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American Dream or American Nightmare?

By SHOBA RAMESH AND RAMESH VENUGOPAL Email By SHOBA RAMESH AND RAMESH VENUGOPAL
June 2015
American Dream or American Nightmare?

Bright young Indian-Americans, graduating out of top American academic institutions and snapped up by multinationals, medical institutions, law firms, etc. are typically euphoric about having achieved the fabled American Dream. Their parents, perhaps the generation that first migrated to the USA, are even prouder. Some years down the line however, many of these parents, who have undoubtedly made huge sacrifices to open up these avenues to the good life, realize that their children’s success has a dark side to it. Even as bank balances grow fatter, the need to sustain soaring career trajectories takes priority over everything. Insensitivity to the needs of aging parents and a self-centered attitude become par for the course. Is the American Dream turning into the American Nightmare for some? And what can we do about it?

Communications technology, in the form of mobile phones, the Internet, and computers, has aggravated this work-centric lifestyle. Connected 24/7 to the whole world, there’s no end to one’s working day. Everyone stays connected, even on vacation. Conversations with the family are fitted in between commuting and working hours; invariably, irritability and stress set in.

Children rarely visit parents. Rather, the older generation, ever eager to lend a helping hand, visits their grown children to help with household chores. Often, this extends to driving a couple of hundred miles, and cooking food to last a fortnight! These absurdities are carried to the extreme when young, married couples pursuing independent high profile careers virtually enslave their parents. While the daughter and son toil through the day and night, the parents (who may have arrived from India) take care of the household chores and are left to the desi TV channels to pass their time.

People from our generation will recall the leisurely 60s in India. Despite large extended families and the lack of ‘labor-saving’ devices, the average homemaker accomplished varied tasks and still had time left over for a siesta and chats with neighbors. Today, even with a multitude of hi-tech gadgets and processed, easy-toprepare foods, working parents have little or no time for even one nutritious meal in a day. Is it any surprise that many of our 30-year-olds turn grey in their 30s and sport a goatee to compensate for their premature balding?

Where did the promise of the American dream go? As parents, how did we get our children into this mess? And more importantly, is there anything we can do to alleviate the situation and prevent it from spilling over to our grandchildren’s generation?

We have pondered over this a good bit. While several reasons came to mind, the one that struck me as the most plausible reason is our definition of abundance. Most of us migrated to this country in the hope of finding abundance in our lives. The vision and definition of abundance in this country is based on the premise that a career and money can buy a life of security, happiness, and contentment. Having blindly adopted this premise, our next step was to chase a career or a venture that would allow us to experience the “American dream.” This is even truer of Asian American families who have pushed their children on this path with great conviction and severity.

Despite the best education money can buy and having the best jobs in the industry, our children live in a constant state of uncertainty, stress, and the shadow of fear. They are always in a state of flux trying to achieve something that they currently are not.

In chasing this dream, we forgot how abundance was defined in our own culture. Money had little to do with it. Abundance was simply being able to do what you wanted to do when you wanted to do it. ‘What’ was the simple pleasures of life and therefore easily achievable without the need to have money. ‘When’ was not a problem because we were never short of time to enjoy the little joys of life. In retrospect, life’s greatest pleasures are for free. For many of us who forgot this simple truth and lost our way, the realization has dawned that abundance of money comes with a great deal of excess baggage—insecurity, health concerns, and fear. Despite the best education money can buy and having the best jobs in the industry, our children live in a constant state of uncertainty, stress, and the shadow of fear. They are always in a state of flux trying to achieve something that they currently are not.

As opposed to the West’s fascination for exploring, analyzing, and ultimately exploiting the created world, our ancestors evolved a culture whose emphasis was on the inner journey of discovery. The exploration of the outer world was downplayed and limited to functional purposes.

We cannot turn the clock back but can we at least introspect and understand where we took a wrong turn? A unique aspect of our own tradition is its holistic quality: ages ago, we learned to integrate philosophy, medicine, science, religion, art, music, dance, architecture, spirituality, and appreciation for the interdependence of all things in creation into one culture without interdisciplinary conflict. As opposed to the West’s fascination for exploring, analyzing, and ultimately exploiting the created world, our ancestors evolved a culture whose emphasis was on the inner journey of discovery. The exploration of the outer world was downplayed and limited to functional purposes. Today, we do not read our own scriptures and therefore forget the richness of our culture, yet its existence lingers faintly in our collective memory. Ironically, the West has begun to realize the shortcomings of materialism and looks to Eastern cultures for answers. Isn’t it time we looked within, too?

Yes, there’s no going back. But we would do well to understand the timeless wisdom of our ancients and pass it on to the next generation to help them find the balance they are so desperately seeking, and choose ‘quality of life’ over ‘quantity of life.’


Ramesh Venugopal is a physicist and Shobha Ramesh is a software engineer. They live in the North Georgia mountains.



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