The summer before my junior year of high school, my AP Comp. teacher gave us a list of definitions of the American dream, and asked us to choose one and use it as a basis for a journal we were to keep over the summer. The other day, digging through the upper shelves of my closet, I found that journal, and the quote I had chosen. It was taken from the novel The Killer Angels, in which it was spoken by Civil War Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain:
This is free ground. All the way from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was. Here you can be something. Here’s a place to build a home…It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me…
In my journal, I followed this with, “This is a powerful representation of what America is, in the eyes of its people and (hopefully) those abroad.” When I wrote that sentence, the farthest abroad I had been was Victoria, BC to the north and Tijuana, Mexico to the south. I did hope, fully, that those abroad saw America in this light, but implicit in my statement was the worry that they might not–that, instead, they would see it as something else, something oppressive, maybe, or else just clueless and annoying. I didn’t know which.
Now, I have had the privilege of traveling much more than my 16-year-old self had–to South America, to Asia, and to Australia–but the changes I found have little to do with how foreigners see the United States. (I saw everything from utter indifference to fevered love on that front.) Rather, they have to do with how Americans see the US–and how wrong I was there.
A little background: I spent the past year living and working in Taiwan as part of the Fulbright program, the US State Department’s flagship intercultural exchange program. Fulbright had selected 28 Americans, myself included, to come to Taiwan to teach English, in addition to a good number of scholars who came to work within their chosen fields. In all, Fulbright Taiwan consisted in nearly 60 Americans, if memory serves. (A similar program sends Taiwanese people to America, but we had little contact with our Taiwanese counterparts, since we were never in the same country at the same time.)
With such a large group, we were guaranteed to be diverse, in hometown, ethnicity, politics, religion, and anything else you could name. Within my small group of the 12 ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) living in Kaohsiung, we were from Oregon, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Texas, Washington D.C., Hungary (turned Boston), Virginia, Louisiana, Hong Kong (turned Arizona), New Jersey, and Georgia. All over America, in other words.
Now, I hadn’t exactly been globally isolated before moving to Taiwan; my high school had a proportionally huge foreign exchange student population, and some of my closest friends and roommates in college were from Romania, Moldova, Uruguay, and Thailand, to name a few. But what I lacked was contact with people from places in America other than the Northwest. My school was in Seattle; the vast majority of its students hailed from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California, along with a strong contingent from Colorado, which is, culturally if not geographically, an honorary part of the Pacific Northwest. ONE of my friends was from Virginia; that was it.
So I walked into Taiwan, and into my apartment, with a strong knowledge of how I thought America looked: exactly like the Northwest.
In my apartment, there were four people: a white girl from Oregon (me); a white girl from New Hampshire/Florida/Illinois; a black girl from Washington, D.C.; an El Salvadoran-North Korean girl from Virginia. We confused our neighborhood fruit vendor when we insisted we were all Americans.
And within our apartment, whenever we got on any sort of conversation with the bigger issues, I was the one who was confused. Suddenly, everything I thought I knew about America came into question. Conversations about racism, in particular, made we want to duck and cover, even as I vehemently tried to
defend my observations about how America was. But here’s what I learned: I was wrong. Or, at least, unfairly generalizing about a whole I had never really explored.
And here’s why. Say what you will about Oregon, but diverse it is not: 88.6% of the population identifies themselves as white, compared to 78.8% nationwide. Washington’s not much better. So when my roommates began describing institutionalized racism to me, I had absolutely no concept of what they were talking about. My world, unfortunately white-washed as it was, did at least have the benefit of never having institutionalized any latent racism anyone may have harbored.
To be clear, I am not saying racism doesn’t exist in the West. Yes, I knew–and know–that in the Northwest, as everywhere, there are isolated incidents of racism (man, I wish THAT statement were false). I was–and am–just saying that whatever of racism hasn’t been stomped out yet exists in the Northwest more sparingly, and in a massively different, and less blatant, form.
And it’s not because we’re somehow better people or something–we’re not. People are people are people, no matter where you go or who you talk to. But I’ve come to conclude that the Northwest is helped by the fact that, in addition to never having been part of the old guard that battled it out back in the Civil War (and those who did battle did so on the Union side–both the state of Oregon and the territory of Washington backed the North), it is absolutely defined by its militant individualism. And individualism, by its very nature, requires equal rights for everyone.
Here’s my theory on that one. The West was one of the last places in America to be populated by non-native settlers. First there were the rugged individualists heading west to explore, or to find furs. Then there was the Oregon Trail, which ended in the Willamette Valley, not far from where I grew up. To get to the West, you had to be a special sort of person: the sort of person with a wanderlust and drive so deep that you were willing to uproot your whole family–or be uprooted from them, if you were traveling alone–and set out on foot and on horseback with just a few crucial belongings, across 2,000 miles of rugged, inhospitable terrain, to a place where you’d never been and where everything was guaranteed to be harder for you, all with the belief that once you got there, you could build a better life for yourself. It all hinged on you. And when that’s the case, people who’ve “made it” are revered as having done it for themselves; people who haven’t are encouraged to keep trying for themselves.
Now, granted, the West Coast has undergone massive changes since the 1860s, but those are the principles the West Coast culture was built on–on being a place where “we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was.” Where “you can be something.” In many ways, it was founded with the same principles which led the original American settlers to the East Coast, but the comparative recency of the journey and the comparative distance from the hierarchies of Europe has, so far, left more of them intact. No one cares where you came from here: what they care about is where you’re going. There is no “Old Money” in the West–“old money” is maybe your grandfather founded something that was successful, and passed it down to you. In other words, “Old Money” in the West is the nouveau riche of the East Coast.
This is how I was raised to see the world; this is how I was raised to believe America was. Having spent little time outside of the Northwest, it was all I knew. So when I began chatting with my roommates about overarching American issues, it was a bit of a shock to realize that, in the end, you can’t really talk about American issues, so much as you have to talk about American issues in the context of whatever region or regions you’ve experienced. The concept of racism looks different in Washington DC than it does in Louisiana or Wisconsin or Kansas or Oregon. The concept of “The American Dream,” while it has a fairly standard interpretation, is true to varying degrees depending on where you have lived. My roommates talked about impossible-to-escape expectations; they talked about old money families who were unreachable in every way; they talked about hierarchies I had never imagined could exist in the ardently-claimed democracy of America.
So maybe my view of America was idealistic and naive; maybe it was simply a regional truth that I had never had the chance to realize was, in fact, regional. Probably a little of both. But looking back at my high school junior self, I wish I had known how much cause I had to question, not just how others saw us, but how we saw ourselves. Because, from what I can tell, what others think of us stems from how we think of ourselves–and arrogance on our part only draws others’ attention to our flaws, of which there are many. And the American Dream, no matter where it exists, or how you define it, is only a dream if people lack the power to enact it.
If I were commenting now on the quote I chose back in my junior year, this is what I’d say:
This is a powerful depiction of what America should be. I don’t know where, or to what extent, it is true, but we should all continually strive to take this dream out of dreaming, and into reality. After all, what else is America about, if not striving for the apparently impossible?