When the American Dream Becomes the American Nightmare

Is it fair to sell the vision of a dream at the price of one’s survival?

Photo by Lorenzo Nafissi on Unsplash

My mother’s face lit up when the onion rings came out. The buzzing neon lights overhead were our sole companion in this diner. She must have been starving after a 28-hour flight, but that’s not the reason why she looked so excited. “It smells… amazing,” she exclaimed. Her intrigue took me by surprise because I had never heard my mother say anything remotely positive about deep-fried food, but somehow, she was fascinated by one of the most basic offerings at any American diner. She took a bite, and I will never forget the look on her face.

I had the same look four years prior, when I had a cheeseburger on my way to Poughkeepsie from the airport. There was nothing inherently special about that cheeseburger or the onion rings I ordered for my mom. There was nothing special about this diner either. Her flight landed late, and it was the only place that opened after midnight and was close enough to my campus. It was not the food itself that filled us with a rush of pure joy.

It was the fact that these were our first meals in America.

My mother had just flown 8000 miles from home to be at my college graduation. It was her first time traveling to the U.S. Her simple happiness at that diner, amidst all the exhaustion, reminded me of why I came to this country and studied abroad in the first place. It has always been a dream of my mom. In 1991, she was in line for a scholarship to study abroad in Russia. It was her shot to go out into the world and have a different education experience, but before she could live her dream, the fall of the Soviet Union crushed it. She never forgave that memory. She has always been proud that I was able to live the dream that she lost.

The story of my mom made me feel incredibly lucky to come to the U.S. as an international student. In the first few months, I would wake up in my dorm room and pinch myself to make sure it was not just a dream. I tried to perfect my English by looking up every single word I didn’t understand in every book. I chose not to skim through a reading, although they said it’s a more efficient method, because I wanted to make the most out of the education I worked so hard to get, the education my mother never had. While the kids at school complained about the quality of the dining hall, I marveled every day at the insane selection of food I could never imagine of having. What even is a squash? How did I never have a pudding before? The library became my sanctuary. Midnight visits to the diner I later took my mom to became adventures. The first snow that winter became a full-fledged event. I ran to the quad in the middle of a storm just to feel snow with my bare hands. It felt like touching your dream in the most tangible form.

Photo by Max Sulik on Unsplash

That dream is not only mine to own. Many students came here from all over the world carrying their own definition of the American Dream. A better education from one of the greatest countries on earth could open so many doors and lead one to so many paths. I was grateful that America opens its arms to those who are not their own and makes them feel like they are worthy of hope. When I was celebrating my education with mom at that diner, I couldn’t imagine that just a few years later, that dream would take a hit from the very nation that gave birth to it. I woke up a few days ago to the new ICE ruling for international students due to the pandemic. If a school operates entirely online in the Fall, its international students must leave the country or otherwise be deported. If it adopts a hybrid model, students can only maintain their visa status if they attend classes in person. It means if a student is still in America but their school decides to go online, they are forced to transfer to a different college or fly home. For Vietnamese students, this is nearly impossible because the border is still closed and there are no commercial flights yet. If a student is already home, they face the choice of whether to risk their health and fly 28 hours back to the U.S. to attend classes in person, or to lose their visa status which disqualifies them from internship or employment opportunities next year. It’s a lose-lose situation. “Deportation” is one of the most terrifying word in this nation.

The saddest part is this new policy targets one of the most vulnerable groups in the population. There’s this misconception that all international students come from rich and privileged families. When I tell people that I’m from abroad, they often assume that my parents paid full tuition for me to go to college. If Vassar didn’t offer me a generous financial aid package that covered all tuition, I wouldn’t have been able to come here. I didn’t want to burden my parents with my everyday expenses so I took on campus jobs during the year, but a student visa only allowed me to work less than 20 hours a week. Being on a visa means you’re making a living under layers and layers of restrictions. While Americans always take pride in what they can do, we have to constantly remind ourselves of what we can’t. The only period I was able to work more than 20 hours is during breaks, so I stayed on campus every winter break to work full time at either the kindergarten or library. More than once I wished I could spend the New Years at home, but at the time I couldn’t afford two roundtrip flights a year. Everything I made during winter break was only enough for a flight ticket home in the summer.

I didn’t get to see my family a lot during those four years, which is why when my mom visited me for my graduation, she tried to spend every single minute with me. She really wanted us to see the Statue of Liberty together. Between rehearsing for my college graduation and packing up my belongings of four years, we tried to squeeze this mini trip into my commencement day. The plan was to take the earliest morning train to New York City, race to the Staten Island Ferry, see the statue, and then make it back before 10 for graduation. In retrospect, it was ridiculous that we thought this plan could work, but both my mom and I are ambitious people. “It’s not gonna happen,” my friends laughed. Of course, they were right.

Me at graduation.
Me at graduation.
Me at graduation.

