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The year is 1976, and it’s Bicentennial Day in Cleveland, Ohio. My father—a newly minted Cub Scout—is the little blond boy holding the American flag in the picture below.
Once, I asked my dad about this picture and his face lit up. He vividly remembers how proud he was to be chosen and encouraged to carry the American flag during the bicentennial parade despite the fact that he wasn’t an American.
When I was young, I’d often ask my dad why he moved to America from the UK, as the story felt like an unfinished puzzle missing several pieces. However, whenever he talked about America, the same big grin would split across his face from ear-to-ear. He said he had never felt so welcomed and accepted as when he first visited America as a young boy.
His first trip to the US was brief, less than a year, but he vividly remembers how kind everyone was, even strangers. I love the way he explained to me how strange it was (in a good way) when every single salesperson asked him, without fail, “Hey, how’s your day going?” Though, my heart still aches a bit, recalling how he described the moment he figured out that was an obligatory question, not necessarily posed out of genuine interest.
Still, these American ideals—friendly smiles, cool cars, and Freedom with a capital F—were impossible for him to resist.
I love the fact that Cleveland, Ohio in the 1970s was the shit to my dad. He loved it so much so that he moved here from the UK alone at the age of 23—my mother was able to join him six months later. I can’t fathom the amount of courage it took for him to leave his family, friends and all he’d ever known to pursue something so tenuous as a photography career in America.
Despite the lack of encouragement from most of his friends and family in the UK, my father decided to take the risk of pursuing the American Dream of a better life in the land of opportunities. My parents came here with no friends, no family, $500 and a whole lot of hope. In America, they were welcomed and treated with kindness and respect, and they worked as hard as possible to create a better life for my sisters and me. But that’s the American Dream. And that’s what he was given an opportunity to achieve.
Because of that, I have been given so many opportunities here I simply wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere, and I’m so grateful for that. But it’s an odd thing growing up in an “immigrant family,” even if you don’t really look like it.
I did feel culturally out of place growing up in America. For example, celebrating Thanksgiving and Fourth of July were all new and foreign to my parents—and we didn’t engage in them (we still don’t).
I distinctly remember feeling jealous of my friends who were able to walk down the street and celebrate these holidays with their relatives, or drive for an hour and be reunited with their extended family. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, and I resented feeling out of place. I wished I was closer to my extended family who felt like they were worlds apart from us.
As I got older, I still didn’t feel like I quite fit in where I “was from”—the USA. Just to be clear, I was born and raised here, so it’s not like I was suddenly ripped away from my family. I have many friends and acquaintances who’ve moved here to escape horrific circumstances in their home countries.
However, as I started talking to my friends about these feelings more, and I realized a few things about growing up in an immigrant family in America:
As a junior and senior in high school, I was given free assistance with college applications. The program was comprised of a diverse group of students, and we were all first-generation college students. “First Generation” has many different meanings, but most are typically accompanied with negative connotations of coming from a poor or uneducated family. Because of my ignorance and inexperience, I felt ashamed of being labeled “First Generation” and hid the fact that I was from most of my peers.
The few people I did tell had a limited and predictable range of reactions. Some assumed that I’d conned my way into the program and was trying to get undeserved free help. Once I disclosed the fact that I was indeed a first-generation college student, they’d usually say incredulously, “You mean your parents didn’t go to college?!” The level of inadequacy, insecurity, and self-consciousness I felt about every facet of my identity as a teenager is something you couldn’t pay me to relive now.
In hindsight, as an adult, I’d like to take a moment to say, “So who the fuck cares if they hadn’t gone to college?”
On a side note, even though I’m a first-generation college student, my parents went to university in Scotland, where they both enrolled in intensive two-year programs, which would equate to something in between an Associate’s and a Bachelor’s degree in America. When I would explain this and the fact that my parents emigrated from the UK, I would usually get comments such as “But you look like you’re from here” or “But they like barely have accents, you guys speak English.”
Explaining this has become something I’m used to now, but I’m happy to take the time to describe my family’s background. It gives me some hope in knowing that people care enough to try to understand what it’s like to have immigrant parents who don’t appear to be different or “outsiders.” People don’t mean to be rude—I’ve learned to give them the benefit of the doubt when they ask me about my parent’s backgrounds. They’re just curious, and curiosity is a sign of open-mindedness (and in these times it must be encouraged).
During the fall semester of my senior year, I decided to immediately drop out of the program as soon as I mailed my applications. At the time (and I was 17-years-old here, so please keep that in mind) I felt ashamed of being given help, like I should’ve been able to “pull myself up by my bootstraps” and do it myself.
Looking back, I wish I’d stuck around for the later workshops and classes because I probably would’ve been much more successful during my first year of college.
In all honesty, if I hadn’t received assistance and guidance from my school I wouldn’t have had any interest even applied to any colleges (although my parents would have certainly pressured me to). I’d forgotten how overwhelming the college application process is until I tried to help my youngest sister with the process. She’s now a sophomore in college, pursuing a degree in Nursing, and seeing how rigorously she’s engaged with her academic community is a massive source of pride for our family.
I want to believe in the United States my dad believed in and yearned for. The America that my father dreamed of was a dream—but an achievable one for anyone who was willing to work hard. Something that my father was able to achieve. The San Francisco my father dreamed of is now a fantasy—accessible only to those very select few who are labeled as “valuable enough” to be here.
I want to believe in the Cleveland, Ohio 1976 that welcome my father with kindness and open arms. But I’m tired, and I know many others are too. Caring requires so much more energy than apathy, and it’s hard not to feel defeated in our current political atmosphere. My father’s ideal of the US is the only version of the American Dream I’ve ever subscribed to, and there are many reasons not to believe in it anymore. The country seems to have disappointed many of us over and over again.
The rampant racist, sexist and xenophobic attitudes that many people seem to feel increasingly comfortable expressing—from those elite few occupying the most powerful positions in our government, to strangers on the street yelling hateful slurs at people just trying to exist. I can’t think of a time (within my lifetime) when the US has seemed more hateful and intolerant towards immigrants.
Maybe their idea of getting back manufacturing and other borderline extinct jobs in declining industries (which most people seem to realize are never going to exist in the same capacity they used to) is their version of a great America—essentially Cleveland, Ohio 1976 for my father. A leftover dream from a bygone era. Though I would characterize my political and moral ideals as falling far from theirs, perhaps we’re more alike than either one of us would like to acknowledge.
The one thing I do know is that just like American herself, the American Dream continually evolves and changes, for better or worse.
The idea of my father’s Cleveland Bicentennial Day dream is probably just another vestige of a bygone era, but, similar to the idea of those jobs coming back does for some folks in middle-America, it gets me through. It’s a life vest. After all, who wants to be lost at sea without something to cling to for comfort?
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