Monday, June 22, 2009

The American Dream

For the past two weeks I was working as a "Cultural Adviser" (i.e. glorified chaperone) for groups of high school exchange students visiting D.C. for a few days before heading back to their home countries. During that time, there were of course lots of conversations with the students about how their year in America had gone, how they felt about their experiences here, etc. Including a lot of talk about the "American Dream".

I learned back in elementary school that the American Dream was about opportunity and social mobility - you could come to America as a poor immigrant with nothing, and work hard, and become rich. Or you could grow up in poverty in rural America, have little formal schooling, and one day become President of the United States (like Abraham Lincoln).

But the American Dream that these kids talked about was something different, and I really enjoyed hearing their interpretations of it. Most humorously, a lot of the boys talked about American girls as the American Dream. As in, how they're going to miss the American Dream when they go back home! I'm not sure if girls are the American Dream because of being (to them) exotic-looking and therefore especially beautiful, or if it's more about the rules of boy-girl relationships in the U.S. being (in general) more relaxed than in their home countries. In any case, I enjoyed that interpretation of the American Dream.

More seriously, one of the activities we did with one group of the students was a reception with a couple of U.S. Senators who sponsored the bill to create the exchange program, and one of the students (a girl from Morocco) gave a beautiful speech about what coming to America had meant to her. I wish I had the text, because it was really a great speech, especially for a high school student (I couldn't have done as well). But in any case, in it she mentioned the American Dream - before coming here she had seen American tv and movies, and she thought the American Dream was about having a nice life, with a nice house and car and all the other luxuries we take for granted in this country. But she said after living here for a year she'd realized that the American Dream is something much deeper than that, that it is about freedom and respecting each other in spite of whatever differences we may have.

So I learned a lot from these kids in the past few weeks. And they also made me feel quite "proud to be an American" (I can't hear that phrase without having the song pop into my head).