How the American Dream Almost Consumed My Immigrant Family

“Minimalist living is good for the soul. Minimalist living is good for the soul. Minimalist living is good for the soul.” This short phrase has become a mantra I find myself repeating more often recently. As I enter my post-college life where material objects seem to be the only “real” indicators of worth and success, my mind can’t help but reflect on my upbringing by immigrant parents who were always on some form of shaky footing. As newcomers to the “New World,” the early days of migrant living were all about averting one financial or settlement hurdle after another. Somehow though, however shaky the process of making “home” was, I always felt that we stood on well-engineered foundations. This foundation definitely wasn’t inherited wealth, a white-picketed house, sitting equity or a fat savings account, but nevertheless, it felt very real and solid.

As children of immigrants, my siblings and I grew up seeing our parents pulling teeth to maintain whatever footing they had in their often-precarious standing. The process of making a foreign land a “home” requires an everyday fight that could leave even the best among us depleted; the simple task of going out for groceries could require a well-thought-out action plan with all the bells and whistles. But instead of showing us how extinguishing immigrant living could be, our parents repeatedly and intentionally relayed a love and admiration for the grind, the hustle, the struggle in a rather grounded way. The emphasis was the growing pains of the struggle, the heart muscles developed through pushing and strategizing to figure out next steps in a system seemingly stacked against us. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say life for us became synonymous with the grind. And the scars of the fight and stretch marks of the accompanying growth were more or less read as standalone markers of success, irrespective of the outcome.

I remember internalizing at a young age that nothing is really guaranteed.

This understanding of success was definitely reinforced by the fact that we also learned quickly that the grind does not necessarily coincide with an expected end goal. We saw that fighting to maintain two jobs and following all the rules did not always produce – actually did not often produce – the expected desired outcome. That moving up the social ladder and landing that corner-office job wasn’t simply about grinding and working hard was something we came to appreciate intuitively. I remember internalizing at a young age that nothing is really guaranteed, the grind did not necessarily produce much – and that was okay. It didn’t always feel fair, but an underlining logic that the dunya is not where fairness lies was emphasized every time we cried to our parents about this, that or the other. The world was not fair, and that was alright, an understanding that we may have even experienced it as ‘freeing’. Our grind wasn’t burdened by entitlements and inherent expectations. What we saw in the grind of our parents was a way of living that centered, as my mom would often say, around the “kun fayakun” (roughly translating to “if decreed it’ll be). She would often cap off our outbursts with an “Inshallah, said with the fullness of her mouth and elongated for maximum impact. But don’t get things twisted here: what was being centered was not a type of fatalism that made goal-making a mute or pointless act, but rather goals, dreams and imaginations of alternatives where encouraged practices that were seen as pulling forces strengthening our heart muscles. Goals were not seen as predictive endpoints, but the carriers transporting us to a destination yet to be known.

All this is to say that the spirit of the constant grind, no matter what the end results were, fundamentally taught us that it is not about the destination, but about the journey in a very real way.  And so, my siblings and I grew-up largely protected from the dysphoria of the middle-class “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses ” “never-good-enough” syndrome. I mean what we knew was “keeping-up-with-keeping-up” kinda living. In fact, the anxiety of “not-good-enough” felt like such a foreign and strange phenomenon that we mentally relegated it to the world of TV shows and movies, chalking it up to “a Hollywood White-folk” thing.

I couldn’t imagine turning away from any type of social or financial safety net my family made available to me.

I remember back in my pre-pubescent days glued to the screen when the weekly premiere of “Gilmore Girls” aired, a show about a small-town single mom and her daughter. Lorelai, the mother, turns her back on her posh upbringing and decides to “make it” on her own by rejecting her family’s money and lifestyle. I remember thinking “well that’s dumb” followed by “this must be another weird fancy White people thing.” I couldn’t imagine turning away from any type of social or financial safety net my family made available to me (remember, all this is running through my head while living as a household of size in a barely two-bedroom apartment, situated in the “better” part of a priority neighborhood). My family milked whatever social capital they had from their status in their homeland whenever possible among the small diasporic East African community they came across.

Fast-forward years, a few degrees, many jobs and my own household later, and I finally see what Lorelai was doing. It turns out melanin, diasporic inheritance and a humble-but-grounded immigrant upbringing does not automatically provide immunity from the “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” syndrome. The anxiety of “not-good-enough” is far from a simple “fancy-White-folk” thing, but rather an insipid capitalistic bug. Now our parents, through squeezing the lifeblood from our diasporic inheritances and transnational linkages, have scrapped some semblance of class stability. Understandably, desperate to sediment the stable footing, the expectation is that their children would quickly and effectively reproduce and build on their newly attained middle-class standing. And slowly, but surely the love of the grind has come to wither, and goal-making acts are no longer pulling forces but proclamations of guaranteed results to come.

But now, everything seems centered around different questions…

So now a conscious decision to live a minimalist life, centering the lessons of my upbringing, seems to be incomprehensible to those around me when an alternative is possible. My siblings and I are moving into points of our lives where the ethics we were raised with are facing the middle-class test. It is arguably easy to live a minimalist life where “connectivity, love and the journey” are valued when your life doesn’t allow an alternative philosophy of materialism. But now, everything seems centered around different questions: do we take on thousands of dollars of interest-bearing loans to satisfy the upwardly mobile itch? Do we rush in with a half a million-dollar loan for a smackingly shiny condo in a newly gentrified neighborhood to sediment this newly gained class standing? Do we take our carbon footprint seriously and live a car-free life, or turn to a 0% APR financing deal for the latest 2018 subcompact? Do we just buy the latest-newest-shiniest simply because we can, or should our consumption decision be accompanied by deeper ethics?

The toxicity and actual brilliance of capitalism are that our worth comes to be objectified, attached to goods, while at the same time our consumptive decisions are made to appear as “negligible,” “neutral” and “rational” to us. The logic seems to be “Why does it matter if I buy the latest x-y-and-z, I ain’t hurting nobody?” Well, actually we are! Our decisions, however micro they may seem, are tied and carry consequences for others. There is nothing natural or negligible about the U.S. producing 254 million tons of trash a year and consuming 30% of the world’s resources, while making up barely 5% of the global population.

Capitalism only reads objects, and if you want to count you must make yourself an object among objects. Your livelihood and self-worth become attached to the quantitative. The size of your equity, bank account, take-home salary – these are the signs of worth. And so, the obsession becomes your body and the possessions attached it. Only then do you count, only then do you matter – while at the same time all this is made to appear natural and rational.

So, this is a plea to our upwardly mobile immigrant families. I know many of you made the heart-wrenching decision to leave the only homes you knew to foreign lands where you were made into strangers in search of security, mobility and peace for your children. But capitalism culture is not your friend. Capitalism – in the words of Lauryn Hill – will “kill [us] softly”. It is not only the death of our planet, but also the death of love and compassion. It is the death of genuine connectivity and growth. It is where vulnerability goes to die and value becomes contorted to mean that which can be counted. As the underpinning logics infect our ways of life, it normalizes imprisoning ourselves in the forever insecure ground centering an ethos of consumption and accumulation, for the sake of consumption and accumulation. So however materially mobile we become, let’s continue centering a passion for the grind, for the journey, for the growth – while remaining wary, staying on guard and always suspicious of the capitalist American dream. Our sanity, families and souls depend on it.