Thursday, November 15, 2007

The American Dream

For the last few days I've been engrossed in a novel by Min Jin Lee, Free Food for Millionaires (Warner Books, 2007). The novel isn't for the faint of heart--at least in terms of length, for it clocks in at 562 pages. And while it's probably a stretch to call it "epic" (the last novel I read that I truly felt was epic was Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy which was nearly three times the length of Lee's and I was so taken by it that I was staying up until 3am to finish (this while I was in grad school) because I didn't want to do any of my other reading until I completed it--it doesn't disappoint) it does remind me of a rambling Russian or Victorian novel, something along the lines of Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), Nicholas Nickelby (Dickens), Far from the Madding Crowd (Hardy). It focuses on Casey Han, 1.5 generation Korean American Princeton grad, a girl who grew up in a 2 bedroom apartment in Queens, whose parents manage a dry cleaning business in Manhattan, and who is struggling to find her place in the world. But the novel also traces other families, boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, and acquaintances through omniscient narration. It actually reminds me, most keenly, of Tolstoy.

Which is why it was odd to read that one reviewer described the plot as one in which Korean immigrant families pursue the "American dream."

What is the American Dream? This continues the discussion of class from the previous post, because it seems as if the American Dream is about upward mobility. About achieving more than the previous generations--more education, more wealth, more access to leisure time, more material goods. The American Dream is a 3 bedroom house in the suburbs with a 2 car garage and a nuclear family and a dog and holidays at the seashore or mountains and college savings accounts. Or is this simply one middle-class version? Perhaps it's having more than where you came from before--which is especially true in terms of certain immigrants. Bigger living spaces. More job opportunities. A wide selection of cereal in supermarkets. Or just supermarkets versus markets. Or perhaps just not worrying about basic survival and safety (I think this is especially true for people who are war refugees).

But if the American Dream is about upward mobility, what happens when you are at that pinnacle--when you have the house in the suburb are your children supposed to also have a country home, and if you own two homes, then is the following generation supposed to become millionaires? And if you are a millionaire, must your progeny try to top that as well? When does it end? When is enough, enough?

There is a dark side to The American Dream and to class issues in America--and although class isn't always tied to race, anyone who examines the history of how America came to become such a rich nation and a superpower must contend with the legacy of free and cheap labor that came at the cost of dark skinned bodies (African slavery, Chinese coolie labor, and currently exploited Mexican farm workers).


s-fizzle said...

I completely agree. There is the dark side to the "American Dream". For my parents, they came to this country thinking that there would be a lot more opportunities for upward mobility than they would have in Korea. I think that even though there are a lot more opportunities here, there are a lot more obstacles as well. I think that their identity here has been more actualized when they were in korea, because being surrounded by koreans, they weren't so aware that their ethnicity is korean. Just being in America, it forced them to choose an identity. But for someone like me, it's harder. I know I am asian, I know I am Korean (by ethnicity) but I identify myself with the Western culture and being an American. My passport, my birth, and my life has been in America. When I went to Korea, I felt like a stranger walking among people who look like me. It was a huge eye-opening experience, because I always identified myself as Korean up until that point.

s-fizzle said...

PS. I love reading your blog. =D

Jennifer said...

I know what you mean. I really don't feel Chinese--although I do feel, at times, Chinese American. I suppose it's really context-driven. For example, when I am with other Chinese American people--there is a certain short hand and in some cases, a common experience that feels comfortable--but I'm never entirely sure if this is partly because of "common culture" or this is a reaction to having an "oppositional identity" (ie: not growing up white middle-class American).

I also thought (but never admitted to anyone at the time) that I might feel some sort've connection when I finally visited China/Hong Kong. But nope. If anything, the alienation I felt was acute BECAUSE I was Chinese American. I was called "jook sing" girl and chided by strangers for not speaking Cantonese and Mandarin and for being a "bad" Chinese girl (perhaps they were reacting to my white ex-husband). Anyway, it can be a very alienating experience to be an Asian American person, whether in the U.S. or in Asia--in fact, the only place I'd say I've felt most comfortable in terms of my racial/ethnic/national identity was Hawaii--because there is such a large Asian American population (60%) and they aren't ghetooized into ethnic enclaves of Chinatowns. But I suppose I'm romanticizing that space too, so I'll just stop.

Jennifer said...

I just saw your P.S.--thanks S-fizzle! I appreciate the feedback! And thank YOU for writing in a comment--keep 'em coming!