February 12, 2019

LEE | A Non-American’s American Dream

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Prior to coming to the United States for university, I regarded the American Dream as a far-fetched ideal that had little to do with my personal life. Taking part in Ellis Island role-play simulations in middle school and reading about Willy Loman’s despairs in Death of a Salesman made me aware of the disillusionment associated with the so-called land of opportunity. While I was able to appreciate the sentiments and discussions that revolved around this ideology that has shaped much of the U.S., I saw it as a distant concept as a non-immigrant foreign student expecting to leave the country after my student visa expires.

But over the past two and a half years, I, too, have developed my own American Dream. Lively discussions across campus about social mobility and success have ignited a desire to work hard to improve my circumstances, who I am and who I strive to become. Open conversations about differing political views have instilled an understanding that there is value in discomfort. I am able to expand horizons in ways I had never expected to do so through my experiences here. And like many others in this country I am also disillusioned by the American Dream.

As I see friends who attend other universities in Canada or Australia prospering and integrating into their communities through receiving residency, I wonder if I made the wrong decision to come to the U.S. Regardless of citizenship, I had expected to be seen more for the capabilities and aspirations that I bring rather than for my non-immigrant temporary status. Yet, recent immigration policies and personal encounters have convinced me otherwise.

International students on this campus and beyond are often seen as outsiders. In a classroom filled with students from Long Island and Westchester, I appear to be the odd one out as we go around the room to introduce ourselves. Whenever peers or professors compliment me on my English, I wonder if they view me as someone different when, after all, I am just like any other individual seeking to expand my academic and cultural knowledge at this institution. I know that such compliments are mostly out of good intention, but each time, I am reminded of my place in this country as a foreigner, as someone that is not expected to belong here.

Discourse that revolves around issues such as race or gender seeks to lessen discriminatory practices and their impact. But those who voice their discontent with racial prejudices are often also the ones that are so quick to judge and characterize international students who come from various backgrounds as alien, rich and different, instead of seeing them for their individual attributes. They continue to be marginalized, as even a Duke University professor so patronizingly condemns and outspokenly discriminates against Chinese students for “being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand.” And for that matter — she could be characterizing every Asian as Chinese, when they may as well have been Korean, Japanese, Malaysian, Thai or from any other Asian country. I have had the privilege of learning English from an early age, but have also seen plenty of international students and recent immigrants brushed aside for their English abilities. And each time I ask myself — are we not even worthy of being considered a part of this society despite our contributions and the unique backgrounds that we bring?

From employers who distinguish those who “require sponsorship now or in the future” from the rest of the applicants, to interviewers who change their demeanor after realizing that I am not American, so many people and structural circumstances indicate that I have no place here. But I will not give up. Because I believe that I, too, constitute the American Dream. During my time here, I am just as entitled to receiving equal treatment and deserving of the right to “life, liberty and happiness” like everyone else. Whether the Dream is a flawed ideal or not, I am also rightfully a part of its principles and imperfections just like everyone else who immigrated to this country to be a part of the United States of America.

DongYeon (Margaret) Lee is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at margaretlee@cornellsun.com. Here, There and Everywhere appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.