There’s a Dr. Seuss book on my shelf, gifted by a teacher when I graduated high school. “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” the cover exclaims in bright font, encapsulating the feeling I had when I first arrived at Yale. It was a feeling of possibility, that Yale would open countless doors as I climbed the ladder for me and my family. Education is the classic vessel of success for those on the path to “making it.” I had everything to gain.
Now, nearing the halfway point of Yale, I’m as aspirational as ever. Yet unlike my naive first year self, I’ve also realized how much I have to lose. I’ve struggled to navigate the hidden transaction that takes place with every opportunity I claim, where each step forward brings me further from my roots. The daily exchange of old world for new is not just my college experience: As the child of immigrants, I experience Yale as a scene in a multigenerational story of moving from home that began oceans away. It’s a story as much about cultural redefinition as it is about economic mobility.
Especially since I’ve started taking Chinese here, I’ve reflected about the values and logic I carry into any room from my culture. The Yale vocabulary and ways of thinking I’ve gained feel alternately empowering and alienating, the individualistic values championed here pull me toward a promising career yet directly opposite from the traditions and interdependent thinking that characterize home. Although my success plays into my parents’ narrative the same way Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim’s halfpipe gold has fed media attention surrounding her father, it also comes at the price of a double bind faced by immigrants: You have to be American enough to be successful, though only by being successful will you be acknowledged as truly American.
Society christens us with the gold-star sticker of the American dream when we fulfill a very specific rubric, often accompanied by commentary on our “work ethic” or justified by the high number of Fortune 500 company founders whose parents moved here. Indeed, Yalies, both professors and students, often speak about immigrants in economic terms, justifying a person’s access to basic human rights through their labor and contributions. We often define the dream in terms of value added, either attained through a person’s work or their children’s. Cultural dilution is a rarely recognized sacrifice, seen as a necessary part of ascension into American identity.
However, this is a far cry from the original idea. Venezuelan-American James Adams, who earned his master’s degree from Yale in 1900, coined the term “American dream” as dreaming not of “merely material plenty” but of a societal, moral value ensuring each person was “recognized for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” America’s biggest contribution to the world, Adams claimed, was not capital progress, but this beautiful idea of a society that gives anyone — truly, anyone — the opportunity to attain a fuller life. America’s magic lies in the incredible things we do simply by having this mix of people from everywhere and every background. There’s nothing that makes America special if we claim we can achieve economic success with high-skilled immigrants — any country can do that.
In a world of starkly increasing inequality and divisiveness, it often feels like Adams’ vision of the American dream is hopeless. And on a practical level, there are limits to how many people can realistically live in any country. But rhetoric matters, especially when the current economic characterization of immigrant families implicitly supports inhumane decisions, such as the recent Supreme Court ruling that any immigrant can be indefinitely detained, even asylum-seekers and those with permanent legal status.
The current dialogue about immigration nationwide and on campus puts incredibly high pressure on immigrant families, especially immigrants of color, to prove economic worth and abandon parts of our cultures in pursuit of cookie-cutter success. I hope we think harder about which American dream we champion, so that Adams’ idea is not a dream deferred but a dream we fight for. It’s the first step toward a world where anyone can be American, and where any American has amazing places to go without having to sacrifice where they came from.
Liana Wang is a sophomore in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.