March 2, 2010

The American Dream vs. the America+ Some Other Country (ies) Dream

There are two types of American dream. The first one is that of a foreigner in some oppressed land where he has no freedom and no opportunity to advance himself or his family. He may suffer from the lack of political freedoms, or poverty in spite of all his hard work there. For such a man, America looms as a paradise in which his basic requirement are all met and where he becomes truly happy.

The second American dream is by a native-born person- it is about establishing a career in the field one wants to pursue and making big money at it. One then finds the partner of one's dreams, gets married, buys a beautiful house and lives happily thereafter with a new family.

Both dreams are imperfect. They are based on many false assumptions and filled with naiveté. The foreigner usually has no idea what America is all about. He thinks it is a country where money lies around on the streets. Sure, he is now getting paid in dollars, but everything is equally expensive, too. And, while he may be a subject of respect back home and is now called “ an American” by the people whom he left behind, he is but a nobody in the US. Unless, of course, he has some exceptional skill that the country needs. For most people, however, life in America is a hard struggle to advance and attain the middle class status. For many it takes a generation or two.

Young immigrant men may have it especially hard in the US. During their late teens or early twenties, the time when they should be dating and falling in love, they realize two painful things- American girls are not interested in Fresh.Off the Boat men ( F.O.Bs) as these appear clumsy and hick-like to them, and present very little value as boyfriends and future husbands. They also learn that within their own immigrant community, men often outnumber women and the guys that had been there before them now have the money and the status to get the best girls from that same community. Many of the immigrant women also prefer to date and marry the “real Americans” and not the struggling “fresh-off-the boat” bumpkins. These men also get caught in between two cultures. They are not yet accepted as Americans by the new society and they are no longer what they were to the people in the home country. Many cannot go back as they may not have the money to do so. Some of their countries may even arrest them if they attempt to go back. China and until recently, Vietnam were doing just that and many immigrants from there were caught in a cultural limbo in between the two places. For a Vietnamese refugee man to meet a beautiful VN-ese girl in the US would be quite hard as many prefer rich and handsome Americans or the long-established US- based VN-ese with cars, houses and businesses. Loneliness and alienation may drive many to join gangs and do all sorts of wild things as younger people often lack the maturity needed to face such solitude in a new land without being severely traumatized by it.

America has many good things, too: there is freedom of speech in the sense that you cannot get arrested for saying things against the government. You cannot be put in prison not paying a debt. The infrastructure and the services are top-notch. There are social programs for the very needy, as well. Products of all kinds are easily available delivered with a smile. Credit is easy to come by. You can purchase real estate and cars relatively easily, as well. There are student loans that can help you finish school. It is easy to get into colleges and earn diplomas and such US degrees are respected everywhere in the world. People treat customers nicely. There are laws to protect minorities and other non-mainstream people and you can sue people if you feel such laws are violated. There are numerous opportunities in many fields and if you know how to take advantage of them, you should be fine. US citizenship is also not hard to obtain, albeit harder than, say, the Canadian one. If you are stateless, the US government will provide you with a semblance of a passport- a “refugee travel document“. America has no major coup d'etats or revolutions. There are no true military invasions or occupations by foreign powers. So, one can thank America for many things that it can offer a prospective immigrant.

The bad things are- many things are so expensive now that the way to afford them is by using credit. Some forty or fifty years ago, basic salaries were often enough to live a good life. Now, they are not. So, people end up borrowing money to afford all the things that used to be affordable at much cheaper prices in the past. Many people are, therefore, indebted up to their ears and are working just to make the monthly payments. Taxes are high, medical services are also high. Even if you have medical insurance, you may end up paying a high deductible. So, you had better stay healthy.

Also, socially speaking, there is general unfriendliness and cliquishness in society. People are not easy to meet. Racial and ethnic groups often end up staying with their own kind. As in any other immigrant society, those who had been there before look down on newcomers. And, many children of immigrants can be particularly unfriendly to those who are fresh off the boat since as we know that &^%$% tends to travel down the hill. Also, just as a foreigner has a distorted idea of the American paradise, so does a native-born American has a distorted idea of the countries these new people come from- he thinks that these are very backward places with no electricity and no TV. If one’s English is accented and not fluent, one will be often treated as a hick or a mental *&&^%$%. Until one gets completely Americanized in behavior and speech, it is quite hard to fit into the US society, at least, on the social level. The closer one gets to the White Anglo Saxon Protestant in looks, speech, acting and thought, the better are one’s chances of fitting in. If not, one can be in for some lonely times. Hence, the somewhat off-the-mainstream people hang out together. Blacks with Blacks, Hispanics with Hispanics, Asians with Asians.

So, any immigrant who goes to the US needs to be aware of these things and weigh them carefully against his often idealistic expectations of life in the US. “Know before you go” applies to any place in the world, and the US is no exception. Still, all things considered, if one is adrift in the world, America is probably the best place to end up in.

