Saturday, November 21, 2009

American Dream vs. American Reality

The alarm blares before the wings of dawn spread across the horizon, jarring awake a woman taking refuge in rest. She rises slowly, feeling the aches in her joints, fully aware that for her, acknowledging pain is time wasted. She cooks herself a modest breakfast, takes a shower, gets dressed for work and kisses her slumbering son on the forehead before rushing off to take the E train. There is no respite for her during this long commute; her mind is busy trying to figure how what percentage of next week’s paycheck will go towards her son's Cystic Fibrosis treatment co-pay. The woman graduated with a degree in Science, but works as an entry-level custodian, spending countless hours on her feet, restoring those grimy tiles into their sanitized and luminescent glory. She knows she is overqualified for this position and dreams of someday working as a high school science teacher, but even her mother has told her to stop reaching towards the sky; she is not an American. So she puts on a brave face, watching people live out her dreams, waiting for that beautiful day when she will swear allegiance to the United States of America.

This woman's name could Mairead, Maria, Ming, or Muna. She shares the seemingly unreachable dream of nameless and faceless shadows in our country who risk their dignity and lives for a chance to live the American Dream. They leave behind lives of either certain comfort or indefinite poverty for one of uncertainty, yet tinged with promise. On the edge of maybe they come: the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. They come to America clutching tickets and boarding planes with the blessing of their families and the approval of the USCIS. Others come as children of the night, streaking across deserts or swim across the other side of the river. They come for the American Dream and instead, they face American Reality.

The reality is that in this land of plenty, there is plenty of want. With over 13.8 million hungry children, 1.35 million homeless children, and 64.8 million children with no health insurance, promises are broken and children are being left behind. One only has to walk through Harvard Square to see the disparity of the haves and the have-nots. Inside Johnson gate, students are cloistered in a world of Facebook, Loboutin, Aristotle and Tommy Doyle’s. Step outside from within its confines, and one would see an old homeless woman pushing a shopping car filled with her belongings, and a mother playing peek-a-boo with her dirt-covered toddler. It is ironic how the cost of a Balenciaga City bag is the same amount it takes to feed, clothe and shelter that toddler for one wintry month. Costing over one thousand dollars, it is the same amount, after taxes, that a Harvard custodian makes in a month, working a minimum of forty hours a week.

My grandma once told me that the United States is the land of milk and honey. Ironically, people her age can barely afford to buy milk and honey. A disproportionate number of senior citizens who live on fixed income often have to choose between medication or food. Stroll down the aisles of your local grocery store, and you will see a nice old lady who could be your grandmother buying cheap ramen noodles with zero nutritional value while wistfully gazing at a can of corned beef. What is the price of a grandfather’s life in this land of milk and honey? One month’s heating bill? One month’s bus pass?

Immigrant fathers dream of giving their sons the lives they never had, but the reality is that in our country—the leader of the free world—we are trapped by the high cost of a dream. Is it really free to dream? While minorities can now sit in front of the bus if they so choose, socio-economic disparity dictates that immigrants and minorities seeking a better life stay where they are. A black child from South Central may have the brains to get into Princeton, but Early Action ensures that she attend her local community college instead, because time does not give her the luxury of comparing financial aid offers that have march 1st deadlines. Scholarships and grants simply do not meet the number of dreamers who could be leaders, and those who gamble with loans do so saddled with debt before they even receive their cap and gown. Some triumph against all odds, but some stop reaching or even looking toward the skies. To dream is free, yet the price of hope is heartache.

Many immigrants come to the United States with dreams of escaping religious and political persecution, but find themselves the target of hostility and suspicion because they wear a hijab, light incense for Buddha or roll their Rs excessively. The reality is that in here, a Chinese scholar with perfect grammar will still be told he speaks “broken” English because of the accent with which he pronounces his words. Just like how the Mason-Dixie line divides the North from the South, accent has been used as a measure of the wholeness of one’s thoughts and intellect; a means to divide the smart from the dumb, the patriot from the terrorist.

The American Dream is one filled with hope and promise, yet the American Reality is one of blindness. Although our society is aware of the existence of inequities, society turns away, thinking it can correct them tomorrow or some other day. What we as a society fail to realize is that we’ve turned away one too many times and uttered “tomorrow” and “someday” for far too long. One day, we will realize that the reality is that there won’t be a tomorrow.

M's son recognizes the footsteps even before he hears the jangle of the doorknob. He recognizes it by its sound; the weariness, the tired feet and the determination to ignore the pain. M walks over to him, gives him a hug, whispers "I love you," and asks him about his day. M rests for a while, rubbing her legs, before they eat. She takes her dishes into the kitchen, washes up and gets ready for bed. Tomorrow, before the wings of dawn stretch across the horizon, M will get up. The cycle continues.

She still believes in the American Dream.

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We must never permit the voice of humanity
within us to be silenced. It is Man's sympathy with all creatures that first makes him a Man.

--Albert Schweitzer

Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

--Viktor E. Frankl