The Ups and Downs of Kat’s American Dream
By Danbi Kim, June, 2018
While immigrants flood into the United States with many fantasies, their expectations often conflict with the reality. Since I began working at City College of San Francisco, I have met a lot of friends who are immigrants to the United States. Kat, a Vietnamese who has recently arrived, is always busy working two part-time jobs as well as studying as a full-time student. Although she is always busy, she is optimistic and smiles all the time. Therefore, when I was assigned an oral history project, I wondered what her story was about how she ended up living in San Francisco. She was willing to share her story. In the article “Immigration and Integration in Post-Industrial Societies,” Naomi Carmon discusses changes in immigration flows and their impact on the receiving countries. Carmon notices that “the majority of immigrants to the United States are seeking ample opportunities, better jobs, economic advances, and upward mobility for themselves and their children when they decide to move to the United States” (13). As with other immigrants, Kat has dreamed of coming to the United States to achieve her American dream, receiving a great education at a renowned university, launching a professional career, and supporting her family financially. Although Kat came alone to the United States at a young age, full of excitement for the American Dream, her forced return to Vietnam due to her family’s financial difficulties lead her to have fear and uncertainty when she later immigrates back to America with her family; however, because she believes that living in the U.S. is the best opportunity for herself as well as her family, she has an even more optimistic on fulfilling her dreams than before.
Kat was born in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam in 1997. With her uncle’s sponsorship, her family files for a family visa to the United States in 2003. When she is fifteen years old, Kat decides to study the 10th grade in the U.S. Kat studies at a private school as an international student for a year. She has a wonderful experience when she is at school. However, due to the costly tuition of a private school and family issues, she is forced to go back to Vietnam even though she does not want to. After she returns to Vietnam, she focuses on her life in Vietnam. In 2015, as the family visa is finally approved, her family decides to come to the United States and she has to follow her family to the U.S. in 2016. As she stays in America, she makes her future plans and currently looks forward to the future.
As Kat’s family files for a family visa to the United States in 2003 with her uncle’s sponsorship, they have a strong desire for the American dream in their minds. Many Vietnamese refugees have migrated to the United States escaping the Vietnam War and the fear of the communism since 1980. In the article “Vietnamese Americans,” Do Hien Duc explains the pattern of Vietnamese refugees arriving to the United States. Do mentions that a large number of Vietnamese refugees have come to the United States since 1975 to seek for asylum, and the U.S. government has enacted several policies that help refugees, such as a family reunification program. Because a lot of Vietnamese settle down in the United States, the majority of the Vietnamese who live in the home country, like Kat and her family, have fantasies of living in the U.S. Kat said, “If you ask any Vietnamese, they will say going to the United States of America is a wonderful choice. I mean, in the U.S. you have a better environment, work, and pay.” Like other Vietnamese people, her parents believe that immigrating to The United States is a better opportunity for Kat and Kat’s sister. As Kat has grown up, she has always dreamed of coming to America for better life. From when her family filed for the family-based immigrant visa to when she came, Kat prepared to come to the United States. For instance, she had a private English tutor and watched a lot of American dramas to learn about the U.S. culture. As she became familiar with English and the American culture, she felt excited that her dream was getting close. Like most Vietnamese, Kat and her family always kept their American dream deeply in their minds.
