I Want It All

OK, with a title like that, I know I’ve created some expectations. So here it is, for your enjoyment:

Now on to the real content. I’ve realized something: I am Jay Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby has been one of my favorite books for years. I first read it, like so many other Americans, in high school, in my junior year English class, and I fell in love with the lushness of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose, the elegiac plot, the picture-perfect depiction of the American Dream.

So I’ve read the book. I am the proud owner of a T-shirt printed with its text. I rushed to the theater when, last month, the new Baz Luhrmann version of the film came out, and I read the book again after, just to see how the two compared.

But it wasn’t til recently that I realized why, exactly, I loved The Great Gatsby — and, for all my English major-ing over the years, I have to say it wasn’t why I thought.

It was because I completely, 100% refuse to accept the ending as an ending. Because, optimist that I am, I saw the epic failure of the American Dream presented in the book as a failure, yes — but only for Gatsby. Of course I saw his personal failings; of course I saw the shallow opulence he so blindly followed after; of course I saw that what he was doing was wrong, and could never, and should never, succeed.

For him, that is. But for me? For me, it would be a completely different story.

I still believe in the American Dream. I still picture my future all in rosy hues, with me living the dream of the modern, educated woman in the post-feminist era: married, with kids, and flourishing at the top in my career. I, like so many others in my generation, have grown up being told that I could do anything I wanted, if I just tried.

And I have tried, and so far, it has seemed true. I sailed through college. I found rewarding (though unpaid) internships in my field. I landed a Fulbright scholarship. I  traveled. I  found at least a steady trickle of paid work in my field. I formed meaningful and loving relationships with some absolutely incredible people.

But the more I look around, the more discouraged I get about the future of my American Dream. I read articles like this one, which bring to my mind my college sociology professor, telling the class that women today absolutely cannot have it all — they always take a cut, either in family life or in professional life. It worried me then, but I pushed it to the side. But if, as recent studies show, even women in “liberal academia” get marginalized for having a family, how much worse must it be in the business community I hope to join?

Because, of course, I must join the business community. I am passionate about the publishing world, to begin with, and want nothing more than to join in; beyond that, though, it is equally important to me to have a career that I love as it is to be able afford to live the life of having a career and a family.

And being able to afford it is the trick: to have it all in today’s society, it’s generally accepted that traditional domestic roles will be, at least in part, hired out to others. Nannies will help with the kids; gardeners will help with the yard work; housecleaners will help with the chores; restaurants will help with the meals. I don’t want to be affluent for affluence’s sake; I want to be affluent so I can have a family as well as a career. As Nancy Folbre put it in her recent article in The New York Times:

Affluent couples are more likely to marry than other Americans, perhaps because they don’t need to renegotiate gender roles; they can purchase substitutes for wives’ traditional domestic work in the form of restaurant meals, child care and cleaning services.

The stakes, for women, are high. The choice is this: Have an incredible career which can support your desire for a family, or forget the idea of a career altogether. All or nothing. No pressure.

This is, I’ve realized, is one of the reasons I love Seattle so deeply: It shows me what my life could look like, if I get it right. I have spent the majority of my time in this city in some of its richest neighborhoods, working as a nanny, providing one of the many services that make it possible for the women here to have everything.

Here I see the rebuttal to the claim that women can’t have everything; here I see women who are succeeding in their careers and in their family. As a nanny, I have seen what a household looks like where both spouses have careers they enjoy and that pay well; I have even had the privilege of seeing families who manage to do that without sacrificing their children’s wellbeing. I’ve seen those who make it into that exclusive club; I’ve seen that it is possible for a woman to have it all.

And I want in. That is my Daisy Buchanon, with money in its voice, ever beckoning me on to an imaginary future. But will it be imaginary? Or will I make it in; find that elusive job that will allow me to work in an industry I love and succeed, even as I, eventually, have a family, too?

Am I as blind as Jay Gatsby, chasing an illusion that can never be caught? Or will I, as I have always chosen to believe, succeed in my pursuit?

