In 1996, my parents left their friends and family in China for the United States. To them and many immigrants of their generation, the idea that America—mei guo (美国), or “beautiful country,” in Chinese—would transform their life for the better was as obvious as vegetables being good for their health.
This year, on July 22, I fulfilled one of their goals when I became an American citizen. Instead of feeling excited, though, I am deeply conflicted about this supposed accomplishment. The country has descended into moral and governmental decay. The president mocks sense and science while more than 220,000 people have died from COVID-19, and the whole world looks at America in pity. Asians like me fear attacks on the street, as the president continues to scapegoat China for the U.S.’s failed response to the coronavirus. Friends are planning to leave the country, and journalists are writing doomsday articles about the end of democracy here.
The American dream has shaped the trajectories of millions of families like mine, people who left authoritarianism and dictatorships for the U.S., attracted to its promises of freedom, equality, and justice. But the pandemic has exposed deep flaws in this idea. The U.S. is not exceptional. In fact, the country’s arrogance allowed COVID-19 to spin out of control. As a new citizen, I must let go of my family’s notion of the American dream and form a new, realistic relationship with my adopted country.
My parents could never have fathomed the America of today when they moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, 24 years ago with a 3-year-old in tow. To live here, my dad attended law school during the day and waited tables at night, while my mother worked at a Chinese buffet. After my father’s law firm transferred us to Hong Kong, we returned to the U.S. frequently to fulfill green-card requirements. I still remember my parents’ tense silence while triple-checking their various documents each time we went through immigration. Years later, when my father’s company moved him to Beijing, my parents had to make a tough decision. They needed to stake a permanent residence in the States to apply for citizenship. So my mom moved to New York by herself the year I went to Connecticut for college. For America, my parents lived apart for nearly 10 years.
Right before the pandemic, my dad finally settled down in the U.S. with my mom. They were overjoyed to be together for the long term, to carve out their place in America. I loved watching them finally as a couple. However, I was pained to see their vision of the country unravel as the pandemic rolled on. My mom was uncharacteristically at a loss for words when she realized how much the government was neglecting its poor and working class, many of them immigrants like us. My dad fumed at the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for discounting the expertise of East Asian countries on mask wearing.
My feelings about America oscillated wildly prior to my naturalization ceremony. When China passed a national-security law cracking down on dissent in Hong Kong, I was grateful that I was about to become a U.S. citizen. I was aware that I couldn’t even write a piece like this if I lived in China. And, like all children of immigrants, I understood, and bore the burden of, my parents’ sacrifices to get me here, and I wanted to make my citizenship worthwhile.
But in the weeks before the pandemic hit New York, where I live, I felt like I was going mad. Leading up to my naturalization interview in March, I’d wake up, grab my phone, and read horrifying headlines from Wuhan and worried messages from my family in China. Then I’d go to work and have trusted colleagues tell me that the media were overreacting, that I was young and not to worry. I put out masks in the middle of the office, and everyone ignored them. But I knew I was right. The country that my parents had chosen to entrust our lives to was wrong.
Americans’ early skepticism about the pandemic and mask wearing underscored a feeling I’ve had many times before in this country. While most of the world orients itself around U.S. politics and pop culture, most Americans don’t typically pay attention to, or know much about, the rest of the world. When I arrived in Connecticut from Hong Kong for college, questions about why I spoke English so well, what people ate in Hong Kong, and whether I was experiencing culture shock were well-meaning. I didn’t have the heart to say that their ignorance of Hong Kong, or of anywhere outside the U.S., was the true shock.
I know now that many Americans simply do not fully understand me, or people like me. I’d always figured this burden was just a personal issue that I’d have to negotiate, and one that seemed small compared to the lack of political freedoms that drove immigrants away from their home country. However, Americans’ insularity was hard to overlook in the pandemic. While I knew the COVID-19 response was going to be slow, I was not ready for the level of denial, nonchalance, and arrogance that suggested American bodies were somehow immune to the same virus that sent Asia and Europe reeling. The journalist Emily Rauhala’s tweet spoke to me: “One of the most painful lessons of this crisis is the extent to which America cannot or will not identify with Chinese pain. Every horror that is happening here happened first in Wuhan. We covered it. Many people did not care.”
At my naturalization test and interview—the final step toward citizenship—I felt frazzled and cranky. That morning in early March, I had to decide whether I’d wear a mask to the interview. Should I protect myself from the virus, but then mark myself for a potential racist attack? I hesitantly decided to wear one, and I was the only person in the United States Citizen and Immigration Services waiting room, besides the staff, who did.
I aced the civics and history portion of the interview. Then the USCIS officer asked if I swore loyalty to the United States and if I’d perform works of national importance for the country. I didn’t say that I’ve never felt so alienated from the country in my life, as a person who grew up in Hong Kong during SARS, who saw the tsunami of pain and death hurtling toward us. I didn’t tell him that the country I was swearing loyalty to was not upholding its responsibility to keep its people alive. I simply said yes.
On the day of my naturalization ceremony in July, I let my parents dictate the mood: They were jubilant and jovial, turning our living room into a fashion show, where I tried out multiple dresses for the occasion.
The USCIS offices were decidedly different than they were in March: Everyone wore a mask, and the chairs in the ceremony room were spaced out with six feet of separation. I became the de facto photographer for the soon-to-be citizens who wanted a photo to remember the day. The federal judge Zoomed in and told us his personal story as the grandson of Latino immigrants, and how we now had to maintain the liberties that so many others have died to protect. He encouraged us to “speak out and make your voice heard.”
With these words, I realized that perhaps joining the country at such a low point was an advantage. The American dream that my parents envisioned has had its failures and falsehoods exposed, and I see the country in its naked entirety. And as anyone in a relationship knows, you’re not in a real one until you see the person at his worst. To enact real change, you have to see the true depth of the problems.
And I see so much. I see a country that proudly espouses its democratic values across the globe, yet only 56 percent of those eligible voted in the 2016 election. I see that because of the country’s long history of racism, the people hardest hit by the pandemic are people of color. I see how one trip to the hospital can bring an American to financial ruin.
But I also see the thousands of nurses and doctors who risked so much to help those sick with and dying of COVID-19. I see the people who protest for justice and those who imagine radical new systems and laws to push for change. I see young Asian Americans like me having hard conversations with their parents, explaining that the very narrative that brought them here—everyone has an equal opportunity to pull themselves up by their bootstraps—is false, and ignores the role of racism in the formation of the country.
Instead of identifying with an old notion of the American dream, new citizens like me can advance a truer story: America itself isn’t going to save anyone, as my parents once believed. But their idea of a just America is still worth fighting for now and for years to come. New and old citizens alike must make this country live up to its ideals. This election, my first, I am voting with that responsibility in mind.