Although Kat’s American dream seems to be right on track, she is forced to go back to Vietnam due to her family issues, which breaks her American dream. Because her aunt convinces Kat’s mother to let Kat study in the U.S, Kat’s mother thinks it is a good opportunity for her future, so Kat decides to study for 10th grade at a private high school in Sacramento. Kat recalls her high school experience in Sacramento by saying that “there were no problems in my school. School was actually fine. Most of [the students there] are international students, so we were on the same page. It was easy to make friends, and I hung out with a lot of Vietnamese friends.” Because she has prepared for coming to the United States with her family visa, her English is not a problem in assimilating into a new culture. As she enjoys studying in the U.S., she feels that her American dream, getting a great education, starting a career, and supporting family, is getting closer. In the article “International students’ reported English fluency, social support satisfaction, and social connectedness as predictors of acculturative stress,” Christine J. Yeh studies what factors cause international students acculturative stress. Yeh mentions that “research investigations on international student populations have reported a variety of mental health and personal concerns including language barriers, financial difficulties, racial/ethnic discrimination, loss of social support, alienation, and homesickness” (16). After she hears that her parents no longer support her expensive tuition, ten thousand dollars a year, it causes her to suffer a tremendous stress level. She sorrowfully remembers this period as “a mental and emotional break time.” She cries every night at the kitchen because she doesn’t want to face the fact that she has to go back to Vietnam. She tries to find various ways to stay in the U.S., but the only way is to be an undocumented student. However, she is so scared of being an “illegal” immigrant and worries about having a dark future. Eventually, she is asked to come back to Vietnam due to her family’s financial difficulties as well as her relationship issues with her aunt, her guardian in the United States on the behalf of her parents. Before she came to the U.S, she had plans for her future, but now she needs to go back without accomplishing anything. The first experience of staying in the U.S. has shrunk her high expectations of the American dreams.
Although she worries about her return to Vietnam, her life regains a sense of normality, as she feels safe and comfortable with her family; as a result, her strong desire for the American dream fades away. Before she returns, she is very afraid of what other people think about her return. Kat says, “When I go to America, a lot of people know, right? It’s kind of embarrassing to go back. Like a lot of questions happened. ‘Why did you come back?’ So it was a very hard for me.” Once she is back to Vietnam, just like she had been concerned about, her friends wonder why she had to come back just after one year of staying in America. She feels uncomfortable and a lot of questions boost her stress level. Moreover, since she left for America right after she graduated middle school, she now not only has to take the high school entry exam, but also needs to study with friends who are one year younger than her. On the first day of school in Vietnam, she says, “Somehow people knew about the fact that I was back from the United States. I didn’t tell anyone.” For the first couple of months, a lot of attention is drawn to her; however, unlike her anxiety, the majority of them are so impressed that she stayed in the United States and no one is disrespectful to her. As time goes by, she is so busy focusing on her high school life in Vietnam that her American dream in her mind is gradually erased.
Her previous experience makes her hesitate to come to the United States a second time when her family visa is approved in 2015; while she needs to come with her family, it is with less eagerness than the first time. In the article “Homeostasis, stress, trauma, and adaptation: A neurodevelopmental view of childhood trauma,” Bruce D. Perry explains how traumatic childhood events influence the brain. Dr. Perry deduces that “use-dependent internalization of elements of the traumatic experience can result in the persistence of fear-related neurophysiologic patterns affecting emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social functioning” (33). Because her emotional breakdown experience shapes her memory, she feels worried as her bad memories overlap in her mind. Therefore, when she hears that her family visa is approved, she says, “If anybody asked me that question that do you want to go to the U.S., I would say I don’t want to go. That is 100% of my answer. I do not want to go.” She re-thinks the American Dream and she does not want to experience the solitary relationship problems with her cousin’s family, and a lot of financial difficulties. However, the whole family immigrates to the United States for the second time, so she feels less pressure and fear of doing it all by herself. Still, she is under a huge pressure, but at the same time, as she follows her parents, she has a little excitement that this time will be better than before and she will have a better future and a new life in front of her.
