by Tasnim Khandakar
What is the American Dream? Is it jazz music and baseball barbeques, or Fourth of July fireworks and Super Bowl Sundays? Or is it something not so obvious—working midnight shifts, translating for your parents, and going home on the weekends to support your family? Whatever it means, it’s safe to say that the American Dream is not what it used to be. According to the Migration Policy Institute, over 41.3 million immigrants have been living in the United States since 2013. With such large figures, we must consider that today’s American Dream is not the one of little over a decade ago.
I started thinking about this topic when my roommate told me that Valentine’s Day marked 13 years since she and her family immigrated to the United States from Yemen. Her experience being an immigrant in America greatly affected her views on what it means to be American. At times, she was not Yemeni enough with her “broken dialect”, and yet, she never really fit into the classical American teenage lifestyle characterized by slumber parties and movie nights.
“Sometimes, it feels like it’s been 20 years. Other times, it feels like only 7,” says my roommate.
Despite this internal conflict, she is now happy with who she is and where she is from. She believes in a future where she can give back to her family and pursue her dreams in the medical field. She believes in her younger siblings and their potential for higher education and doing what they love as well.
This is her American Dream: achieving her goals, despite all the reasons she is not able to.
While there are ways in which my roommate is striving for the same things others have striven for before her, it is a stretch to say the American Dream hasn't changed from it’s old Gatsby days. That green light in the distance is not the same light many Americans see today. In 1931, writer James T. Adams said that the dream was to work for a “better and richer” life for everyone, regardless of where they were born and their socioeconomic status. In many ways, this idea of the dream holds true. We all want to strive for a better life despite our circumstances. In 2007, President Barack Obama gave a speech about the American Dream where he says that Americans have faith in simple dreams: “A job with wages that can support a family. Health care that we can count on and afford. A retirement that is dignified and secure. Education and opportunity for our kids. Common hopes. American dreams.” These simple yet common dreams are the same dreams that drove my parents, my roommate, and many others to achieve in America.
However, it has, without a doubt, become significantly harder to chase the American Dream. Nowadays, studies estimate that 83% of college graduates do not have a job post-grad and only 27% have jobs actually related to their major. With the economy changing rapidly, minimum wages simply don't make the cut for rent, education, and other utilities. Sometimes, two incomes don’t either. It has become harder for the bottom 20% to make it to the top 20%. In fact, within the immigrant population, only 29% actually attend college, unable to receive their fair share of the American Dream. This contradicts the ideology of 1931, where anyone, regardless of where they are from, should be able to achieve success. The ethos of the American Dream is slipping away and, for many immigrants, becoming harder to grasp.
With this in mind, how is there still hope for dreams? In addition to all the inherent struggles of achieving the American Dream, children of immigrants must balance multiple responsibilities, such as translating for their parents or working to pay for their education. Immigrants themselves have to struggle with learning new languages as well as pursuing a better living standard. According to my roommate, it has been challenging, but she always thinks about how she has already made it this far. For her whole life, she has been told to go find opportunities. If there were none, she was to make it happen regardless.
Ultimately, it boils down to a built-in sense of problem solving. There are many obstacles that are stopping us, some of them bigger than others, but my roommate says that it is important to know how to deal with and get the best out of these obstacles. Furthermore, she finds hope in kinship, family, and friends that are going through the same challenges.
“Is this the American dream? Ours doesn't have the white picket fence, but it does have a household who is always looking out for each other because we are all we have here,” she says.
As we look deeper into what the American Dream means nowadays, we begin to realize that it is hard to simply hope the American Dream will come to us eventually; this dream has long since changed. So the final question to be asked is: What is the American Dream now? Personally, I don’t believe the “one-size-fits-all” American Dream that used to exist still does. While we all essentially want better jobs, adequate healthcare, and a comfortable retirement, it has become more than just that. The American Dream differs from person to person, especially with immigrants of color. For some immigrant parents, their children are their American Dream. For others, it is to make sure their children do not have to face the same hardships they once did.
While many people would argue that the American dream has long been a hoax, I have to disagree. Tell that to my roommate or any immigrant family in America, who left everything behind in hopes of a better life. This dream is still alive and breathing, but it has evolved into something more complex. These are the very dreams that drive us to succeed despite all the things telling us not to. These are the dreams that bring us to college, to successful careers that give us prospects of a better life. These dreams are not only for our futures, but for the generations after us.