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dreams of suburbia–the american dream in flux


The idea of the American dream, putting aside its issues of buying into the myth of the meritocracy and its function as rich person propaganda to convince the poor their lot in life is their own fault, is one so starkly distinct in those who fall victim to it. The white picket fence, the dreams of suburbia, even more abstract ideologies of social mobility are nothing more than a gross overgeneralization of a nuanced fantasy that unfortunately can never truly be translated to all aspects of life in the way dreamers intend. For if the American dream could ever truly be achieved, my family would have done it already. I don’t mean that in a narcissistic, self-congratulatory way. The American dream, in its prioritization of social mobility and financial stability through assets and commodities, liquid or otherwise, should be theoretically achievable once you accumulate a certain amount of wealth. My parents have already achieved that. I write this as I wait for my flight to Tokyo, a simple pleasure trip, in a private phone room in the United Polaris Lounge, reserved for customers with the fancy plane seats, the ones that recline all the way and come with two blankets, not one, just in case your torso craves the extra warmth I suppose. I can’t help but shake the feeling we’ve made it, there’s nothing more in life I could want, truly.

I didn’t grow up this way, to be clear. I don’t like talking about my life because people assume wealth comes with entitlement. That’s mostly true, but there’s also the unshakeable environment I was raised in. The one where we cut cable for two years because we couldn’t afford the amount of cartoons my brother would watch. The one where my parents traveled to client meetings living out of an RV because they couldn’t afford anything else, the one where my mother had to leave her two-day old newborn at the hospital to go back to work. You don’t grow up like that for years to suddenly become the type of person to buy 99 cent games on the App Store just because you’re bored. It stays with you a bit, no matter how much you try to pretend you’ve grown out of it. But that’s beside the point.

My parents wanted nothing more than to be financially secure. My father, more than anything. That was their American dream, the same as most immigrants. But he assumed that once he was wealthy, that would solve everything else. Immigrants in America, no, POC immigrants in America, face a choice. They must assimilate just for the chance to be perceived as equal. No amount of wealth will change this. Pockets may run deep on Savile Row MTM suits, but never deep enough to gouge the eyes of bigots who’ve mistaken themselves for jurors. And so immigrants risk losing everything, leaving everything behind, for a wealth that requires the sacrifice of belonging. Because if it didn’t, my father wouldn’t have to make sure he always left for a client meeting with his American flag enamel pin on his suit lapel. He wouldn’t laugh politely as the grocery clerk spat out some propaganda she heard on Fox News the other day. He isn’t fearful, he isn’t trying to understand them better, as much as he may say he is. Even the act of trying to understand someone better implies a base level as equals, or as the one in power, like a parent concerned about their child’s poor exam performance. That isn’t a luxury gifted upon immigrants, they don’t get to judge the default. They can, but that does not absolve them of their consistent need to prove themselves, prove their right just to exist.

We exist in a sort of power, too. My parents may be POC immigrants, placing them below European immigrants on the totem pole, but we still benefit from the model minority myth. There’s only a 50/50 chance the very grocery clerks that complain to my father will turn to complain about him the moment he leaves. It’s a trap many Asian American immigrants find themselves buying into. Left without a true way to be a part of something in the same way as their American-born counterparts, they use their financial successes as a measure to indicate worth, turning on their other immigrant brethren who may not benefit from racial stereotyping in the same way. They’re financially stable, therefore they’re successful. Therefore they don’t talk about the depth of the tendrils of racism, of nationalism, of the unshakeable feeling of otherness. But what about their children, first-generation Americans, who feel entitled to a sense of belonging in a way their immigrant parents are simply unable to?

We were born in this country, just as our classmates with colonist ancestors. The only differences between us and them are that 1) we are of color, and 2) that we are first-generation, not second or third or fourth or so on. As children born here, as children who could grow up dreaming of becoming the President, of holding any position as our classmates, we logically shouldn’t have held the same feeling of otherness. But if that were true I wouldn’t have gone five years of not eating at lunchtime because I was scared my parathas would be too smelly. If that were true I wouldn’t have begged my mother to stop putting coconut oil in my hair because people at school wouldn’t sit next to me. I cannot speak to the immigrant experience more than in what I’ve witnessed from my parents, but I can speak to the first-generation experience, a unique situation with its own unique problems. I’m by no means comparing the two, implying that I had it more difficult, or anything of that sort. I view it as a sort of hierarchy of needs. I’ve achieved financial stability, or rather, I grew into it through my parents achieving it. Now that I no longer have that concern, I’m left looking for more, for a sense of community in America, or even back in India. I’m left with neither. I can go my entire life without feeling this as a burden or heavy weight on my chest. But whenever I stop and think, whenever I’m left alone with my thoughts in the shower or on public transit too long, they often creep back to this.

I never left a home, left a community I called my own, to risk it all. I was simply born without one. I existed in a space I never truly got to call my own, whether on the basis of the color of my skin or the fact that I grew up with little quirks that can only ever be absorbed from a poor replication of what an outsider tries to view as the American experience. I call Warren Buffet Warren buffet, when I asked my mom to make me a normal sandwich for lunch she lathered the white Wonder Bread with green chutney, because how would she know otherwise? And so my life as an Indian American is left as nothing more than a shoddy impersonation of two cultures. My American dream is nothing more than a distraction, an infatuation with jhumkas and jeans that feels so detached from my relationship with my heritage that I'm left wondering if it borders on fetishization. I can't in good faith reconnect with my culture when doing so involves using Duolingo to learn Hindi and following New York Times recipes for palek paneer.

My American dream is nothing more than a desire to connect with identities that should belong to me in a way that doesn't feel appropriative. And it comes with a unique kind of loneliness, when you should, logically be a part of communities greater than yourself but are left banging on a glass wall, desperate for a way in to a room you can see perfectly clearly but never truly understand.

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