When my mother was 19, she came to the United States on a scholarship to attend a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. The college had pledged to fund her tuition, room, and board, but apart from that, she had only $20 and a jacket purchased from a garage sale by an aunt in England, who was shocked to find the teenager from Calcutta New York-bound with little by way of fall, never mind winter, clothes.
She’d had a privileged upbringing—the privilege of the relatively low-salaried but comparatively high-perked Indian professional class. Car and driver ensured she never crossed the street on her own. She didn’t do dishes or laundry. Ironing was inconceivable.
She’d learned only to make two dishes in a Home Sciences course at her English-medium school: scrambled eggs and chocolate brandy soufflé.
The college provided tuition and board, but nothing beyond the essentials of academic life, and no summer stipend. My mother couldn’t afford a plane ticket to go home. So, young and bold, she convinced the dean to fund her summers on the understanding that she would finish college in two years, thus saving the school the costs of what would otherwise have been a four-year degree.
Still, she had no spending money. So while peers dispersed to their parents’ vacation homes in the Hamptons, she and a few other international students worked in the dorms, cleaning out the vacated rooms, vacuuming, dusting, and wiping, and shaking their heads in disbelief at the barely used appliances and furniture orphaned by well-to-do coeds, who would just as lavishly outfit their new rooms come fall.
When my parents met in graduate school, my father had a hunk-a-junk car, probably worth as much as an iPod. He wore green pants and a blue shirt. When an immigration “reform” bill threatened employment opportunities for foreign students in the early 1980s, he abandoned his doctorate for a job and the promise of a green card.
My parents didn’t have family or savings in the United States, but they were highly educated and capable. They became American citizens during the 1990s, a decade of optimism and prosperity. And they gave my brother and me a privileged upbringing. We’ve attended three of this nation’s finest universities, one private, two public, and been the recipients of my parents’ love, commitment, and thoughtfulness—not to mention three decades of their full-time work. When I took my first job, I was able to move back home to save money. I’ve never wanted for a $20 bill.
The American story” is one of the most potent tropes deployed by politicians, matched only by “the American dream,” and we’re hearing a lot of both in the weeks leading up to November 6. In some mouths, the “American story” is an attempt to legitimate the worthiness of the wealthy before the less privileged. In others, it is used as testament to the hard work, abilities, and fortune of the formerly disadvantaged.
In most cases, the story works to conceal two things. First, its exceptionalism: “Rags to riches” (or power or fame) is not a universal story, nor a common one. Indeed, the logic of global capital is that most in rags must stay in rags, so that others can get rich. The story also works to conceal its limited focus: Wealth, power, and celebrity—the putative “dream”—are not and should not be our only explicit goals and commitments as a country. Unqualified “growth” and “progress” (which almost always means the economic advancement of the few) have to be re-specified so that the American story is one in which we achieve a whole host of different dreams (plural) that exceed the normative dictates of a technocratic, materialistic society.
The American story works because it conceals these things. In every instance of its invocation, it is crafted. When abused, as by Dinesh D’Souza in his polemical attacks on President Obama, or Nikki Haley in her speech at the RNC, it allows historical distortion and sectarian chauvinism to masquerade as familial anecdote.
D’Souza’s caricature of Obama as an “anti-colonialist” (whom he supposedly recognizes because of their shared “third world” backgrounds) is not only intellectually shallow, but also elides the fact that the United States was founded by anti-colonialists and critics of empire. He doesn’t tell that American story.
Nikki Haley, who frequently cites her parents’ injunction that she be grateful to live in America (and not in India, heaven forbid!), never plumbs the range of contexts that spur immigrant journeys, nor the variety of opportunities that exist all over the world, nor the challenges and discrimination immigrants in the United States have faced, and continue to. She doesn’t tell that American story.
Because “the American story” is not about nuance. Ultimately, it is a rhetorical device, heir to misuse.
If I were a politician, what would constitute my American story? Well, the part about my mother coming to this country with $20 and a used jacket would make the cut. The bit about the college scholarship would have to go. Janitorial work in the dorm rooms would stay. I would amplify my gratitude to my parents for instilling in me the value of education and the right to pursue my so-called dream. But I wouldn’t mention that before coming to the United States, my mother was circulating as Miss Calcutta in the cosmopolitan circles of urban India, and gave up a burgeoning media career for small-town snows and textbooks.
Maybe there are uniquely American stories, but “the” American story, the singular triumphalist narrative, is strangling our political discourse. My mother didn’t come to this country because it was “the only place in the world” she could be successful. And she didn’t stay in this country because she wanted to give her children “opportunities she never had.”
She came with a recipe for chocolate brandy soufflé, and she never in her wildest dreams imagined she would stay.
We’re not supposed to tell that story.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.