Monday, November 05, 2007

The American Dream

The following post has been simmering on my mind for a long time now. I just felt the need to put this down on paper, as it were, and give voice to something which has gripped my attention lately.

Everyone always told me that America was the land of dreams when I was growing up. In America, they said, success was just waiting around the corner; it was seen by many as Paradise on earth, a utopian society where all your wishes come true. I was around four years of age, possibly younger, when I first heard of America; the common folk described it with an almost mythic air, speaking of the 'white man' and his exploits. It is safe to say that I had a very otherworldly conception of Americans, and Caucasians in general.

My parents say that the first time I had been to the United States was when I was a mere two years old; to some extent, I can still recall some vague details, as if veiled by mist, but as to the length of our stay or the details of it, I do not. Apparently there was a very important family gathering, and we just had to attend (this nearly bankrupted us, given our limited resources then). I vaguely recall Aunt Tessie handing me my first dinosaur book, and being enticed by the snow; these, at least, were the clearest memories.

In the Third World, when one says 'Western', the automatic association one has with this term is American. Nothing says Westernization better than Mc Donald's, or Burger King, or The O.C., or pizza; here in the Philippines, where society is very Westernized, speaking with an American accent or having even the slightest strain of Caucasian blood seems to automatically predispose one to greener pastures-- seen by many as a remnant of colonial mentality amongst the peoples of this country. America is not so much just a country, but an almost mythological force of nature.

My first trip to the United States that I recall was in the spring of 2000, when my parents were at the peak of their careers. Of course, spring in the United States is summer here in Manila; and for an even more special treat, dad decided we would stay with our relatives for almost the entirety of our two-and-a-half month long summer vacation. He announced this in January; by March, I was dying to leave the country. For me, this was a chance to put something of a face behind the American phenomenon which had been spoken of so reverently by the people.

I distinctly remember waking up at 2am in the morning of 6 May 2000, and our flight was at 4am; this was before 9/11, so the airport rules were not as strict as they are today. I brought along a bevy of my 'lucky charms': unopened packets of Mc Donald's ketchup, a lithium battery, a novelization of the American Godzilla movie (I lost it in the plane), a notebook, some pens, and even two stuffed animals, just so I can say that my things have left the country. Call it ambitious, even pretentious; I wanted so desperately to bring everything with me and yet feel like I had nothing at all.

That was the longest flight I had taken then-- 16 hours of travel from Tokyo to Newark, and I desperately wanted to eat (I didn't even consider touching the airline 'food') and
do my ablutions'. When we landed, finally, I could barely contain myself: wow! It's a white guy! I want his hair!I want his abs! I want his girlfriend! I want his skin color! Though this was not the first time I had encountered a non-Asian (our old neighborhood had a lovely German family at the end of the street whose child I was acquainted with), it was a different sensation altogether to visit them in their own lands. I distinctively remember thinking to myself: fuck Manila! fuck Quezon city! fuck our house! fuck our lands in the province! This is where I want to live! This is where I want to get rich!

I was naive, of course. From Newark, we took a plane to Orlando, where we were met by my dad's cousin, Tito (uncle) Edward. Now, he had three children, the youngest being Annie, who was about the same age as I was; we immediately got along very well, and I even showed her some tricks for her Pokemon game. Needless to say, we had a grand time: we spent eight days all in all just touring Disney World, two days for each of the parks. After that, we proceeded to New York, where we met with Aunt Grace, my paternal grandfather's sister. Aunt Grace worked as the head nurse of a retirement home, and was loved by all; she was also a very devout Catholic, leading us on an excursion to the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Massachusetts, and even touring us in St. Patrick's Cathedral (if I remember well, this was a few weeks after the death of John Cardinal O'Connor).

In California, I met a whole lot of relatives I had never heard of, let alone seen, before. I was able to meet Tia Corazon, my dad's aunt through marriage, who welcomed us with open arms. She was a feisty character who never ran out of stories; like Aunt Grace, she also worked at a retirement home, both as its accountant and chief nurse. Her husband, my grand uncle Isauro (but everyone called him 'Doc') was a pediatrician. He apparently liked to samba. I was able to visit their beautiful home in Coronado, San Diego; I even met their neighbors. One of them interested me very much, an old veteran who fought in the Philippines during World War II, and was a survivor of the Bataan Death March.

The rest of those almost-three-months lasted very quickly; almost to the end of our vacation, we returned to New York to visit some sights we had not yet been to. I was enthralled when we visited the Museum of Natural History; after years and years of waiting, I was finally staring at real, honest-to-goodness bones of a T. rex. We also spent an entire day, nearly ten hours long, just rummaging through FAO Schwarz and the Toys R'Us rumored to be owned by none other than Imelda Marcos herself. And in a chilling turn of events, we decided to postpone our trip to the World Trade Center; next time, said dad. Little did I know that the next time anyone of us would see the WTC, it would be reduced to a massive pile of smoke and debris.

