This Immigrant Has Doubts About Chasing The American Dream

By Jeannie Lee

Chasing the American Dream is a challenging notion for me.

The action is never ending (Chasing); the condition does not fully embrace and recognize my whole being as a Korean American immigrant woman (American); and the end result is unattainable (Dream).

Imagine my surprise when my score for the Chasing the American Dream survey was 60 out of 100. According to this score, I am doing well, but this is not accurate. This score neglects important factors, struggles and obstacles that I had to overcome in spite of a system that was not set up for my success. I did not expect this result as an immigrant who came this country as a 5 year old.

On the surface, I am doing well – employed, healthy, insured, educated and housed. Yet, these marks of success towards chasing the American Dream came at a high cost for me. Besides, I’m probably not doing as “well” as others who received the same score. This score reflects a superficial success, which makes it easy to neglect the larger and more significant part of my experience.

Success as defined by the survey came to me after much sacrifice and effort. My race and gender (neither of which I can hide from or mask) and immigration status immediately put me at a disadvantage and became obstacles on my path.

Being Asian American is complicated. We have historically been positioned as that “successful” racial/ethnic group who overcame obstacles compared to other communities of color who were less successful. While this notion made some in my Asian American community proud of their achievements, some others became very aware of our vulnerable position as targets of misinformation and misdirected resentment.

Even today, a recurrence of the Model Minority Myth continues. Instead of complimenting our cultural work and educational values, the myth is set up to mock and devalue other communities of color, especially African Americans. As a result, it often isolates and creates distrust of Asian American communities by other communities of color and allies, making us another disconnected and untrustworthy minority like Muslims. Ironically, being labeled deceitful causes many Asian Americans to work even harder to overcome obstacles in order to attain the American Dream so they can prove their loyalty and worth as humans.

Being a woman means also puts me at a disadvantage. It’s as if nothing has changed within my lifetime and the same old sexism continues to rear its ugly head. Truth be told, conditions have only nominally improved for women and at the end of the day, women are still having to compensate and be more clever than their males counterparts if they want to succeed.

As for being an immigrant, it means I am a foreigner who is perhaps seen by some not as “loyal” as a native-born American. This particular status of mine became a lightening rod with recent immigration legislation proposed by the Trump administration. As a naturalized US citizen, my place in this country is secure and my immigrant status is no longer a concern. But when the recent Executive Order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries was issued, I sprung into action. I was reminded that though I am now a citizen, I was once an immigrant and as vulnerable as those banned under that executive order.

Factors that contributed to my road to the “American Dream” can often be traced to difficult and compromising choices that my parents made who stayed together to raise our family. My mother became a full-time stay-at-home mother so that my father could work 7 days a week most of his life. The choice of where to live was made according to the school district that gave us the best education possible – even if it meant risky housing choices where we were not completely welcome. The pressure to be academically successful was tremendous and stressful. In my culture a solid degree is the cultural expectation, and more importantly, is believed to increase one’s likelihood to succeed in this less-than-equitable country.

Which brings me to the conclusion as to why my score of 60 out of 100 is not accurate. Of course, my experience is unique to me and excludes the multiplicity of experiences that make America what it is today or will be tomorrow. But I believe “Chasing the American Dream” will be a futile and empty concept until the playing field is leveled and somehow 200-plus years of injustice is corrected.

What we need to do is to reshape the end goal, and make it one which includes true liberty, freedom and justice. Until those three are attained for all, none of us are even remotely Chasing the American Dream.

Jeannie Lee it the Manager of Facilities and Hospitality at the Auburn Seminary in New York.

This piece first appeared in PBS as part of their Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in AmericaYour American Dream Score is an initiative of Moving Up, an online platform designed to create a new conversation about what it takes to get ahead in America.  YADS asks respondents to answer 13 questions about their life. Each question represents a factor that research shows correlates to social mobility and/or happiness in life. 

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