A Critical Look at the Modern American Dream from an American Abroad

Photo by Alexa Goins

The first day I walked into class as an English assistant at a high school in France, I introduced myself with a PowerPoint presentation about my likes, dislikes and life in the U.S. Afterwards the students asked me questions about myself and America. They were curious about it all and in almost every class that I visited they asked if McDonald’s portions were bigger in the U.S., which was quite funny. But one common question stood out: “Is the American dream real?”

To be honest, I wasn’t all that prepared to answer that question. It was so big and complex. But, I tried to answer as diplomatically and truthfully as possible. The American dream wasn’t something I ever thought of. I said something along the lines of: “The American dream is real for some people, but not everybody achieves it.”

Now that I’ve been away from the U.S. for a few months and at a time of intense political turmoil, I’ve been reflecting on this concept of the American dream some more and I’ve come to a conclusion.

The American dream is a lie.

Maybe once upon a time in Pleasantville, U.S.A. the American dream was a palpable and true thing. But when I think about the American life I’ve lived, I look around and see everyone striving for something and living life at a hundred miles an hour, never stopping to smell the roses and appreciate the little things in life.

Specifically, I think about the growth of my own Indianapolis suburb. While I was growing up, it was just a small town where you’d recognize people at the grocery store and the entire community would come out for high school football games. Now, it’s one of Money Magazine’s “Best Places to Live” with a mayor who refuses to provide public transportation or a traffic solution to accommodate for the growth he’s created. My hometown has become just another insular, wealthy American city where people work high paying jobs, live in ridiculously expensive houses and drive the newest BMW model. All the while, these people stick up their noses at those who are not like them.

This striving to make everything bigger and better is all in the name of this American dream mentality that we’re taught to live by from youth. We’re taught that if you aren’t striving to have the best job, house, car, life that you’re lazy and aren’t working hard enough. We never stop to consider the fact that some people aren’t able to achieve the “American dream” because they aren’t given the opportunities to. We live in a culture where busyness is glorified because busyness equals hard work and success.

Living in a smaller city in the south of France has shaken me out of this American dream mentality. People seem to be more important than material possessions or jobs. You’ll see friends and families gathered together out at restaurants or the beach in the middle of a workday because people and appreciating the beauty of everyday life take priority over money. The teachers in my school take coffee breaks and hang out in the staff room throughout the school day. This is how life should be.

Yes, work is important and material possessions are nice to have but they shouldn’t be the things with which you use to measure your happiness or success in life.

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