When Kat finally settles down in downtown San Francisco, she feels a little bit disappointed about the new circumstances; however, she is more eager to have a plan for her future again. Kat remembers her home in Vietnam: “We lived in spacious house. And when we come to America, like, we live in downtown San Francisco. It is like a very, very, tiny apartment. I share a bed with my sister in the closet. My parents and my uncle, all live in a small room.” Although different circumstances make her frustrated, they actually awaken her eagerness for the American dream. She clearly knows how much her parents sacrifice for her to come to the United States. Also, it is the starting point of her family’s American life; she believes that as long as she sticks her neck out, her American dream will be accomplished. She starts finding jobs to lessen her parents’ burdens, like paying rent, etc. She finds a job at City College of San Francisco as a student worker; this is helpful for her to manage her study and work at the same time. However, due to her financial aid, the hours that she is able to work at school are restricted. Therefore, she needs to find other jobs off campus. After she completes a lot of interview processes, she finally gets a job at UNIQLO for 16 hours per week. Although having two part-time jobs and maintaining good grades at school makes her overwhelmed, she is still positive because she believes that success is proportional to her efforts and pain.
As Kat’s passion and desire for the American dream is even stronger than before, she feels like she is getting closer to achieving her aspirations, becoming an ESL teacher. In the book They Take Our Jobs!: And 20 Other Myths about Immigration, Aviva Chomsky introduces 20 misconceptions about immigration. In the chapter “Today Immigrants are not learning English and Bilingual education just adds to the problems,” Chomsky points out that immigrants are eager to learn English by showing the reader the “jam-packed” ESL classes. Unlike the common misconception that immigrants don’t want to learn English, Kat’s parents enroll in an ESL course at City College of San Francisco and study every night in order to make an effort to assimilate into the U.S. culture. Because she knows that learning English is hard for their ages, she wants to help immigrants who are in the same situation as her and her parents. Kat currently volunteers at Project Shine, a service-learning program for immigrants and elderly students at City College of San Francisco. “I want to teach English for immigrants like my parents. So, they can adapt to American life because without English they can’t do much. I actually haven’t decided my major yet, but I am thinking about linguistics now” (Kat). As she volunteers, her hope gets bigger and firmer. “I have a mixed feeling that it is not like I don’t want to go back as much as I want to before.” No immigrant wants to go back to his of her hometown without accomplishing anything. Kat also may want to go back to Vietnam after she succeeds in her education and goals. This is the way that she can tell her friends and her remaining family members in Vietnam that she has fulfilled her dreams with much effort. So far, she has been living in America for two years. She is gradually approaching her future goal and moving forward with her stronger desire.
Although she came to the United States full of potential opportunities, the experience of her forced migration back to Vietnam due to her family’s problems made her less excited to have a second chance of the American Dream; she is overwhelmed by her workload and life in the U.S. but looks forward to seeing her bright future. Since many immigrants consider the United States as the land of freedom and opportunities, millions of people from all over the world are willing to seek their “American dream.”
“Interview with Kat.” Personal interview. 19 April 2018.
Carmon, Naomi, ed. 1996. Immigration and Integration in Post-Industrial Societies. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Do, Hien Duc. “Vietnamese Americans.” Encyclopedia of American Studies, edited by Simon Bronner, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1st edition, 2018. Credo Reference.
Perry, B. D., & Pollard, R. (1998). Homeostasis, stress, trauma, and adaptation: A neurodevelopmental view of childhood trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 7(1), 33-51.
YEH, CHRISTINE J., INOSE, MAYUKO. “International students’ reported English fluency, social support satisfaction, and social connectedness as predictors of acculturative stress.” Counselling Psychology Quarterly. 2016, Vol. 29 Issue 3, p15-28. 14p. 2 Charts.
Me : Introduce yourself?
Kat: My name is Kat. I’m 20 years old. I’m currently a student at City college of San Francisco. My major is an education. My family and I came to the USA on March 11 2017. I’ve been to the US for 13 months now. I came with my mom, dad and my uncle.
Me: How could you decide to come here?
Kat: Actually I didn’t decide to come. It was um…It just because my parents already get sponsorship with uncle. We filed the paperwork 12 years ago. When it finally came, we didn’t want to miss the opportunity. So we just come here
Me: What do you think it is a good opportunity to come to USA?
Kat: If you ask any Vietnamese, they will say going to the USA is a wonderful choice. I mean in the U.S., you have a better environment, better work and better pay. And better education, too. So, one main reason my parents want to come here is for my education. Um.. They want me to have to study in the best environment. Out there. After that, I can get a good job and I can have a good life. So, it is more like my parents sacrifice for me. That way I think it is a good opportunity to come to the USA.
