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American Dream

The conventional wisdom used to be that there was a “First World” and a “Third World,” a “New World” and an “Old World.”

Your home culture was also supposed to be thought of as what you leave behind. Perhaps decadent, perhaps repressive, but always undesirable in some way and that was supposed to be the emphasis. It was what you needed to grow away from. Your home culture was considered to be in the past.

Certain countries, certain places also were considered to be backward, to lag behind.

But in recent years, this attitude changed. People have begun to realize that we have been in the same time all along, and there was no “First World” or “Third World.”

This is true when you think about. While the more modern, technologically advanced countries provided better infrastructure, the “Third World” and the “Old World” countries still had those ancient things, old ways, that provided the balance to sterility, over-emphasis on progress, over-reliance on technology.

For me, personally, the American Dream is no longer the aspirational, prosperity-based dream it once was, or about rejecting one thing for another. It’s not about the house and white picket fence anymore, and it’s not about “better than.”

For me, it’s about a state of shared dreaming, one that’s much more global now than before.

When I visited my family in 2015 in Shanghai, it was shocking to me how obvious it was that the two countries were in the same rhythm. The same personalities that were in Durham, N.C., were also in there, in that global city. The same old ladies who scowled at you — here, in a diner; there, on the subway. The same old ladies who were strong and vibrant. The same energetic young women. The same “tourists” who swaggered.

I doubt that if I visited Shanghai this year, that I would see the same thing. It was in that brief, chaotic time that this happened. But that trip did reveal to me just how much we have been in the same rhythm. Perhaps we don’t see it. Perhaps it’s very rare that we come into “alignment” with each other. But it is an underlying reality, and has been all along.

Coming to America does change you. There are newfound freedoms, but you do lose something. The old ways you have of relating to the world don’t work here, and you end up feeling frustrated, disconnected. The good things you do that are understood instinctively by people from your home culture here are seen as strange and awkward, and are misunderstood.

A couple years ago, I was working under an Asian manager and watched as, one night, she tried to streamline the workplace. She was moving things around, moving people, moving the pieces to make the place run more smoothly. The changes she was making were so obviously good to me. They were natural. But my coworkers were not happy. To them, she was unfairly seen as over-managing, even controlling. They didn’t know what I know, which is that when I visit China and walk into a store, everything clicks. It wasn’t about the presentation. The changes she was making weren’t personal. It was about the smoothness of action, a drive to perfect action, which is something that Asian cultures just delight in. The manager wasn’t doing anything harmful, but others could not see that, or perhaps did not want to see.

Different people play with different things, and have specific knowledge from their own cultures that allow them to do what others cannot.

I think we still have a lot to learn about what other people can do, where they are coming from.

At the same time, there is also so much we still do not know about ourselves, how deep-rooted our senses and instincts are, as well as how much we can change. Ancestral memory is a real and powerful thing, but it’s also surprising how much our bodies and souls can grow to love a new place.

Our molecules start to love the water and soil of where we live. Our souls are called to different things. When we go back to our home cultures, we see how much we’ve changed.

The “Old World” and “New World” might not be real places, but they are powerful landscapes in our souls.

“America” is such a difficult dream. What do you do when you come to a new land? What do you do when new people, with their new religions and ways, come to you? The water and soil do not agree with you. The habits and attitudes of people are unfamiliar and threatening to you. The religions we worship, the things we hold to, the habits we have, the buildings we love that perfectly express our home cultures – stone cathedrals, wood temples, glass palaces, perfect gardens. They are nothing here but the meaning we want to keep in them.

So I think we need each other a lot more than we realize. We need each other to define what we want in this new place, because honestly, we have no clue.

And I think every people has their own way of doing the good, beautiful things that other people can’t do, speaking the truth that everyone knows but cannot say. In such moments, you can feel a culture express its genuine power.

It’s perhaps a big dance as well as a melting pot. It’s a continual dance between where we used to be, and where we are now. And it’s also a dance with each other. Getting to know the rhythms and ways of different people, bringing out all of our grace and joy. And, stepping on people’s toes, bumping into people when we don’t know the steps. That happens too.

This is a long dream, but at least we are dancing.

By Monica Chen