The dangerously subtle pull of the American Dream

An international student’s perspective.

Photo by MD Duran on Unsplash

Today was a day just like any other. I woke up, had some coffee, and then started my work-from-home day by checking my email. But unlike any old day, I remembered that it was my grandmother’s birthday. So I did what many grandkids living on the other side of the world from home might—I picked up my WiFi-connected smartphone and dialed a video call.

“Happy birthday Oma,” I started our call, excitedly.

“Thank you! Alexandra lagi ngapain,” she responded in Indonesian, curious to hear about what my Boston life had to offer this time.

Our conversation unfolded into a lighthearted catch-up, filled with silly jokes. She told me she was having trouble sleeping. I told her it was because she couldn’t stop thinking about me. She told me she remembers the days when I was still an innocent baby, I told her I’m still as innocent as she remembers.

But then, a dark truth surfaced — one I had hoped would keep its distance today. We were quickly running out of things to talk about. Before I knew it, we were met with a long, unpleasant silence.

“Ya uda ya, Alexandra kan harus kerja. Nanti Oma doain, biar dapet sukses,” she said, wishing me well in my career, but also acknowledging that we’ve talked about all we can for today. That call lasted 24 minutes.

That silence wasn’t an unfamiliar one. I’d experienced it before—with her, but also with my paternal grandparents who live in the Netherlands.

Have you noticed a pattern yet?

It’s the silence that descends after my ever-fading linguistic capabilities in Dutch and Indonesian have gotten me as far as they can, and there’s nothing left but the American version of me, struggling to express herself to the people who matter most.

It’s been eight years since I left my family behind for supposedly greater things in the US. Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had here. I got an education; I met the love of my life. But “moving to America” is no longer the glamourous statement it used to be. And I‘m not just saying that because of everything that’s unfolded in 2020.

Growing up in Singapore (I’m half Dutch, half Indonesian, but was raised in Singapore), I was exposed to a narrative that views western education as a sort of academic pilgrimage. It’s one that many people from non-western countries have likely heard.

Essentially, if you want the best possible education, look to the west.

But even among western countries, there seemed to be an unspoken hierarchy. There’s nothing like saying that you’re going to “America.”

I should preface this story: what originally brought me to the US wasn’t an attraction to the country. I had gotten a scholarship to represent Singapore at a two-year international high school program that has multiple campuses around the world. I only happened to be placed at the US campus.

But I’ll admit that I still couldn’t believe I was headed for the seemingly inaccessible USA. I was met with congratulations wherever I broke the news. I was given gifts, taken out to dinner, and, when the time came, given a grand send-off. It was exciting.

Then, I was there.

While I was eager to represent my country and to learn about other cultures—the whole point of the scholarship—I also found myself going out of my way to adapt to the American setting; trying to hide any trace of a non-American accent I had; trying to act like I had seen snow before and that the first frost wasn’t that big a deal to me.

I was secretly so excited to see snow because it was my first time.

To be fair, there was also deeper insecurity at play that came from being a mixed kid raised in Asia—never feeling white enough for Europe. But perhaps we’ll take that turn in a future article.

Two years flew by and it was finally time to apply to university. As a sheltered 18-year-old still carrying a sparkly-eyed view of “America,” I looked to extend my stay in the country at all costs. I told myself that because I already had one foot in the door, I might as well try my luck at getting considered by a shiny, selective, American university.

But this pursuit wasn’t met without challenge from my parents, especially from my father who couldn’t understand why I would opt for an expensive American school when education was practically free in the Netherlands.

Still, he wasn’t about to force me into anything, so I had my way. I stayed for four more years—thanks to more scholarships, loans, and passport privilege.

And what an educational four years it was. Being on a student visa in the Midwest, I began to see my first cracks in the American Dream. I was overworked, I didn’t know how to take a sick day without feeling guilty, my foreign status kept me from earning a living wage.

I was unhappy. But I refused to see it.

“I’m learning so much that I would never have learned at home,” I often reminded myself whenever I felt the slightest ounce of doubt.

No longer was I that kid representing my country in an international school. I was now slowly morphing into the perfect American student.

Be productive. Debt is normal. Don’t tell employers you’re an international student or they won’t hire you. Don’t let homesickness hold you back from achieving your goals.

Any fears I used to have about letting my non-American accent slip were nonexistent now. I had become a master at convincing the American ear.

I eventually graduated college, accepted the one-year work authorization I was entitled to as an international student, and then stayed for two more years of grad school, each time convincing myself that I was “almost there.”

Almost where?

As the years went on, I only found myself less excited and more tired. I always say to my friends that my junior year of college was the peak of my American self and that every day since then has felt like an unexplainable regression.

What was I trying to achieve? When did I start chasing the American Dream?

I often feel like throwing my hands in the air and going, “that’s all I got for you, folks. Thank you, and have a good night,” like a comedian who’s completed their routine and is ready to retreat backstage. Except, unlike the comedian, I have no plans to come out for another show. I’m done performing my American routine. I want to go home.

Since realizing this, I’ve made more of a conscious effort to stay in touch with my family. I call my grandparents more. I text my cousins more. I try reading the local news back home. I do it all as a conscious effort to remind myself there’s a world beyond the US — one I came from and used to be part of.

But the dark truth hasn’t gone away. Every call home I make is a painfully stronger reminder than the previous of just how out-of-touch I’ve become. I forget basic words that used to be on the tip of my tongue. I inject American humor into conversations that don’t recognize it.

So, is there a way back?

My call with my grandmother today hit me like never before: I’ve spent the past eight years shedding any trace of my non-American self to become optimized for participation in “America,” so much so that it seems I’ve killed my non-American self.

And I put “America” in quotes because I’m talking about a concept here: the promise that anyone can find happiness in the US by reinventing themselves and working hard. The American Dream.

I’ve spent the past eight years learning to succeed in “America,” and in exchange, lost more and more of my ability to connect with where I’m from. I’ve essentially traded myself in for someone else.

No longer am I Alexandra Dewi Wilhelmina. It’s Alex Hemmer now. Because it’s shorter. Easier to pronounce. More optimized for American capitalism.

I’m better at bonding with Karen from Apple Valley than I am with my own grandparents, who I would much rather have know me well.

What did “America” give me? Competitive degrees, top-notch networking skills, and a rock-solid resume. And I’m grateful. So grateful.

But what did “America” take?




Experienced writer & editor covering a range of lifestyle content. Especially ready to talk about cultural identity, beauty, sustainability, and food.

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Alexandra Hemmer

Alexandra Hemmer

Experienced writer & editor covering a range of lifestyle content. Especially ready to talk about cultural identity, beauty, sustainability, and food.

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