Me : do you think it is better choice to come here?
Kat: My impression of America wasn’t good before I came here. I came to the U.S when I was 15. I studied 10th grade as an international student in the U.S for a year. And that was a kind of dark time.
Me: Why it was a dark time?
Kat: At that time, it was my first time of America. And I was so excited. Because as a kid, I always tell everyone that I want to go to America to study. I was so excited, but then ..I mean when I came, I went to a private school, and the tuition was very expensive. When I first came, I went to a private school. So there was a lot of international students. The school is very small, it is only 60 students. And like ten students are international vietnamese students. So I hung out with a lot of my vietnamese people. There were other international students too. There are 40 international students, so we were basically on the same pages. So it was really easy to make friends and hang out with them. There was no problem at school, just I have a family issue.
Me: Where was the location? In California?
Kat: Yes. It was in Sacramento, California. The tuition is like 11 thousand dollars a year. My parents thought they could afford it. But then it terms out it kinds of bad. A lot of family issues happened. That’s why I had to go back to Vietnam. So during that time, it was a very emotional..dark time for me.
Me: did you come here alone at first time?
Kat: Actually, my parents came with me at that time. They were for traveling. For me, it was just for school. They stayed for 4 months with me. And they go back to Vietnam and I just stayed here. Actually, I stayed with my uncle family though. I wasn’t like that bad. I wasn’t alone. But still, I just remember that at nights I just went the kitchen and cried whole night. Because I felt very lonely. I had to face the reality of going back to Vietnam and staying in America.
Me: So at that time you don’t want to go back to Vietnam? Do you want to stay in America?
Kat: No. I don’t want to go back. Like the reason why I don’t want to go back is because when I go to America, a lot of people know right? It’s kind of embarrassing to go back. Like a lot of questions happened. Why did you come back? So it was a very hard for me. Then, I also have to face that what if I want to stay in America? Like if I stay in America, I don’t want to pay expensive tuition. I have to do it with illegal ways. I asked myself ‘Do I want to do that?’ But I was 15 years old. I was too scared like if I stay here, it is going to be illegal. I’m sure that I will have a really dark future. So that way I just have an emotional and mental break time at that time. So I decided to come back.
Me: language barriers?
Kat: My English was pretty good. I was able to study and communicate pretty well. Both me and my sister study English at very young age. Not only because we know that we will go to the U.S., but English is also an international language. So I actually study.. I actually have a private tutor who come to my house to teach English when I was like in 3rd grade. I had it until 5th grade. I also study English in middle and high school. But I didn’t learn a lot at school. But I actually learn a lot by listening to music and watching movies.
Me: Challenge living in the U.S?
Kat: In Vietnam, we lived in spacious house. And when we come to America, like we live in downtown San Francisco, it is like a very tiny apartment. I share a bed with my sister in the closet. My parents and my uncle, all live in a small room. I mean the life is definitely the opposite to life in Vietnam. But I mean I don’t really mind about it. If we live in a small space, that means we are gonna no such things of privacy but it’s kind of connecting family. That is how I try to make it positive. And in Vietnam, I didn’t have to work even though I was old enough to have a permit to work. But If I were in Vietnam, my parents would allow me to work anyway. In Vietnam, a lot of student do not have to work because their parents support them financially. Here in America, what amazed me is that everyone is really independent. They have to have part-time jobs and have to pay for rent and pay for their own things. So for me, right now I have two jobs, a student worker at office at CCSF and also worked at Uniqlo 24 hours a week as a part-time job to help paying for rent and for my own living expenses.
Me: Do you feel overwhelmed working 2 different part time jobs and studying as a full-time student?
