My sixteenth birthday present from my parents was a new car, the gravity of which is not lost on those well-studied in the classic Americana high school films. My first car was a damn nice one, even compared to my prep school peers: leather, navigation and (this was important to me at the time) a six-cylinder engine. Did I deserve such an expensive boon that would mainly enable me to have less-than-wholesome weekends? I had a good relationship with my parents—good student, involved and down to earth. Even as a good kid, the cost-benefit analysis always bugged me—to the point that I had to ask why during my first college break.
I am a first-generation American citizen. Both my father and mother had their childhood in India. Dad first came to the United States as a medical student, finishing his residency in the Upper East Side while living in Newark, New Jersey and working two shifts as a parking lot security guard. For him, it was the night shift that was the best; he could sit in the guard house with his books and be paid to study all night long. In fact, Dad only got his American citizenship in 2002, after establishing his own medical practice. He still has the beautifully tacky American flag tie he wore to his citizenship test. Mom came as a teenager, with my maternal grandparents, after political and social instabilities arose in our home state. My maternal grandfather was a prominent professor of economics in Gujarat before the move. American academia, particularly in the late 1970s, did not assign much worth to foreign degrees, even a Ph.D.—no teaching jobs were to be found and the family finances needed to remain intact. My grandfather took jobs at a mayonnaise factory on the assembly line and—as a strict, lifelong Brahmin vegetarian—the Fulton Street Fish Market in New York, cleaning and gutting a few pounds of sea life each day. While Dad finished his residency, Mom worked a post-graduate co-op with IBM as a computer engineer, with the slight problem that work was a two-hour commute north in Poughkeepsie.
My parents lived in two different worlds in the course of their lifetimes, bridged by the content of their character that grew along the way. In Mom and Dad, I see a focus on the long-term, a genuine enjoyment of inconspicuous consumption. Undercurrents of prudence, the kind created only by success earned through struggle, kept my privileged life from creeping into pampered apathy.
I asked my parents why they would allow months of night-shift salary to evaporate on an adolescent desire. Dad looked me in the eye and gave me the simplest of answers—he, too, had seen Fast Times and Ferris Bueller, albeit slightly later in life. “The car” had just as much magic for Dad as it does for any American teen. The dreams he could never have fulfilled earlier in his life did not fade from his mind with age. In the end, Dad and Mom lived a mostly difficult life in order to provide the mostly easy one for me. They earned and sacrificed in order to live the America Dream and, more importantly, so their children would never have to consider the change in status implied by the term. “We are your roots,” Dad said, “So that you can always look up rather than down.”
With maturity came more awareness about the status of this term I use. When I heard that the American Dream was dead—or that it had always been a myth—I had a viscerally negative reaction. But the data speaks for itself: American children have the lowest chance among children of industrialized nations to rise from the lowest to the highest quintile of income. Just opposite to what Horatio Alger so deeply wished to be true, the United States has often been singled out for being one of the least socially-mobile industrialized societies in this era. More significantly, the data trends upwards—as we speak, America grows less equal and less mobile.
When I hear that the American Dream is dead, I can understand. It is now easy to empirically dismiss the American success story. But if we consider our presidential candidates, the parallels between their “American narratives” and our historic ideals are quite apparent. In President Obama, there is the child of immigrants: upper-middle class upbringing, private education on scholarship and the modest life of a graduate student or passionate public servant. The fact that the Obamas’ student loans were only settled with the President’s two best-selling books speaks volumes to Mr. President’s background. As to Governor Romney, it is often too easy, and incorrect, to paint his person in total contrast to Obama. Yes—in Governor Romney, we see a child raised in an affluent suburb of a major city, with private education paid for by a highly successful father. However, I only see Romney as the next generation to the American success story; it was Romney’s father who came from a Depression-era background to automobile executive cum-state governor. Romney was afforded analogous privileges as, say, Sasha or Malia would be, with his own impressive (business-related) accomplishments.
I cannot say whether the Dream is a myth or not. When I hear that the American Dream is dead, I think of personas like those of our candidates, however few and far between they may be on the national stage. Even in these times of imperfect politics, aren’t the qualities of national leaders still a function of the ideals held by citizens? The appeal of Obama and Romney rests significantly on their personal paths to success, narratives that each candidate molds into an “American” success story. Each story can easily be idolized in an American context. Then, the “American Dream” survives to the American people as just that—the standard to which we compare, to which my parents compared, and the ideal to which we aspire, to which my parents aspired.