The happiest immigrant in the US is the one who still maintains ties with the home country and uses dollars to build a nest egg where things are cheaper and where people now admire and seek him out as “that rich American”. These are the ones that you see smiling as they work hard in their noodle shops. They measure their worth not against the American standards, but against the standard of their cheap homeland where they are now treated as kings even if they used to be treated as nobodies there before.

The native- born person’s dream to buy a house, get married and live happily ever after also needs to be weighed against the realities of the American society today. With divorce rates sky-high, one can lose one’s shirt during a divorce settlement as the laws are heavily slanted in favor of women. Childbirth is expensive unless you are very poor and the government can pick up the tab for you. Raising kids is also expensive. Becoming a member of America’s middle class is not easy and, even if you become one, you will find yourself in a very unenviable position where your money seems to disappear right and left and you feel squeezed on both sides- from the strata above you and the strata belowow you. The very rich have tax loopholes and the very poor have welfare but if you are in the middle, it is hard to get rich. One ends up working very hard to maintain a semi-decent standard of living while supporting a government that does not even have national health insurance since America is the only developed nation in the world that does not offer it.

Becoming a doctor or a lawyer is probably the fastest and easiest way to propel oneself up and beyond the middle class category but is that what you want to do?

Dating is also quite hard for an average American guy as local women have enormously high standards as to the kind of man which they think they deserve to have. They want rich and handsome guys with enormous incomes. This leaves a lot of average guys behind, living lives of harsh work coupled with blank and consistent solitude.

The native-born American who is not a doctor or a lawyer can learn something from the happy, noodle-soup-stirring immigrant. He may check out some countries where these immigrants come from and see if he likes them and would like to spend some of his time there. The idea for him is not to leave America forever, but to combine the US with those countries where the US dollar acquires incredible might once it is changed into the local currency. And, if one feels that one is hopelessly behind in the American rat-race, and is labeled a “loser“, one can leave it and position oneself against the rat-race of some other country where one will be decidedly ahead.

Here is one good example: about a hundred years ago, some of my ancestors had an American dream, a ‘South’ American dream, that is. They emigrated to Argentina. In the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was a land of promise- people from all over Europe were emigrating there in hordes, the economy was booming and a melting pot of nationalities was being crystallized into a new Euro-South American nation. Anybody could become an Argentine. A new, almost completely ethnically European country was being formed near the Antarctica. Great European-style cities were being built. Buenos Aires was one of the most exciting world capitals now, with Parisian architecture, opera houses, theaters of drama and ballet and a whole new culture of tango, great poetry and literature, and general sophistication on par with any European state. Argentinean tourists were traveling around the world in style while receiving the same respect as rich Americans were at that time.

However, something happened towards the middle of the century as the country's economy and politics began getting worse and worse. By the end of the 2nd millennium the largely European Argentina became a poor Third World country. Heaven only knows what happened to my relatives and their children and where they are now.

I, nevertheless, decided to take advantage of the cheap prices in the country and went there in the summer of 2005. While I was never much of a Mr. Popularity or the Man Most Likely to Succeed in America, I used my US citizenship to make money as an English teacher in Saudi, Kuwait and Oman, changed my money into US dollars and ended up in Buenos Aires armed with wads of cash, debit cards from US banks, and a big smile on my face. Boy, did I have a ball! I stayed in downtown hotels in Buenos Aires, I traveled everywhere by taxi, I went to exclusive nightclubs and walked around that magnificent European city like a well-off man. I went to restaurants that only the rich locals could afford, and hobnobbed with the cream of the local society. The exchange rate of three Argentinean pesos to the dollar made me three times richer- literally. I felt that, probably, by sending some telepathic prayers from a hundred years ago, my ancestors who ended up in that city, somehow fulfilled their dream of becoming a rich Argentine through me. I also felt that I was like a deep water diver who ended up in that country as one would under water, and my air supply was in the form of American dollars turned into pesos. For the first time in my life I felt what it was like to be rich in the “West”- a strange, suddenly impoverished “West” near the South Pole.

I remember that once when I was a kid in my native country I was walking in the port area where a large foreign ship had docked in. The ship was from Argentina. The tourists from it were getting ready for a stroll around the city ,and one of them looked at me and gave me a piece of chewing gum. He had probably thought that I was so poor I could not afford it. Some thirty years later, as I was doing my shopping in Buenos Aires, I remembered the event with a smirk, bought some chewing gum and gave it to a teenager who was begging in front of the local McDonald’s. “Here, Argentina, my debt to you has now been repaid!” . And my ( South) American dream of strutting around like a rich man in another melting-pot American country had come true. I had the money to buy a house or rent a big one there, I could most easily have fallen in love with a local lady if I wanted to, and, I was economically somewhat on top of things. Was this an American dream come true? Kind of. At least to me, it was. I also learned something about “foreign currency manipulations” but, to me again, it was just finding a place where my dollars could buy more.

So, if your American dream has not come true yet, and you feel like you are running out of time, consider creating a somewhat modified version of it, which would involve some other country in addition to the US. With enough imagination, preparation and guts, you may attain it sooner than you think, although its realization may happen in places you had never even thought of traveling to before.

No comments: