This Fourth of July is the first one my parents will celebrate as U.S. citizens.
Last year, I sat with my parents at their kitchen table, practicing the national anthem until they knew it by heart. Months later, my parents sent me photos of themselves after passing their citizenship tests. Come fall, I cried when my dad proudly showed off his “I Voted” sticker.
Each Fourth of July, I am reminded of how much my parents love this country. I am reminded of my parents boarding a plane to a place they only knew by bright, funny cartoons and glossy magazine photos. I am reminded of the way my mom spends her evenings glued to Sri Lankan teledramas or talking much too loudly to her sister on the phone, as if unsure she can hear her from so many miles away.
I don’t know how to love America the way my parents do because they love this country as if they’ve lost another. I also know it’s because they feel the crushing burden of carrying what they see as an unpayable debt to America for allowing them to achieve some semblance of an American Dream or for simply allowing them to exist within its borders.
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A hollow American Dream
My mom tells us stories of juggling school with two jobs when she first got here. One day at McDonald’s, a co-worker found vomit splattered all over the bathroom walls. Everyone else refused to clean it, so her boss gave the mop to her.
She was a civil engineer in Sri Lanka but here, she cried while wiping vomit off the walls on her hands and knees. She tells us that this was the moment she realized where she ranked in her new country. Even when I get angry at how people treat her, she shrugs and tells me that this is what she gets for living in this country as an immigrant. What more could she expect?
For so long I have watched my parents love this country without realizing that it will never fully love them or their children back.
Things have changed for our family since those days. I spent much of my childhood in a predominantly white, wealthy suburb — the epitome of the American Dream my parents fought so hard for. But that American Dream they placed in my hands always felt hollow. That city they worked so hard to move to was also where I first learned to hate the color of my own skin.
I also know that for many people of color, including other Asian Americans, the American Dream that my parents have come so close to still remains far out of reach because they didn’t set foot in this country with the same privileges or face a different set of historical barriers.
My parents taught me that, through hard work, you can achieve anything here in this so-called land of opportunity for all. But, as I’ve seen communities of color face an onslaught of systemic racism at every turn, it is clear true equal opportunity in this country is merely a mirage.
Commodifying Asian culture
This narrative of hard work also reminds me of how the U.S. commodifies its immigrants.
In the past year, Asian Americans have been kicked, pushed, assaulted and spat on. Racial slurs have been hurled in grocery stores. Elders have been stabbed, and attacks have turned deadly, such as in the shooting of eight people, including six of Asian descent, at three Atlanta-area massage businesses.
But as I’ve read stories of one attack after another, I’ve noticed social media banners asking for people to love Asians Americans like they love our food. They point out, and rightly so, that those who consume Asian and Asian American culture, from K-pop to sushi, often don’t stand to defend or even respect the communities behind them.
This aligns with a long history of responding to anti-immigrant sentiment by listing all the ways immigrants benefit the U.S. But that narrative casts immigrants as valuable only for the products they offer. They are merely commodities, not fully human.
Just as people consume and co-opt Black culture without standing up for Black lives, this country seems incapable of valuing Asian lives and the lives of other people of color simply because they’re human, rather than for the products they create.
We never say that German Americans deserve rights because schnitzel is so good or that French Americans’ lives are valuable because they make a damn good pain au chocolat. But immigrants of color are only valued as products.
The American Dream, I’ve realized, is often to become a commodity for white Americans to consume.
That’s why, to me, the Fourth of July has never really been about celebrating independence or claims of “Give me your tired, your poor, you huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It’s not about freedom because that’s something we have yet to achieve for all of us. It’s a moment of reflecting on the work left to be done. It’s a time to see my own privilege and understand why my family “made it” where so many others don’t. And it’s about the way my heart breaks a little as I watch my parents sing the praises of America, wishing it was capable of loving them back.
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