American Dreams: Emigrating From China

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Atlantic reader XY Qian tells her story:

I was born and raised in Shanghai, China. I have heard about the American Dream often enough in my formative years that I wanted to experience it myself. I landed in the U.S. at the tender age of 23, taking my husband with me.

I received my doctoral degree in a small social science field from a Big Ten university close to the East Coast, and my husband received his Master’s degree in engineering from the same university. We now live in Minnesota, each having a full-time job that provides benefits. We own two good cars and a decent house in a great school district. Our daughter is four months old now, healthy and having received wonderful care, thanks to the very advanced medical resources available in our state.

So yes, on the surface, my American dream has been realized: advanced degrees from a good university, a full-time decent job for each one of us, a decent house in a good school district, two cars, starting a family.

However, why “on the surface”? Because for any “common Joe,” whether U.S. citizens or immigrants, to realize the American Dream, there needs to be courageous leaders, which has been in extremely short supply. Below is the list of things to start with:

Immigration reform: Every politician says it has been broken for years. I applaud President Obama’s efforts to reform it. However, the immigration system is at the point where an entire overhaul is much needed. Patchwork no longer works. Why is this relevant to my American Dream? Because, despite being highly educated and valuable to the American workforce, neither my husband nor I has received permanent residency yet.

Politics: The conservative right uses religion to hijack politics. This is so ironic, because the first wave of white people fled to the U.S. to avoid religious persecution and to pursue freedom. Why is this relevant to my American Dream? Because the GOP base, in my perception, is extremely hostile towards new immigrants like me. In fact, I am extremely grateful for living in the Twin Cities area—progressive, open minded, welcoming, and affordable with a high quality of life.

Tax system & health care: Why should the wealthiest Americans and the biggest corporations enjoy so many loopholes? Why should health care be so expensive and yet health outcomes so poor compared to other developed countries? Why is this relevant to my American Dream? Because the tax system and health care cost, together, have convinced me that, in today’s U.S., it is a lot more likely to become poor overnight than to become wealthy eventually—completely against my understanding of the Dream.

Racial issues: Sure, Asian Americans have higher median pre-tax household income than White, Black, or Hispanic households. However, as the smallest racial group in the U.S., Asian Americans have been constantly overlooked, because it is not a significant voting bloc. In addition, the treatment of Asian-American students by admission offices across top-tier universities is alarming. I once read a Black mother telling her Black son that he must be twice as good as White people in order to compete on the same level. Well, Asian kids have to be three times as good, and it still doesn’t guarantee anything, unless, of course, your family has connections or is a major donor. In fact, I already started to worry about my daughter’s future.

You must want to ask: Why don’t you go back to China? My answer: we have simply chosen the less bad.

Have your own story to tell? What’s your vision of the American Dream? Email The above tweet was submitted by readers through our #AtlanticAmericanDreams hashtag. And check out all the great Instagram versions here. Emily just put together a great gallery of mashups of reader-submitted photos in collaboration with EchoSight. More on that series soon. Update on this thread from a reader who prefers to stay nameless:

There is a lot of irony in this woman feeling her dreams are threatened because people, who she perceives as being wealthy, relative to her high dual-income  family, are inadequately taxed, while she says she is threatened by lack of permanent residency, while also being threatened by her ethnic group being too small in numbers to successfully lobby for race-based college admission.

Since she referenced the historical aspect of the American Dream, it is reasonable to inquire whether a black (or white) sharecropper felt similarly threatened in 1920 or, hell, 1950. Did an Irish immigrant, pretty fresh off the boat, and pressed into the bloodbath of Antietam, have a similar concept of what it meant to be threatened?

I’m personally very happy to have such a family living in this country, and I’d favor allowing them to have a much more clear path to citizenship, but I’d rather not read the whining about some people not being taxed enough, as this family inevitably reduces the bargaining power of families employed in the same industry, and the whining about their ethnic group not having the numbers to use state power in the manner of another ethnic group.