My mother never got to see the Statue of Liberty, but she said it was one of the happiest days in her life because she saw me graduate. In my (ridiculously overpriced) cap and gown, I walked proudly to the stage to receive my diploma. I was proud of myself for making it through college as a student who had no family in the country, worked 20 hours a week in the city and took 5 courses at the same time, never fully fit into the culture and had to keep his head low because being a guest in America means you’re walking on eggshells every day. One mistake and you’re out. Studying abroad was my mother’s American Dream for me, but she never wanted me to stay if the road was tough. “If life gets hard over there, come home,” she said every time I called. She warned me about the price of that dream, but I’m the stubborn type so I never gave up. When things got hard, I held faster to my own version of the American Dream. I reminded myself to be grateful for the opportunity to be in this country, which stands for a lot of things that I believe in.

Recent events have really challenged my belief. I was shocked that while the whole world is coming together to fight a global pandemic, this country is using it as a political weapon to further its xenophobic agenda. One of the things I love most about America is how passionate its people are about political ideologies, but when people are dying in the streets, students are stuck in airports, schools are struggling to design a new mode of learning and flights are still not safe, it is inhumane to politicize a global crisis. Issuing a new regulation in the middle of a pandemic forcing international students to choose between their education and their health, in order to either block non-Americans from entering the country or pressure academic institutions to re-open, is cruel. It is a calculated move targeting the ones that already have no rights and no voice, yet still contribute to the economy and pay tax. When I was an international student, the exclusion from certain conversations and career paths and the pressure to work twice as hard as everyone else were enough of a reminder of where my place was in this country. All I wanted to do was learn. We had no time on our hands to do harm or cause trouble. I was lucky I was able to finish my college education without a hitch. In this coming month, to continue learning, maintain their visa status and keep their American Dream alive, many students will have to fly back to the U.S. and attend classes in person, risking exposure with hundreds of people along the way. There is no cure or vaccine for this virus yet. There is no thorough understanding of what it could do to our bodies yet. Anyone could get it and anyone could die or contract it for three to four months. It’s not an overstatement to say this new policy is killing people. Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine I could potentially die or kill a family member because of my pure desire to learn.

When the American Dream tries to kill you, it becomes an American Nightmare.

Vietnamese international students stuck at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on 3/22/2020 after flights to Vietnam were canceled. The sign says: “Please help us.” Source: Consulate General of Vietnam in San Francisco.

In the past few days, I tried to wrap my head around why the current America is trying so hard to shut out people from the outside. Not only is it denying student visas, but it also stopped issuing work visas, the very piece of paper that allows me to be here and chase my dream. Many graduates this year won’t be able to find a job, even if they have the talent and hard work to contribute to the economy, which in all honesty is in a free fall. Traveling abroad is out of the question for me. If I leave the U.S. now, I won’t be able to come back until at least January. I promised to visit my mom this August, but now I don’t know when I can see her. It’s okay because we’re used to not seeing each other for a long time, but when life is more fragile than ever, I’m starting to wonder how much time I have left with my loved ones. Isn’t it ironic that I am trapped in the land of the free?

The pandemic made me think a lot about what the American Dream truly is. I came here for the promise that learning with and from people of different cultures will give me the most powerful form of knowledge, because diversity creates strength. I came here for the promise that if you work hard, you will be able to achieve your dreams. The American Dream was founded on that promise, and America became a promise land for many because it gives them hope in fairness and integrity. America has always been a special place because it could be a country for everyone. Don’t most people nowadays come from immigrants’ families? Isn’t America “great” because it attracts talents from all over the world? Isn’t the American Dream built on the foundation of inclusivity? When I told my work friends that this is why I came here in the first place, they shook their heads and said, “You’re too innocent.” Everything that has happened in the past few months made me think perhaps they were right. America now doesn’t want to be a country for everyone anymore, but a country for only a select few. Whoever doesn’t fit in that category need not speak up. They will take the first chance to kick you out of the border. America First, they say. The rest of the world can die and that’s okay.

A few months ago, I wrote this Medium piece about every crisis being a test. This pandemic is the ultimate test to unveil the true colors of some people and some countries. For the past several weeks, I have seen both. It was uncomfortable but it truly opened my eyes. Am I living in an American Dream or an American Nightmare? I still want to believe in the good in people and the good in America, but I see the truth more clearly now, what this country prioritizes and how the game is played. The most beautiful thing about this dream is the mere image it promises.

Is it fair to sell the vision of a dream at the price of one’s survival?

The door bell rang. A new customer walked in. The neon lights flickered. The reflection of a nearly empty American diner on its windows accentuated the stillness of the night. My mother finished her last onion ring from the basket.

“The only thing I don’t like about these onion rings is when I bite in, the onion is immediately separated from the batter,” she said, “What’s the point of covering it in crumbs when you end up eating the bare onion anyway? It looks wonky.”

“It’s an illusion, Mom,” I replied, “A lot of things are only beautiful until you consume them.”

In a constant search for something mind-blowing // IG: littlepotatow