Can the American Dream be caught? Is it possible, in today’s society, for a woman to have it all? It is; I have seen it — but will it be possible for me?

These are unanswerable questions, I know. The only way to answer them is to stride forward, pursuing my dreams in the best way I know how — and hope there is no Nick Carraway lurking around the corner, ready to document my hopeless chase.

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The Question of Brazil

In the past few days, my Facebook has blown up with posts having to do with Brazil.

(Yes, I know, Facebook should not be my primary source of news, but for better or for worse, right now it is. I  am a part of enough international communities, and communities that care about international issues, that major events tend to end up there anyway–via my Brazilian friends this week; my expat friends in Turkey starting a couple weeks ago; my Taiwanese friends last month… They’re the best news source I know!)

And, as I’ve begun reading about Brazil, both in what friends post and in other reports across the web, I find myself wondering: What is the answer?

For those who haven’t seen everything coming out of Brazil, here are a few links to get you up to speed:

A good article from The New York Times on the topic.

And this wonderful, thought-provoking video produced by a native Brazilian:

 

 

What it boils down to seems to be this: People in Brazil are fed up with years of inequalities, most recently made worse by the stadium builds going on for their upcoming role as host to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, and so are protesting for a better, less corrupt country that will do more for their people and less for the world stage.

Now, I have to be honest, I don’t know enough about Brazilian politics as a whole to comment on their government, either how it is or how it should be. I’ll leave that discussion to people who are from Brazil, or who live there or have been following the issue for longer than the last few days. I won’t do those issues the dishonor of my having an uninformed opinion on them; they deserve better than that.

But for me, as an American, another question surfaces, one that I feel compelled to at least consider, even if I don’t have a pert answer for it: How should international sporting competitions be arranged?

Because, to an outsider, it would seem that hosting not one, but two massive, worldwide events would be good for Brazil. To an outsider who has, for the past seven years or so, heard nothing but glowing praise for the burgeoning economies of places like Brazil and China, it would seem only natural that they would begin hosting events. To an outsider who has heard, time and again, that people from places like Brazil–indeed, Brazil seems always to be the go-to example of this–often find themselves disappointed by the relative poverty of places like the US compared to their home, it would seem indicative of Brazil moving, justifiably, into the world’s spotlight.

But then you look at the details. You watch things like Carla’s video that I linked above, and you realize that having international events costs billions of dollars, and those costs come down on the country’s people, whether they want them to or not. You look at things like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and their controversial eviction of 1.25 million citizens to make way for the games, and you see them coming up again in Brazil. In fact, many have argued that hosting the Olympics is actually not good for the local economy at all.

The abandoned beach volleyball courts from Beijing 2008, circa 2012

With conditions this rough, it would be easy to make the argument that all major international sporting events, if they continue to exist at all, should be hosted exclusively by countries with a proven track record of financial and social stability; countries that can absorb the shock of a difficult hosting job. Countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Japan, Germany–first world countries.

But can you imagine the fallout if the powers that be actually did that? If you put economics to one side, what would be the implications of pushing all the World Cups, all the Olympics, into the countries that are already in the metaphoric 1%, handing yet another wand of power into the hands of the already powerful?

There would be outrage. Horror. Cries of institutionalized discrimination against developing countries; charges that growing countries could never fully blossom without the opportunity to compete on their own home turf. Accusations that the Powers that Be were further complicating the preexisting prejudice in favor of the favored few by directing all the world’s interest and money elsewhere in yet another venue.

And they might be right. In terms of educational value, having international sports shifting from country to country highlights the diversity of the world; children grow up seeing each unique culture of the host countries exerting influence on their favorite sports, learning about the unifying nature of humanity in friendly competition. And isn’t that the point of international sports, anyway? They show off athletes in the peak of their abilities, certainly, but isn’t it equally important that they show off each country in the peak of their abilities?

I don’t have an answer for this any more than I have an answer for the protesters in Brazil. There is clearly a problem, and it becomes more obvious with each new country left scurrying before and after the tornado of the international sporting spotlight touches down on its shores. I feel for the people of Brazil, and I sincerely want the best for them.

But what is it?

A Nonpartisan Note on Grace

Hey everyone! I’m still (in theory) Nano-ing, but I felt the need to post something on the US presidential election–a few days late, of course, but at least I’m posting. I originally wrote what follows just after the election in 2008, but I feel like it’s just as relevant now as it was then–with a few details updated, of course, marked by strike-throughs and red ink. Please enjoy:

So, the election is over and our entire country is now either celebrating or mourning. As we do this, I thought I’d put out a few thoughts I’ve been having on the topic, for both camps, about grace. I mean grace in the non-theological sense, the grace that involves courtesy and sportsmanship; the grace I think both sides need to learn. How to win, and lose, gracefully.


To Democrats:
You won! And everyone knows you’re excited; you deserve to be excited, and anyone who tells you otherwise deserves whatever crap you give them. It was truly a historic election.It’s always exciting when your candidate wins a close race.
But.
In the midst of your excitement, please remember that, for all the disparity of the electoral votes, in the popular vote your candidate only won by 7% 2%. Which means, there are a fairly significant number of people in this country right now who are as dejected as you are elated. Our president-elect says he wants to unify the country, and that’s a noble goal–so please, support it by being empathetic to the losers of this race. If nothing else, think back to 2004, when the race went the other way, and imagine (or remember, if it happened) what it would be like to have people gloating to you all the time. Be graceful winners, and you’ll do more to bolster the country’s confidence in their choice–and therefore give him a greater chance of being reelected in 2012 your party a greater chance of electing their candidate in 2016— than gloating ever will.

To Republicans:
Yes, you lost. Again. And you have every right to be disappointed, and maybe even to be a little angry at the jubilant Democrats you see all around you.
But.
You now have to deal with the fact that we don’t have a new president, and he isn’t the one you wanted. Being bitter won’t change anything, and it certainly won’t help any hope you have of reversing the situation come 2012 2016. Not only did the president-elect win, he won by a landslide in the electoral college, and regardless of what you think of him he is the new president, elected democratically for our country and BY our country. It’s our duty as a nation to support him now–and if that’s hard to do, remember Bush-bashing, and how much it bothered you. Being down on the president accomplishes nothing–he’s there, and he’s not leaving for at least four more years. Maybe by then your graceful loss will have re ingratiated you with the nation enough to win in 2012 2016. If not, at least you’re on the right track. Be a graceful loser, and everyone will respect you for it.

The Weight of a Quarter

“If you have one quarter, two dimes, four nickels and seven pennies, how much money do you have?”

My European teammates looked at me, determined, dependent on my expertise. My brain reeled–I hadn’t thought about money in terms of American coins for almost a year. Maybe more–who used coins anymore? It was July, and I was on vacation in Cairns, Australia, one of the only Americans there—and here, in my hostel-wide trivia contest, I was the only one. Sweet.

I double-checked my math, nodded, and announced my result: “72 cents.” They scribbled down my answer and we moved on to the next question. Thank goodness my knowledge of the absurdity of American coinage hadn’t completely left me. Actually, if anything, it’d gotten stronger.

Roaming about the world this last year, I have come to realize that America has a strange sort of relationship with cash. We use it less and less, and yet we go into conniption fits if someone suggests that, say, we eliminate the scarcely-used and cost-inefficient penny.

As a traveler, I’d go to a country, exchange some money, and then go about paying for everything in cash–20 NTD here, 30 baht there, with $1.50 AUD and ¥ 200 spent along the way. Sure, I had a credit card–and a debit card, in Taiwan, where I was living–but I used them only as a last resort. Coins jingled wherever I went, and I got well-used to knowing how much money I had handy based on the weight of my wallet.

In Taiwan, there was the hefty brass 50 coin, which could always be counted on to buy a nice tea, or a meal at Chialing’s or Ali’s, and the slick silver 10 coin, two of which could usually snag a nice 7-11-brand drink, or more, if paired with a few of the smaller 5 coins or penny-lookalike 1 coins. A vast number of my purchases revolved around some combination of these four, and my daily routine included rooting around in my coin purse trying to make exact change, or else wondering where all of my coins had gone and reluctantly handing over a bill. Money had a sound, and a weight, that I knew.

Then I came home. I knew, academically, of course, that I had been using cash much, much more abroad than I ever had in America. (Because, again who uses cash in America??) What I hadn’t realized was how that fact would skew my new image of American coins.

In essence, they’re puny. And insignificant. Out of Taiwan-born habit, I’ve handled a fair amount of cash since coming home, and every time I go for my coins, I have a mini heart attack as I pick up a quarter and nearly fling it off the table for its sheer lightness. Money is supposed to weigh more than this! My subconscious screams at me, assuring me that the piece in my hand cannot possibly be worth more than one or two cents. It’s jarring, and unpleasant, and just plain weird–did American coins decide to go on a starvation diet while I was gone? Or have they really always been this small?

Here’s the basic American coin set: quarter, dime, nickel, penny. (And, while we’re on the subject, why the names? Just to favor lone American citizens in hostel trivia contests?)

Quarter, dime, nickel, penny….oh, flimsy American coinage…

Already, we’ve got strangeness issues. The quarter’s worth the most, and it’s biggest. So far, so good. But then there’s the dime, and–hold on a sec, why is it so tiny? Then we jump up in thickness and size for the nickel, for some reason, and then there’s the penny, which is just bigger than the dime. (Which, again, makes sense how?)

By way of comparison, here’s an (admittedly incomplete) set of Taiwanese coins–50, 10, and 1:

I seem to have spent all my 5s before leaving the country…see, usable coins!

Now let’s take a look at it in relation to a few other currencies I happen to have picked up this year. Here’s the difference I can’t seem to get my head around–the quarter vs. the 50 NT coin.

Out. Classed.

And MASSIVELY outweighed.

And, of course, the other American coins compared to other Taiwanese currency:

EVERY SINGLE TAIWANESE COIN (bottom) is bigger than EVERY SINGLE AMERICAN COIN (top)

10s…which do YOU want to carry?

…not to mention Australian coins:

These coins are worth nearly identical sums–25 cents American and 20 cents Australian. So why is one dwarfing the other???

L-R, Australian $2, $1 and US 25 cents. To be fair, the US *does* have $1 coins, but they are almost never used…

…or Japanese:

OK, so American money may have more heft here. But Japanese money has more useable amounts, AND they have holes in the middle. Pretty cool.

…or even Thai:

5s…

The punyness is not my imagination.

And, size aside, it’s no wonder no one uses them, because they have next to no useability. In Taiwan, it made sense to pay for a snack purchase with coins, because you could usually do so with, say, a 50 and a 10. Assuming roughly equivalent prices (which is a pretty accurate assumption, if you’re talking about imported junk food) and an exchange rate of 30NT to $1 US (which is also pretty accurate), the smallest number of widely-circulated American coins that could be used to pay for the same purchase is eight. And who feels anything less than awkward and juvenile when you reach into your wallet to pay for your peanut M&Ms and can of soda, only to come up with a handful of quarters?

No. Just walk away, my friend, just walk away. Your coins are no good here, 6-year-old-kid with sticky hands and glasses. Go get your mother to pay for your gluttony–or whip out a credit card to hide your junk food shame under the protection of an ‘adult’ payment method.

In Australia and Japan, I was bemused and charmed by the larger-valued coins in common use. (Until I went to exchange money, that is, and was reminded that almost no one will change coins, no matter their worth. Incidentally, if anyone wants to buy a ¥ 500 coin…) Australians commonly use $1 and $2 coins–and while I would point out here the strangeness of a $2 coin being smaller than the $1 one, both weigh significantly more than the smaller values or than American coins in general, so I’m going to have to give them a pass. After all, at least they do have useable coin values in common circulation–American lawmakers wish they could say the same.

