I didn’t feel at home in my family, or the country I was born in — Singapore. I dreamed about and anticipated the time when I would be able to leave home. Going to college abroad was the perfect opportunity for me to leave. I studied in Australia after secondary school, and while I was happy for the opportunity to get away, I knew that Australia wasn’t where I thought I wanted to end up eventually.
America was where I wanted to be.
I wanted to be here not just because of the liberal arts education America offered, but also because I identified with its culture. I thought I would belong, because of the “American Dream” and the ideals America proudly proclaimed were its assets, a nation of immigrants who came together to form a melting pot whose diverse cultures and talents made it uniquely great.
The stories about immigrants who arrived in America with only five dollars in their pocket and the clothes on their backs made you imagine a place that as long as you were willing, you would be able to make a life for yourself. It was a place full of possibilities and opportunities.
When I saw Asian-American actors on television, talk shows, broadcast news, and in films — however few and limited their presence and roles were — I saw a model of possibility for myself.
But nothing is perfect, and I see the cracks in the dreamland of the free. Some would argue that the American Dream is dead, or that it was always a myth — that it never existed at all.
During my first year in college in America I learned about the “perpetual foreigner” syndrome — the alienating experience of being Asian in America. Even the most culturally assimilated are not exempt. Flora Belle Jan, the young Chinese-American flapper wrote in a letter in 1925: “I know that I have penetrated more American homes than any other Chinese girl, and I have found many people cordial… But someone some time must make comments, and these do not fall gently on my ears.”
Every time someone expresses surprise and points out how well I speak English or when I have to explain why I speak so eloquently — I am reminded that I’m not seen in the same way as others. I don’t belong in the same way here.
As I learned more about the history of the United States, I have to come to terms with how marred America is by its ugly history, something it still struggles to acknowledge. That, in fact, it didn’t allow for a seat for everyone at the table. Ironically, America’s immigrant labor probably made the very table with no seats open to them. America was and still is an old, white boys club.
Even though I’m at a prestigious liberal arts college, I’m still faced with the reality that the odds of America’s laws and policies are against me staying here after I graduate.
In a Vox essay, entitled “I spent the last 15 years trying to become an American. I've failed.,”
William Han, a lawyer who’s been in America for 15 years since he was 18 and holds two Ivy League degrees, discusses having spent all of his years in America legally. He followed all the immigration regulations, paid all his taxes, received not so much as a parking ticket, and yet, he tells us he is still on the verge of deportation.
“Following the rules [in America] isn’t enough,” Han says.
A H1-B, a work visa, is valid for three years and renewable only once. Hundreds of thousands apply for work visas, but the law only grants 85,000 of them—20,000 to those holding advanced degrees. The rest are turned away.
After graduation, I’ll have a year to find work with an employer willing to sponsor a visa for me. If not, I’ll have to leave this country. America is no longer the first choice for the best and brightest of immigrants.
As much as I want to love this country, it doesn’t seem like it wants to have me.
Does America have a place for me? If not, where do I belong?
Shane Tan ’20