Zoub: “So, what is your American Dream.”
Me: “I’m not sure. I guess to own a big home and have a family. I guess…”
When I was in high school, I signed up for a pen pal program. (If you’ve never had a pen pal, I recommend it. It’s a great experience, and a good way to learn more about people.) Through that program I met a number of people from all over the world: Belgium, Cote d’Ivoire, England, Ghana, Hong Kong, and more. Out of all these pen pals, there is one I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget. Her name was Zoubi, a 20-something living in Belgium who would eventually help redefine what I thought it was to be an American.
Zoubi and I were notorious for the length of our letters. She and I would write to each other consistently; in fact, we both thought of our mailings as being more like diaries than letters to a friend. In fact, some of the longest spanned over 80 pages, not including pictures. (Usually, I got her messages on a monthly-or-so basis.) More often than not, our letters spanned multiple envelopes, which after a while, started getting seriously expensive, especially when I had no job.
With Zoubi I shared just about everything; I wrote to her from school, from home, before I went to bed, from the job — everywhere. (This was around 1996, so I still wasn’t too savvy with the Internet. I didn’t start using the ‘Net until 1997.) Apparently, she did the same thing, because her letters would read a lot like mine, which was something like this:
Well, I’m here at school. Kinda bored, really. We’re studying World War II and — well, it’s pretty much the most over-covered war in the history of man. I take it you guys study that war a lot over there, too, eh? What do they teach you about it?
Anyways, I spoke with J yesterday. Damn it, why won’t she pay attention to me? What the hell does she see in that guy? *urgh* Ok, that’s not true. She does pay attention to me. I’m just too chicken to tell her how I feel. Damn it, why can’t I just grow some chutzpah?! Anywho, we went to see “Titanic” yesterday. It was like her 14th time seeing it. Not a bad movie, although calling it “Crytanic” instead would’ve been more accurate.
Ok, teacher’s looking this way angrily. Gotta go.
Oh, man — what a DAY this was…
(Yes, this would have been one of my letters. Hers sounded a lot like mine, except they involved guys, parties, and sex. Mine involved girls, geeks, and whining about not being able to get a date.)
After a while, we started to call each other instead of writing. It didn’t happen very often, since it was like $.30 per minute and my parents made me pay for the damn calls. (It was only fair. I woulnd’t have wanted them to pay for the calls, especially since I knew that the calls might well go for two or three hours. Given how fast I used to speak, however, I’m sure I could’ve crammed those 3 hours into about 30 minutes. That’s gotten much better. Really.)
The Visit, and the Question
Eventually, after years of writing to each other, we decided it was about time to meet. I had planned to go there, but plans for that fell through, so she instead came here to the US.
This is when our friendship fell apart.
From her letters, I’d always gathered her to be a bit of a party animal. Not very self-examining, she tended to hang around the bad crowds. She had great writing skills and a good set of brains, but looking back, she was lacking wisdom and direction. She wanted excitement in her life, something she easily found in the underbelly of BeNeLux (Belgium,Netherlands, and Luxembourg); she dated the type of guys I go out of my way to avoid, went to places I’d pay to stay away from, and spent more on drinks per night than I have all my life.
At any rate, when she came here, she came with a friend, whose name I can’t quite recall. They were here for one thing: looking for a good time. Sadly, my idea of a good time and their idea of a good time differed greatly.
I could go on recalling about some of the more annoying aspects of their visit (including the night they came home so drunk they couldn’t walk, the day they got pissed off at me because I wouldn’t drive them down to Miami — which was 5 hours away — during finals week, or the night they called at 5am for me to pick them up because they were done hanging out with a couple of boys they met out at the beach — my stomach still turns at that one), but there was one specific part of the meeting which meant more to me than all the others combined:
We were driving down to the local mall and talking about what the future held for us; what our dreams and goals were. We talked about the big houses they saw here and what they would do if they lived in the U.S. It was then that Zoubi turned to me and asked, “So, what’s your American Dream?”
Until then, I didn’t think anyone used that term anymore. At least I’d never heard it used, other than in parodies. Back then, I didn’t believe it still existed, to be totally honest. But here were two Belgian girls asking me what my American Dream was.
After stumbling for a few seconds, I think I answered something along the lines of “I’m not sure. I guess to own a big home and have a family. I guess…” Hell of an answer, eh? Just goes to show you how modern American society has failed its youth. I’ve spent the past 4 years looking for the answer to that question. The fact of the matter is that the answer is too long to fit even here. But in short, my American Dream is to develop my own kingdom, to own “me”, and to do things that wouldn’t get done unless I did them. After all, America shunned royalty at its inception, and that’s exactly why it’s the land where ordinary men can become kings — and vice versa. The streets might not be paved with gold, but to anyone willing to work, for them they will be.
America is the only country in the world where we don’t make it a point to teach kids about our economic system with pride. Heck, until that point, I knew more about communism than I did about free market economics. I could have quoted you Karl Marx, but couldn’t tell you a word about Adam Smith. And yet, I called myself an American, though not necessarily proudly at that point. It’s pretty sad that the only place where the American mystique still exists is outside of America. It was pretty sad that I had to be reminded by a couple of European ignorants* that the American Dream still existed. Sadder still is that the only place the American Dream is still largely dreamt is in shores outside our own.
* NOTE: I’m not saying that all Europeans are ignorant. In fact, most of them have been quite knowledgeable. But just like there’s the “Ugly American,” so is there the “Ugly European.” Attractive though they were, these girls were just that, “Ugly Europeans.”
Folks, realize this: if you find yourself anywhere in the world and you hear the phrase “The Land of Opportunity,” you can be pretty sure that it’s the United States they’re talking about. Realize also that someone actually died, gave up everything so that you — yes, the very you who is reading this right now thinking that the guy who wrote this is either a right-wing militia nut or some fanatical Bushie (I’m neither) who’s too lazy to use spell check (that I am, and it’s my right, daing it!) — would be able to live free.
I suppose that going into all of this would be utterly pointless. After all, how many times has this been told before? But let me ask an honest question, and take your time with your answer:
What is your American Dream? What does this phrase mean to you? It obviously means something to the rest of the world. Why let them down by not having one?