Sigh. If only American coins made sense, and came in ordinary, useable amounts, maybe people would go back to using cash. And, call me a Luddite, but there’s something special about feeling the physical weight of your money before you spend it–it makes the whole ritual seem a bit more real than the facile swipe of a card. If the weight of a quarter were just a bit heavier, maybe Americans would take just a moment more before flinging it across the counter for a load of trash.

Although, if American coins were easier, my group might not have won second place in that trivia contest…

Rooted

Yesterday, my dad asked me if I could help him drive the tractor on the back part of our property. He probably told me the details then, but I certainly don’t remember hearing them; I thought it had something to do with mowing.

Not quite. When I walked out to join my dad and brother this afternoon, I found a full-on log-hauling operation going on: there was a tree down on the property we’re going to build on, and we were to pull the massive chopped-up pieces from where they were to a couple hundred yards away, where we left them in a big pile.

Pretty simple work, with a tractor, that is. With rudimentary training–forward, back,speed, torque, bucket up, bucket down–I was stationed at the helm, and got to work attaching logs to steel cables on the front part of the tractor and then dragging them backwards through blackberry vines and thick brush, while avoiding rocks and stumps, to where they needed to be.

To help the mental imagery, this looks just like our tractor. It isn’t, though. (Thanks, Internet!)

For all the italics and bold, though, it was pretty simply once I got the hang of it: drive to downed tree, hook cable around branch(es), pull branch(es) clear of the other downed tree, two random stumps, and various building site posts around the property; re-maneuver tractor into beaten path through the blackberries and tree trunks, drag branch(es) out of the woods; make it up the hill, position branches by the pile, unhook, and repeat.

OK, so that description doesn’t make it sound particularly simple. But it did get quite repetitive, and I was pretty isolated by the roar of the engine muffled through my earplugs, leaving me time as I drove beneath the translucent green leaves to think about what, exactly, I was doing. And what I was doing was remembering my roots.

My family is pretty new to the area in the grand scheme of things; my dad’s dad moved here when he was pretty young, and my mom’s dad moved when he was an adult. And, when my dad’s dad got old enough, he bought property, 20 acres of it, which he farmed and kept sheep on and did various other things with over the years. My grandpa loves being out on the land.

Next phase of the story: when my dad (the oldest) grew up, he decided to move back from across town to “the homestead.” So, when I was about 5, my dad bought 7 acres from his dad and moved in next door. Growing up, my brothers and I had free reign of the full 20 acres; most of my childhood memories take place there. Since then, my grandpa has moved into town, and my dad has taken over a lot of the maintenance. Incidentally, today found us working entirely on his land.

On the other side of the family, my mom’s dad and my mom’s mom come from logging families in southern Oregon. My mom’s mom’s family has compiled a pretty great family history, and reading it awakened me to the horrible conditions of loggers in the not-so-distant past. And, more to the point, in my family’s not-so-distant past.

So as I pulled chopped-up logs a couple hundred yards from one piece of my grandpa’s land to another, plowing through memories from my  childhood without a backward glance (well, I mean, I was going backwards, but…), I found myself thinking, too, of my mom’s parents’, and their families, making a living by doing what I was doing, but without all the fancy machinery. I pondered on what it would be like to hitch a horse or mule to the load instead of a tractor, and considered the fact that, logistically, at least, many of the problems would be the same: rope tension, angles, obstacles, power. I can’t say that I’d ever spent any significant time before thinking about the ins and outs of my great-grandparents’ livelihoods, but today it grabbed a good portion of my thought processes. This is, after all, where I (at some point) came from.

Today,  a friend who has also recently returned from abroad mentioned how unrooted he had been feeling before he came back and spent time with his friends and family here. It made me stop and think a minute about my roots–about how often I take them for granted, and about how much they actually do for me. See, today marks exactly one month since I’ve been home. And as I imitated one set of great-grandparents on another set of grandparents’ land, I felt just how deep my roots run–and was reminded that, without having such solid roots, I would never have had the courage to pick up and move across the globe, even for a little while.

It’s counter-intuitive, but there it is: in order to be mobile, I must have roots. And I’m so thankful that I do–even if it takes pulling out some physical ones to remember it.

Regional Truths

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?