Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Home of the free

My friends have planned a trip to Vegas this weekend, which I was going to attend but last week decided not to because of my chronic* illness over winter break. I thought it best to take it easy.

So even though I told my grandmother, like, a week ago, that I wasn't going to Vegas anymore, she asked me if I was going again when she called today. Um, nope, still not going. Was it because I didn't like the people I'd be going with?, she asked. Um, what the fuck? I don't know where she gets ideas like these.

Anyway, all her talk of Vegas gets her started on the times she's been to Vegas. And she mentions she does like how when you come in to Vegas, you see a replica of the Statue of Liberty. And of course, she's explaining this to me like I don't know that it's there. Which I do. Because I have been to Vegas before.** And she doesn't like this fake Lady Liberty because she thinks it's insulting because the real statue is so important and symbolized such hope for people.

"Yes, Bubie," I rolled my eyes because, whatever, she can't see me anyway. "The hope to make a long, arduous ocean voyage only to be sent back if you had a cold. Or the hope to get in and be forced to live in a slum and endure hardship and racial oppression."

She didn't really seem to take notice of what I was saying. "Let me tell you, when I saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time..."

My grandmother arrived in the US in 1956, two years after Ellis Island had closed. "You did not see the Statue of Liberty as you were coming into New York," I reply. "You were on a plane."

My mother, who is sitting next to me eating dinner, is trying hard but failing not to laugh as I inform her in a whisper to what her mother is saying that she can't hear. My grandmother continues to insist that a Vegas replica is an insult to the special embodiment of American values that the statue holds for immigrants.

I think this is the fundamental difference between me and my grandmother: even after over 60 years in this country, she still believes in that immigrant dream of the Land of Opportunity, and I suppose she should, because that dream has been true for her. After all the shit she went through in pre-war Poland and then the Holocaust, a country where (almost) no one has stigmatized her for being Jewish and where her family was economically successful with only one breadwinner (my grandfather) must seem like a bloody miracle. But for me, even though I am a middle-class white person, that dream is not what I study or see. I see a world where my LGBT client from Mexico can't get political asylum because he saw a lawyer about the process in 2009 and now it's been over his 1-year time limit. I see a country, both past and present, so mired with racism and xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric that it makes me want to cry. I grew up in a household with two working parents because my mother could not not work. I don't know if she simply refuses to see this, but I doubt it. This country, after all, gave her pretty much everything the Statue of Liberty promised. Why should she believe me? I'm just some pretentious, spoiled, 20-something, not-even-college-graduated kid who has never even been to New York City, much less battled her way through anti-Semitic Poland and Hitler's Germany to finally make it to the promised land*** and see that green woman holding the flame of liberty and the book of freedom**** and finally felt sure that everything was going to be okay.

"You know what Bubie? I think you're wrong. I think taking an overinflated and arguably false symbol of the supposed freedom and opportunity of America and making a sized-down, less impressive replica for a greedy commercial exploitation is the definition of the American Dream."

*not really chronic, just like, lightly persistent?
**I was 10, but believe me, the fake Statue of Liberty was one of the few things I could enjoy, so I fucking remember it.
***Actually, my grandmother moved to Israel first, which is technically the "Promised Land", but whatever, I'm going to stop mixing my metaphors here.


  1. So many people get offended if you question whether or not America deserves the title "Land of the Free". I came to America when I was 3 years old, so I certainly can't remember much else. My parents are happy here, but they've always encouraged me to question what's around me and speak out if I think some common ideal is crap. And a lot of what we're taught to believe about America is crap - from politicians insisting that America is exceptional to history textbooks that sugarcoat hundreds of years of oppression and racism and sexism and violence and killing. And America writes and rewrites its history to be more and more beautiful and picturesque; lately, especially, there's this obsession with the 50s and 60s. Pretty sure that was a fun time only if you were a white, financially comfortable male. Then again, that's true for most times in history.

    We concentrated on the "American dream" in history and English last year and at the end of the year I came to the alarming conclusion that I still didn't understand the American dream. My English teacher asked if we had any lingering questions and I asked what makes the American dream different from any other dream. He said I'd have to think about it and I still haven't figured it out. The American dream, for me, is a symbol. It's an idea but it's not a reality and some people find their dreams in America and some don't. The idea of success being an American ideal above all else never made sense to me. How does that explain the number of people who never find success?

    People don't see the problem with so many things around them. The country has convinced itself of everything that's convenient to believe (racism, xenophobia and racism, it's emphasized, are a thing of the past, although the real world indicates otherwise constantly). But America is a country founded on immigration that, throughout history, only hated more and more of its new immigrants.

    I'm lucky to live in America and have the opportunities I have (and I'm lucky enough to live a very comfortable and happy life in this country), but I've never seen the "equal opportunity" everyone insists exists here. Maybe I'm missing something. Or maybe the country is missing something and maybe improvements will keep coming. America has become more and more of a symbol. Maybe the American dream was never a reality, I tend to believe it wasn't. I'm not sure. Maybe I'm too critical or maybe I'm too young to understand.

  2. (ohmygosh, I wrote an essay. Sorry!)

  3. I mean, I think it's safe to say that the myth around the American Dream is provably false. There were definitely some advantages to the US that people in Europe didn't have in terms of a more flexible social structure and a labor shortage that meant more opportunities to find work, but the idea that all it takes to succeed in America is hard work is definitely a lie.

    My grandparents came to the US and carved out a good, middle-class existence, but they were white, middle-class, educated (even though they weren't allowed to attend universities in Poland because they were Jewish, they both had a high school education) and my grandfather already had a valuable skill set (he was an electrician). They just happened to arrive at a time where previously stigmatized European identities were becoming homogenized as "white" and a time of amazing economic prosperity for the (mostly) white, middle class. But obviously this is not what most poor immigrants to this country experience.

    My point is that my grandmother conflates this symbol of the Statue of Liberty with her immigrant experience and sort of assumes that it has the same meaning to all other immigrants, because that's what the myth says. And it probably did seem like a symbol of great hope to the immigrants coming through Ellis Island, but I'm sure they soon realized they had been sold a false dream that wasn't going to come true for them. (Although perhaps for their children or grandchildren, which is maybe good enough.)

  4. I mean, for those like your grandparents who found an entirely better life here, I'm sure America does seem to have followed through on all of its promises. And that's wonderful! But, as you said, the "American dream" hasn't been and still isn't what many have hoped it would be. *insert "Fast Car" reference here* There's no quintessential "American dream" experience for all who come to this country. I tend to always worry that through discussing the inconsistencies of America's image, I'm being too critical.

    Also, you're really smart and I love reading your opinions on these things. And your grandmother sounds like somebody who's been through a lot.