Kat: When those days I work and when those week when I work is 22-34 hours, I definitely feel overwhelmed. Um.. I don’t have time to study and I always feel tired the whole time. But I want to cut down my hours so I can finish school. Because my parents always remind me that school is the most important things that I should focus on. And I always can make money later.
Me: feeling when you heard that your visa was processing that you were waiting for 15 years?
Kat: Right after I finish my high school, I know that my paperwork is almost done. So, I didn’t go to the University in Vietnam because I know that I am not going to study in Vietnam and I just have a whole gap in Vietnam. For the feelings, that was a mixed feeling. I kind of want to go but I don’t want to go because of my bad experience before. Actually, if anybody asked me that question that do you want to go to the U.S, I would say I don’t want to go. That is a 100% of my answer. I do not want to go.
Me: But this time, a whole of your family is moving to the U.S. But you still feel that way even though you don’t have to stay alone?
Kat: This time is better because whole family but actually my uncle he doesn’t want to go. This time my dad, mom, my uncle, and me came together. Four people. My sister came first. She came here as an international student in 2011. And then she got married. And she got a permanent resident in 2013. She was already here.
Me: any discriminations?
Kat: I actually have not experienced any racism and discrimination yet. A serious one yet. Because there are Vietnamese communities and a lot of Asian Americans in San Francisco. So I think my situation is alright, pretty good. And then like sometimes, I really feel like isolated and it’s kind of small in a group of non-Asian people. Like at school and work.. When I just walk down on the street, it is more myself that I kind of just feel less confident. Not necessary that people make me feel bad. It is just like me, it’s more likely me.
Me: things to miss the most in Vietnam?
Kat: the things that I miss the most is that my grandparents in Vietnam. My family there. Because my grandparents are old, so I want to go back and just spend the last year of their lives with them. Also, the food too. I don’t think the food here is as good as in Vietnam. Also, my friends. I cannot wait to go back and hang out with them.
Me: future goal? Your major?
Kat: I want to be a ESL teacher. Teach English for immigrants like my parents. So, they can adapt to American life because without English they can’t do much. There are education programs for children, but that is not what I want. For ESL teacher, you have to get a bachelor’s degree first. Any bachelor’s degree is fine. Then you need to get Master degree and get the teaching credential for ESL. For right now, I actually haven’t decided my major yet. It could be anything. I am thinking about linguistics now.
Me: Do you want to go back to Vietnam? Work in America?
Kat: That is what I have in mind too when I decide to my goal. Um.. If I am going to teach English, I can do it in both in America and Vietnam. But for me right now, I have a mixed feeling like It is not like I don’t want to go back as much as I want to before. But like if I go back, I don’t mind. If I live here, it is okay too.
Me: about your hometown?
Kat: I was grown up in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. It is in south and it is the most modern and energetic city. It is a big city. My life was so good. I would say I had a very comfortable life in a spacious house. Like I have everything that I need there. I have money to go out with my friends over the weekend. I got a tutor for English class. It was a good life.
Me: How do your parents adapt to American culture. Unlike you they haven’t studied English at a young age. They were speaking fluently when they came to the USA?
Kat: Before coming to the USA, my dad actually took some English classes. He was a level 5. He was proud of himself. But because he learned it in Vietnam, he was taught by Vietnamese teachers, so they didn’t focus on speaking part a lot. His speaking skill wasn’t very good. I can barely understand what American people say now. When he came to the U.S., he couldn’t speak in English. Right now, my parents are taking ESL classes in city college. They are in level 2 now. They kind of have graphs about English now. They learn English every day.
Me: How was feeling when you land in SFO?
Kat: First thing was like air was so fresh. Back in Vietnam, air was polluted and so humid. Air was the best thing. I was kind of rough back memories for me because it is my second time I want to US. At the same time, I was so excited too. I’m going to have a whole new life here. My sister and my family came to greet us, so I was so emotional to me.
Me: Any hobbies?
Kat: I really like singing and playing piano. In Vietnam, I always sing and play piano but then now we are living in an apartment in San Francisco, it is so small that I can’t play anymore.