relationships, and a feeling of security.

These are all great things, but what does this really look like currently? Often adults feel trapped in the mundane and feel they’re not truly happy. Being financially stable is a privilege not many people have, but if and when it’s obtained, do those who have worked so hard for it feel it’s paid off? Or do they want to go back to their home country?

Firstly, in order to understand the American Dream, we must understand where it came from. The term was first used during the 1930’s by historian James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America, describing America as “That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”

“You can trace back this idea of the dream and American exceptional-ism all the way back to the colonial period,” says Heather Levi, assistant professor in Anthropology, immigration, and the American Dream at Temple University. “In some ways we can trace it to this early colonial vision of the new world [as] the place where you can set up this religious utopia…in Alexis Tocqueville’s description, he describes it as this ‘cultural predilection’ toward the delightful anticipation of success.” Ironically enough, the term was used during the time of the Great Depression, yet it was representative of the fact that if anyone tried to be successful in America, they could.

There are also some distinctions to be made when dealing with how the American Dream looks like to each individual person. For my family, they saw it as a place where they could be more prosperous than the country they originally came from. Others see it as this idealized vision of an American home.

“I think the definition is this concept of a white picket fence and a happy home. But right now I don’t think it’s as obtainable because of the economy and when you’re in a city, it’s harder to live by,” says Iah Cadete, a Temple student who came to America from the Philippines when she was 6 years old.

Knowing where the term comes from and how it’s seen through the eyes of different people helps to shape the argument of how the American Dream is seen today. One common thread the American Dream is founded upon is the initial belief of success. However the dream looks to you, success is the main goal America will help you to achieve. In Jennifer Hochschild’s book, “Facing up to the American Dream,” Hochschild breaks up success into three categories: absolute, relative, and competitive. Absolute success is defined as the “threshold” we break once we’ve achieved our version of success, relative success as being better than what we compare ourselves to, and competitive success as being better than someone else. These three principles of success can be easily seen not only through the eyes of a person pursuing the American Dream, but the pursuit of success in general.

Once you know the success that you’re aiming for, the only thing left to see is how you’re going to get there. Hochschild leads back to the idea that if you want the dream, you can have it. Anybody is able to live above what they initially started out with and gain some inkling of success.

I don’t believe that the dream is as accessible as it’s made out to be. There are many social and economical setbacks that undermine the opportunity for success for many people, such as minority groups or those with disabilities.

Indeed, the ease of the American Dream proves a bit naive to some, reflected both later on in Hochschild’s book and in the opinions of Temple’s students.

“Systematically, it’s harder for minorities to succeed and break the barriers that the system has been put against them but there are those who break it. It’s possible but much harder,” says Chizoba Ugwu, student at Temple University whose parents came from Nigeria when they were 20 years old.

Despite these barriers, many people are able to succeed in their efforts to make life better. Reflecting upon the previous question of being satisfied once you’ve reached that point of success: where do you go from there?

“I know when my dad came here, he had the worst time because everyone treated him differently,” says Udochi Ekwerike, a Temple University student whose parents are both from Nigeria. “My dad thinks he’s fulfilled his time here and feels like everything he needed to do, he did. It’s his home [Nigeria]. It’s my mom’s home [Nigeria]. They’ve been successful and now they want to be [back] with their family [in Nigeria].”

I completely understand what she means by this. Once you, as a parent or anyone else for that matter, has completed a long journey, sometimes you just want to go back.

“The success they’ve reached here is still great, but after raising your children and [settling] in, your family is back home so you want to go back,” adds Ugwu.

For my parents it’s a bit different. They have assimilated to the culture from a young age and love the life they live here. But after carrying out the first part of the dream, going further than your initial level of success, you can be left with a part two: being happy.

“American culture places this very large value in being happy,” says Levi. “And so it’s inevitable that you’re going to run into this contradiction that on the one hand you need to be self-denying in order to live this dream, but the other part is assimilating and once you assimilate you find out you need to be happy. On the ugly flip side if you’re not happy, you’re a failure and something’s wrong with you.”

The many layers to the American Dream cannot be unpacked by any person. It is a multifaceted idea everyone has heard of but not everyone is truly able to live it out. America is able to provide copious amounts opportunities to people who search for them but sometimes, it’s just not what it’s cracked up to be. The dream is different, ever changing, and lies within your pursuit of it.