March 29, 2010

The American Dream Turned Selfish

In America, many say, “You don’t choose your family, but you choose your friends,” as though friends are more valuable because they have willfully supported you rather than done so out of obligation. In most other countries, family is not considered a burden, it is a gift. This cannot be seen any more than in China.

In America, one of the biggest compliments a family member can give another is, “you are not just my family member, but also my friend.” In China, it is the reverse. Children call men whom they respect “dad” or “uncle” and women whom they respect “mom” or “aunt.” Much older men and women are called “grandpa” and “grandma.” In America, preteens resent their parents for not giving them enough autonomy. In China, adolescents live with parents until marriage and are grateful for the creature comforts life at home provides them. In America, as most know, 50% of couples with or without children, divorce. Parents force their sons and daughters to spend their childhoods shuffling belongings between homes. In China, divorce is unheard of.

When the Chinese make any important life decisions like looking for a job or a spouse or a home, their families are always their primary consideration. Young Chinese adults want to live at home and commute to their universities instead of living in dormitories. Occasionally, if a professional or educational opportunity is extraordinary, young adults will move to different cities than the one in which their parents reside but it is extremely rare. In America, children often place their parents in nursing homes when they are no longer self-sufficient. In China, when parents are no longer self-sufficient they without question move into the homes of their children. Nursing homes do not even exist in China, they are unfathomable. Americans make tentative plans afraid to commit in case a better opportunity arises. The Chinese do not understand the concept of tentative plans. If you want to spend time with someone, you schedule a place and a date. The Chinese follow through, without exception, unless there is an emergency. In China, flakes do not have friends.

I believe the reason Americans prioritize the self over the family goes back to the ideology behind our constitution, that every man has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Individuals believe they should not be prevented from striving for their dreams by anyone: the family, rigid social hierarchy, socioeconomic status, etc.

The ability to pursue your dreams unconditionally goes back to the American definition of freedom. Freedom to stand up for what you believe, freedom to be who you are, freedom to challenge social norms- basically, the freedom, to always be yourself, no matter what. We have so many rights in comparison with the Chinese, let alone Iraqis, or Afghanis, or Sudanese, yet we still ruthlessly complain. Many of the complainers do not even vote because the “system” is flawed, and “what difference will my vote make?” they ask.

While first-generation immigrants appreciated the ability America gives its citizens to improve their situations, working hard to realize the American dream. Now, it is taken for granted by so many. American teenagers procrastinate on homework and other responsibilities, spiting their parents for making them go to school. Many of them defiantly take off to Europe with a backpack. People take advantage of the welfare system having more children to get more money. When people get raises at their jobs and no longer qualify for government provided health insurance, they don’t report their raise to the government.

Sure there are philanthropists, and political activists, and children with merit-based scholarships. I am not discounting the exceptions, but there has been an overall transition in the mentality of American society. The way we think about the things we’ve been given. We hate America, but we don’t want to live anywhere else. We disrespect our families, and are disappointed when they fall apart. We reject society, and pity ourselves when we don’t fit in. Maybe if we all started working together some of the personal problems we face would be solved too. Then we would have better lives as a community, and as individuals.

You may be thinking I’m cynical, but I am not the only one who has called American citizens to take accountability. Like Obama said in his speech to the NAACP, “Yes, government must be a force for opportunity. Yes, government must be a force for equality. But ultimately, if we are to be true to our past, then we also have to seize our own future, each and every day.”

He said the way individuals, families, and America as a whole will grow is by forming communities. He said by reaching out to one another “we can reclaim the strength and the determination and the hopefulness that helped us come so far; helped us make a way out of no way.”

From living in China and Spain, and travelling to over fifteen additional countries, I have consistently seen this communal bond he was describing. Nowadays, most Americans do not even know their neighbors.

Travelling to experience this bond is beautiful, but it is even more beautiful to bring back what you have experienced and try to make it happen at home. As Obama said, it really does begin with the smallest of tasks: getting to know your neighbors, spending time with your family even when there are other things you might rather do, making plans with others and keeping them. You will not change America, but by raising the standard, your family and friends (at least the ones that matter) will be forced to meet it. And hopefully, will begin to appreciate it too.

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