My sophomore year, I took a class on the Holocaust during one semester and a class on the American Dream during the other. The class on the Holocaust taught me how to think more critically. And in “Philosophy and the American Dream,” I learned that all of our stories are kind of the same … even if we look like we’re from very different places.
I no longer remember which of these classes came first, but I do know that I began to look really carefully at what we collectively call “The American Dream.”
For some of us, that phrase immediately conjures up Horace Greeley: “Go west, young man.” Others may not have to retreat so far into history to find meaning: our immigrant parents, perhaps, came to America to pursue a version of this dream, although they may not have called it that.
Regardless of context, the American Dream encourages us to follow our hearts, our passions.
When I set out to write my novel Not A Self-Help Book, I wanted to convey what it feels like to grow up between generations and cultures. I wanted to tell folks what it felt like to be an American when you didn’t look American, when you didn’t speak English at home, when even your own family thought you couldn’t be an American, no matter how hard you tried to assimilate, and how many school dances you went to, or how many leadership positions you ran for.
It was a story I’d heard from many different cultures, from my many friends who were immigrants, or whose parents were immigrants. In short, I was out to moan about how hard it was to be different.
Of course, I drew from my own life: As I mucked through my first job selling advertising space, and then through my second one as a lowly editorial assistant, and then finally one as a freelance writer, I fended off predictable probes from my parents: You could still go to law school, you know. It’s not too late. You could marry rich; you’d never have to work.
(Somewhere in these first jobs and years away from home, by the way, I discovered “classic” American comfort food—pot roasts; Minnesota hot dish; meatloaf; Hamburger Helper; Stouffer’s stuffing right out of the box and into the microwave. I know. Don’t judge me. Now, it’s predictable what I was looking for; craving, if you will. Back then, it maybe wasn’t so obvious.)
I knew other people like me were having the same conversations, that many of us were, to borrow from Langston Hughes, deferring our dreams in favor of filial duty, or status, maybe, or just to stop thinking so much about what an American Dream might look like if it weren’t already covered in so much baggage (much of it not even belonging to us).
We joked about it, my friends and I, always talking about it as if it bore great big capital letters, or was shrouded in air quotes. “Oh, her?” they’d say at bars, to whoever was listening, “She’s working on the Great American Novel.” But quietly, in one-on-one conversations with each other as writers, I said I was working on the story of a girl who needed to find her own unique way in this world.
Halfway through the writing, the main character in my novel decided she had to leave her life in New York in order to set herself in order. In fact, she pings all the way back to her home country of Taiwan before she can figure out how to accomplish her own version of what she wants.
It turns out, a novel that tells the story of one woman’s peregrinations towards her own North Star is a quintessentially American story.
Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” Is it so hard to believe that you can feel a stranger in your own town, no matter where it is, and feel like you have to go on a great big journey to find your way home?
Maybe this is the American Dream, then, as we must newly define it: this idea of movement and getting lost, even if you don’t know exactly where you’re going to end up or how you’re going to get there.
The story of a young woman looking for a job is part of our cultural nostalgia. And yet, this story is unique to each one of us.
Of all the definitions of the American Dream that we can posit, perhaps the truest part of its existence is this: It is collective and it is deeply personal. And for the rest, you’ll have to read the book.
Lai is the author of Not A Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu (Shade Mountain Press).