The Improbable American Dream: Independence Day reflections

“You were born with [an American passport],” my cousin said over WeChat yesterday, “So you will never understand those who desire it so much.” I will point out that my cousin was born in Australia and now lives in Makati, the wealthy district in Manila, with two live-in maids. His father, my uncle, is a tenured professor in Hong Kong who came up with a math theorem and now jets to conferences and lectures all around the world (but mostly Asia) on government grant money. My uncle is arguably much more successful, in terms of both finances and status, than his younger brother, my father. They certainly do not have the financial pressures that fuel that desire to be American.

Yet, many wealthy Chinese people are flocking to the US, where they don’t speak the language (well) and are viewed as second-class citizens. I have a friend whose mother was a physician in China, and when she moved here, she was downgraded to being a lab technician. My own mother was a teacher in China, which is much more lucrative and prestigious than in America because of the intense respect for education, and when she moved here, she wound up working in various fast food restaurants and later various casinos in Las Vegas.

They do it because they think America is still so much wealthier and stronger, as the radio show This American Life pointed out in a recent episode, and they do it because they think it will offer more opportunities–if not for themselves, then for their children. Some Chinese families even send their children–as early as middle school–alone to the US to get an education and a better chance of getting into college and eventually staying here.

In a way, my cousin’s disparaging comment was right. I don’t really understand–not beyond a purely intellectual understanding–why wealthy families want to come here when they seem to have more benefits in China. When I was visiting my grandmother in Shanghai in April, I heard from many locals (friends of my stepmother) about the state of affairs in China, and that shed some light. The gist of it is that the radio show was more or less right, and they think there is a great deal of inequality and classism in China that America lacks. They think that living in America will guarantee the rights that the Founding Fathers listed in the Declaration of Independence, when they said:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Equality, liberty, happiness–these are the ideals for which men lost their lives, the ideals that now draw so many immigrants, wealthy and poor alike, to the US as moths are drawn to a flame. As a flame, it can be deceptively beautiful and ultimately destructive.

American-born citizens know very well that there is no guarantee of equality. The entire #BlackLivesMatter movement, the lack of national outrage over the multiple arsons in predominantly black churches is proof of that. My own family’s poverty despite being highly educated in China, the way people treat(ed) them because they have(/had) accents, the tragic way my mother lived and died are also proof of that.


On my way back from Boston, I read another immigrant story, and my chest hurt from the helplessness of it all. The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai, is a gorgeously woven story of Southeast Asian politics, individual loss, socioeconomic inequality, and the complexity of the immigrant identity. I was struck by the storyline of Biju, the son of a poor Indian cook, who moves to America illegally and bounces from one terrible underpaid job to another. (It reminded me of the play Stuck Elevator, based on a true story, in which the illegal Chinese immigrant Guang gets stuck in an elevator for three days while trying to deliver food, and no one really cares and he’s too afraid to get deported if he asks for help.) But here’s the thing–as terrible as this “common experience of impotence and humiliation” is, for many immigrants it’s a better alternative to their fate in their home countries. It’s just not the alternative they were expecting.

In the end, one of the reasons America has remained this beacon of hope is that even though the American Dream is improbable, unlike a lot of other places, it’s not impossible. I just roasted a pan full of fingerling potatoes, something I had never eaten before college because they were more expensive than regular potatoes. Last month, I didn’t think too hard about spending $25 on a jacket, whereas in high school, I had to call my mother to ask if I could buy a $15 dress for prom because we had never spent that much money on clothing before. The parents of most of my friends are professors or doctors. I am more worried about whether I will have a fulfilling career than whether I will have food to eat.

The fact that I am here, getting my PhD, friends with people who came from such different backgrounds, so far in so many ways from where I started, is proof of mobility. As sad as I am for the (seemingly) hopeless inequalities in our society, for the inevitable disillusionment of poor immigrants, for my parents, for my mother, I am also deeply grateful that I am here, living a life that many people in the world could never even dream of.

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