Growing up I never dreamed of marrying a boy from my hometown, building a home near my family, and living around the same people I had known my entire life. No, my American dream was always a little different. When I was small, I wanted to be a ballerina who performed with dancers from all over the world and learned all of their traditional dances. I dreamed of moving to New York and meeting a nice Italian boy from a big Italian family, who still spoke Italian and still had all of their old world traditions. We would eat spaghetti every night … because that’s how you think when you’re a kid.
I didn’t realize it then, but my American dream was to live a life among immigrants. That is what America represented to me back then — that Great American Melting Pot from Schoolhouse Rock. And honestly, that is what America continues to be for me today. I still aspire to have friends and perhaps even boyfriends who bring something to this country from other parts of the world.
That is why I am saddened and disappointed in the direction our country is heading. We are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Many of us would not exist if that melting pot did not exist. We’re one-quarter this and a third that. It’s those bits of family history most of us are excited to share as we develop new friendships and build families. Entire businesses have been developed around determining exactly what kind of immigrant heritage we have, and many of us, myself included, are eager to learn those aspects of ourselves.
So how did we become so afraid of “the other?” Most of us are part “other” from another time. Irish, Italian, German — these immigrants all faced challenges coming to American in the past, but today they are part of the collective American dream. And yes, the world is changing faster than some of us like, and change is not easy for everyone to accept. But that change is going to happen regardless. It always does, and it always will. In our hearts, we all know that. The world doesn’t stop because we want it to stop. We have to keep moving, pushing forward, accepting change. Otherwise, we fall behind, and we miss out on new opportunities.
I grew up in the rural Georgia Mountains. Besides a handful of African Americans, everyone was white, Christian, Anglo-American. I remember when the first Chinese restaurant opened in our town by a Chinese family. I was excited and ate there as much as I could. And as time passed, more and more people began to go there. It became part of the community, and people were happy to eat there. We received a small taste of the great big world in our own backyard.
That is what immigration does. It brings the world to your doorstep and a little spice to life. You get to enjoy other parts of the world in the comfort of your own environment. No travel is required, no luggage or expensive flights. You walk into a restaurant, and you get a sample of another place. To me it is such a beautiful experience, even on the smallest scale, that I cannot understand why we are pushing so hard to limit it.
Growing up where I did, I was blessed with experiences that helped develop my dream. I had substitute teachers who came from France and taught us phrases and songs in French. I hung out with the exchange students – Anka from Germany, Jorgen from Sweden and Naomi from Japan. I remember their names because they were important in my life — even if I only knew them for a year and only shared a class with one of them. I learned from them. I respected them and their bravery for coming to another country at such a young age. I grew because of that experience. I started finding myself and what I wanted. I became a magazine writer and moved to the city, meeting people from all walks of life in both my work and day-to-day living. I traveled and experienced new places and people. I ate new cuisines. I enjoyed international festivals. I continued to grow. I dated men here from various backgrounds. So in some ways I have lived my American dream. I have lived a life among immigrants, and my life is fuller because of these experiences, and I hope my experiences are not over yet.
While I understand that this is not everyone’s dream, I also know that there is a little girl somewhere in America who dreams of being a scientist discovering new solutions with people from around the world. And one day, she hopes to meet a nice boy from a nice Mexican family, who still speaks Spanish and still has all of their traditions. And they will eat tacos every night … because that’s how you dream when you’re a kid. And I can’t imagine there is anyone who wouldn’t want her to realize that dream, and I hope that she does.