Monday, November 10, 2014

Perceptions of the American Dream

I teach English and American culture to international students that hail from numerous countries from across the planet, from Venezuela and Colombia, to Iran and Malaysia. Each month I have my new group of students do a project where they create a list of questions about culture and identity, and then tape an interview conducted with a U.S.-born peer. One of the topics that my international students often ask about is how students from the United States perceive "the American Dream." In class I ask them to define it for themselves, and the most common response is something along the lines of: "it's about having the opportunity to study, to earn good money, and to pursue your dreams." When they conduct their interviews and ask about this topic, their American interviewees often reply: "Yeah I know what the American Dream is….it's about having a house and two kids, and a great job, and making good money. But I don't really believe in it, that much."

Photo Credit: Brian Auer

My international students overwhelmingly believe in the concept of the American Dream. They are here because they have faith that through dedicated study and application of their will and purpose, they will become successful. So I ask them why they think so many students in the United States seem to think it's outdated. Last month one of my students from Venezuela summarized in a nutshell what his peers from previous months had expressed: the American Dream pertains more to immigrants than to native-born students. Their perception of themselves is that they come to this country motivated and with a clear plan of action precisely because they are coming from places where their future career outlook is at best limited.

Now of course, this is their experience and opinion, and there are certainly many native-born U.S. students who are extremely dedicated and motivated, and become very successful. But I still thought that this trend of thought was interesting. I thought I'd explore it with my cards. I drew one card for my ESL students, and one for U.S. students on the topic of how they perceive the American Dream:

ESL students' perceptions of the American Dream: Page of Mirrors/Cups
U.S. students' perceptions of the American Dream: 9 of Mirrors/Cups reversed

Chrysalis Tarot - H. Sierra
US Games Systems, Inc.

The Page of Mirrors tells me that my ESL students come here with an open heart, and are inspired by the possibility of starting the path toward realizing their hopes and dreams. Like the Healer kneeling in the grass, they are starting from the ground up, getting their hands dirty, using raw materials to build their path forward, bit by bit. The majority of my students expect that the route will not be easy. They are in my classes because they need to improve their language skills simply in order to have the opportunity to begin their regular program of study. But they choose to see this as a surmountable challenge to attaining their goals. They often demonstrate joy in creation, and in their education. And for some of my students coming from countries with active political and economic turmoil, there is a sense of healing in the act of pursuing their dreams, something nearly impossible to do in their land of origin.

On the other hand the 9 of Mirrors reversed tells a different story. In Tarot we often call this the "wish fulfilled" card, so in its reversed position it speaks to a student body that feels distanced from reaching their own dreams. There is a sense of disillusionment and dissatisfaction to this energy. But why? Perhaps the students are sinking under the pressure of a concept that no longer seems to be about simply being able to enjoy one's life, but about a definition of success that appears to demand the attainment of great wealth, of great success - a notion that seems unlikely, or even impossible. I also wonder if the opportunities available to them are taken for granted, even unintentionally, and impact in some way their attitudes and perceptions about what's possible for them.

Living through adversity certainly puts things into perspective, no matter where you're from. One of my students from Venezuela spent several years flying back and forth from his home country and Miami, working at whatever odd job he could find in order to make enough money to cover his travel expenses, support his family back home, and save for college. When he first came, he said he went knocking on restaurant doors, and he went through forty places before finally a manager agreed to hire him - the manager happened to be Venezuelan.

Photo Credit: Hartwig HKD

Another of my students grew up in Angola during the civil war, when his parents finally sent him to live with relatives in Portugal. Being of mixed heritage, he had been "too white" for his Angolan classmates, and was "too black" for his Portuguese classmates. At the age of 15 he was living alone in an apartment in a Jamaican neighborhood of London, where he picked up the "Islands" accent he still has today. He was often stopped by police on his way to school on suspicion of carrying knives or other weapons, and this became something he simply had to deal with.

Both of these students have big dreams of being music producers, and if you speak with them, their confidence in their future success is palpable. They've already worked hard at life, and they are barely 20 years old.  So I believe them when they tell me about their plans. There is no doubt in their speech, only calm certainty, accompanied by a knowing smile.

Whether international or domestic, I wish all of them well. I pray that their dreams allow them to rise above the challenges that cross their paths, and that inspiration shines in their hearts always.


  1. What an interesting post, Olivia! I can definitely see the idea that those who have to fight for their dreams value them more. And that US students may feel disillusioned with a narrow definition of what's worth dreaming...

    1. Thanks, Chloe! Yeah, I thought it was quite interesting, since I'd never really considered the "American dream" in this light before.