We were walking along Fifth Avenue when I spotted a homeless woman to one corner, seemingly talking to herself. She was clearly begging for alms, but the people around her--some less than six inches away from her-- acted as if she were a blank wall. The lady started to raise her voice, in the vain hope that someone would listen to her. My sister, then only six years old, walked toward the lady, and handed her a half-eaten cheeseburger. 'God bless you', she said, almost as if she were choking back tears of joy. This was surely a strange sight, I thought; wasn't America the land of dreams? Then why are there still homeless people here? I couldn't let my mind wander off from that train of thought.

Later that evening, in Aunt Grace's home, there was a family reunion of sorts; both Tia Cora and Isauro were there. But this was no ordinary family meeting; else, why was Tia Cora sobbing? The story she told us would remain with me to this day. In the retirement home where she worked, Tia Cora was in charge of taking care of an elderly man named Rudy. Now, Rudy had been suffering from a disease, Alzheimer's if I recall correctly, for the better part of the last few years. He checked himself in only three years prior, and immediately took a liking to Tia Cora. My grand aunt was a patient, jovial woman; she would always remind Rudy to take his medications, as well as tell him stories about the Philippines, her children, and her opinions on politics and religions (Rudy was apparently an atheist who was still open to religion).

Rudy died that day; Tia Cora was on leave when he breathed his last, so she had to read about it via email. As one of the few people Rudy trusted, she had the phone numbers of his closest relatives who should be able to collect his remains in the occasion of his death. One number was for a man named Jack, and it was listed first, so she called that number first. 'Hello?' a somewhat gruff voice answered. Tia Cora introduced herself as Rudy's friend and nurse; the man Jack replied that he was Rudy's son. Seemingly relieved, she told him about his father's death. A brief silence passes, and Jack replies 'So?' in a detached manner. 'Why should I care?' Since he was the closest relation to Rudy, my grand aunt wondered as to what the retirement home should do with the body, or when Jack would like to claim it. His answer shocked us all who listened to the story.

'Do I look like I give a damn? I don't care what you do to him.'

At that point, Tia Cora did not know whether to cry out in rage or sadness. Has it really all come down to this? A man just died whose own son did not even care about hearing, let alone digesting the news. It was like a shower of cold water dousing a beautiful, pristine dream.

At that point it seemed that I, too, had been woken from a delusion to face reality. Would I really be risking it all to live in America-- and become just another commodity as easily disposable as fast food? Would I be willing to trade my life here in Manila, uncomfortable and fraught with woe and endless litanies of other outside factors, for the good life-- but albeit one that is as cheap and substantial as plastic? I am not anti-American-- God knows how much I secretly want to have it all and remain true to myself. But in the end, one has to wonder, if the good life is really worth having at all.

In the United States, I felt like a king, sitting in a Greyhound bus, and an emperor dining on a cheeseburger (which, in all honesty, tasted like onions sauteed in onions) in an Amtrak train. I want to be a patriot fighting for a cause in a foreign land, a native adventurer, a foreign nationalist, and a litany of other oxymorons too numerous to list down. In truth, if there is anything I 'envy' about most Americans is how they can diss their country all they want and yet remain in a comfortable position. I don't have that luxury: diss the government here and you are either a subverter or a political enemy. Thus we look to this earthly paradise as a means of escape from the woes and problems here. Who can honestly blame them, though? We are only human, and it is only human to dream and to want a better life for oneself.

When I returned to the Philippines, I was hailed as a conquering hero by my classmates. Tommy wanted to hear every detail of my trip; Julius said that I had the best bragging rights in the whole class; Ryan said that I was the coolest kid and school; Marc, that I should be the most popular, on account of the fact that I had a Pokedex with me (this was at the height of the popularity of Pokemon). All this praise for a cheap piece of plastic which had probably been made in China, anyway.

I'll admit that there is still a part of me that just wants to forget it all and start a new life in another country, and maybe even find success along the way. I'd want nothing more than to live a life of consummate ease and well--being. But if there is anything I have learned regarding this matter, it is that problems never really go away. At best, they can be nice problems to have-- but problems nevertheless. I have seen the West, and it is exactly like the Far East, only on a grander scale. I have seen what it can do to people-- how they can be reduced to mere commodities on par with plastic. And while it would certainly be very nice to live as Americans, it is an entirely different matter to actually be them.

Just what is it about America that entices people so much? What is it about Americans that provokes reactions from the most welcoming to the most hostile? Perhaps we are all just a bit off our rockers; certainly, it would be a bit of a stretch to say that nothing good has ever come out of that country. Maybe when we begin to see the real United States of America-- and not the mythical, grossly California-ized pipe dream of both its detractors and supporters-- will we know just how lucky we are. The simple truth is that the United States of America is, like the rest of the world, just a country, albeit one that is exceedingly rich.

The American Dream is a beautiful dream, but like all dreams, it belongs to the subconscious. I'm not saying it is an evil thing to dream-- only that it must always be tempered by reality. We will find that their concerns are just as human as our own.

As for Europe, that is for another story.

No comments: