A moderate American Dream
Erin Shang | Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Several decades ago, a stout man stood on the steps of Lincoln Memorial, in midst of a group of priests and facing a large crowd of dreamers. His determined and inspiring voice reckoned, “I have a dream, one that’s deeply rooted in the American dream … ”
Several decades later, a tall, white male sits facing cameras and reporters, recognizable by his iconic blonde hair. He puts on the politician’s smile and says, “King’s dream is our dream. It is the American Dream.”
That classic phrase “the American Dream” traversed through time, witnessed the downfall of the notion of a “trustworthy” government, leaped into the 21st century, reignited hope by a war against terrorism and now still sets off ripples of excitement within most people on this land. Over decades, it was washed over by waves of political turmoil, but it seems to still be there, though it felt somehow unreal when Trump said it.
I’ve never had personal encounters with the American Dream myself, yet there are quite a few stories that intertwined with mine.
He’s a student at Columbia University, and we met last summer in New York City. Summers in New York can sometimes get a bit hot and damp, so we were sitting in an ice cream shop. We just finished a touristy visit to MOMA, but were still in the discussion about a painting that was themed the American Dream. So he started telling me his family’s story.
“Well, I still believe in it,” he said, “because frankly, my family is living it.”
It was in the 1970s. China was in a economic quagmire and was politically paralyzed. The alternative form of “cannibalism” inflicted on people by the government drove many people hysterical. His parents were among the few that were able to escape the regime and were offered political asylum by the United States.
“America took them in, when they were in their most devastated state. It wasn’t that their hopes were shattered, but they just didn’t dare to dream anymore,” he said, and though he had never personally experienced it, the shadow of political persecution still seemed to brood over him.
Yet he was still full of hope. He said that he and his family were the survivors showcasing the victory against suppression and despair. “That’s why I still believe in the American Dream.”
I’ve heard lots of similar stories from friends whose families immigrated to the United States in the past. The stories are similar, in a way that they are all full of hope, and are all woven together into “American Dream”.
In fact, for many foreigners like myself, after filters imposed by the internet firewalls and political correctness, “American Dream” is exactly the national ethos of the United States. Under the flashing Hollywood spotlights and driven by the engines of entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley, America is the land where all dreams could come true, and everyone could have a right to pursue happiness. The American Dream seemed distant, but special, and everyone can be a part of it.
I think we all hoped that every story could be like this one, inspiring and touching. However, this is simply not the truth, as there is always another side of the same coin.
The new immigration policies following the new presidency in November 2016 tilted the balance. Around the same day I had this discussion about the American Dream with my friend, I saw a post from a girl who was rejected of her H1B work visa application, and was updating her contacts of her most recent status.
“I know this would happen. It’s a lottery process after all,” she wrote. “It still felt weird when my immigration document was stamped on a label that reads ‘Permanent Departure’.”
It was more than nostalgia she felt when she realized that the stamp on her document marked the official end of the eight years she spent in the United States. It was a farewell to her high school and college friends, her memories, her teenage years — on a permanent basis.
She wrote, “It’s like waking up from a dream.”
Unfortunately, her story is quite reflective of the ”American Dream” in the 21st century. The executive order in January of last year halting all refugee admissions and travels from seven Muslim-majority countries seemed to have signaled everything that followed. A friend from Iran was no longer able to travel back to see his family, since he could be denied of admission when he travelled back. H1B policy became stricter than ever. The renunciation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) further brought many people to question: Does the American Dream still exist?
But I’m not here to simply conclude in condemning the superficiality of idealism or commenting on immigration policies with frivolous wrath. Before I give my answer to the question, I hope to first further elaborate on the second story.
The to-be-continued part of that story is actually pretty sweet. She was relocated by her firm to another country, met her Mr. Right and is living a happy life. Her American dream gradually became an obscure miniature of her early years spent in the States. It’s like an orbuculum that embodied all of her past — her struggles, her joy, her fear, her excitement, and through which she could see her younger self transitioning into who she has become today. The American Dream shaped her.
And she added something to it too. Through the course of history she became a part of the American Dream as well, like the Earth in the Milky Way — small and insignificant, but still, important and irreplaceable. For her, and for many others, the American Dream is no longer the end goal itself, but a means to another ultimate goal, a phase in her life, or a courier station, from which she sets off.
Back in the beginning of 20th century, an Italian person came to the United States and went through immigration at Ellis Island. The person said “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold.”
Are the streets paved with gold? No.
Are the streets still unpaved at all? Mostly, no.
With a more globalized world and the fast paced development of global economy, it is quite inevitable that the streets in the United States have already been paved, and they don’t need more workers to pave them anymore. However, going back to my earlier question of whether the American Dream still exists, I think yes, it still does. It just became more moderate as compared to its earlier state. The paved paths in fact enable us to walk on them more fearlessly into the future, to continue living, and to conquer something greater than ever.
And this is exactly the moderate American Dream.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.