An 'ideal' American uncle

Viewed from the outside world, America is the land of milk and honey, and there's plenty to go around.

Uncles - be they from Poland, Nicaragua, Taiwan, or the Caribbean - who left their country of birth to get their share of that milk and honey "have got it made."

To relatives and friends from the old country, suggesting the contrary not only runs against conventional thinking, it's the betrayal of a cherished dream. After all, didn't you beat the phenomenal red tape? Aren't you one of the lucky few, among thousands of immigrants in fierce competition for a place in the American sun?

You've left, you've arrived, you've settled. You're here. How can that spell anything but success?

I got to thinking about the reality and the myth of America when, some years back, I received an unexpected long-distance phone call from my brother in the Philippines. He said his eldest son was coming over. Could I help out if his son ever needed cash? My brother called collect, which I couldn't afford. But I couldn't say no.

Good times or bad, uncles in America are supposed to have made it - and have more money than ways to spend it. People abroad would hear of no other scenario than that of the one who got in and set out to pursue the American Dream.

If only it were that simple.

People abroad have no idea that the legendary milk and honey are running out, even for the native-born. Overseas, the US is seen as that great land of endless opportunities. An image of another America is unacceptable and inconceivable. Don't mention any insightful book concerning the "other America," because people the world over who are awaiting their turn to come over won't hear of it. They would rather cling to a vision of hope, even though it's only a make-believe world that is produced, packaged, and distributed worldwide by Hollywood.

I myself was once a nephew who had an uncle in America. As a boy in Manila, I was forever fantasizing about America's streets of gold. I never really knew what my uncle in Chicago did. As far as I was concerned, he was just "the uncle in America" who sent money and gifts. The truth had to wait.

Later, when I came here, I learned that throughout his working life he'd been a cook in the US Navy. His apartment in Chicago was anything but comfortable, and the sidewalk facing it was anything but gold.

I have come full circle. Now I am the uncle in America with a nephew abroad who dreams of coming over and making it in the land of milk and honey. I don't think many people abroad realize that some uncles in the midst of plenty are actually watching where every penny goes. I doubt they have any idea how many are eking out a living and barely making ends meet, as I do when I occasionally land an adjunct-instructor position at area colleges teaching French or sociology or, once in a blue moon, sell a freelance article in a market that pays on publication rather than acceptance.

I was, to be sure, no different as a boy. My perception of America had been a product of canned TV shows and neatly packaged movies from the Hollywood of the '50s, not to mention the eye-catching vivid colors of delicious meals on full-page ads in American magazines. In that Madison-Avenue-and-Hollywood-concocted America, flies were totally absent from immaculate cities. The water was always pure and fresh. People wore stylish clothes and had shoes on at all times even when they were inside the house - unlike Filipinos, who went about in slippers, or worse, barefoot.

My uncle wrote occasionally and his letters were always upbeat. Not a word on that other America. My uncle had always been the positive type, even when the negative was closer to the truth. Quite obviously, he didn't want to spoil a boy's rosy view of things.

Maybe it's all part of the perpetuation of the American myth. Sometimes I feel I am starting to believe it. But although there is reality and myth when it comes to America, I'd rather think and talk of America in terms of the "real" as opposed to the "ideal" - not as opposed to the "mythical."

There is no reason in the world to give up on the concept of an ideal America. It's not at all the same as "mythical." The latter connotes untruth whereas the former implies hope and the striving toward a dream. Whether or not the dream is attainable, whether or not it eventually becomes a reality is besides the point. What matters is that the dream persists.

I remember that my nephew had written me in preparation for our meeting. I debated whether I should write back and talk about the homeless, the violence in the inner cities and even in suburbia, the millions of Americans with no health insurance - or whether, carrying on the immigrant tradition and in the positive style of my uncle in Chicago, I should stick to telling my nephew about my small successes as a published writer and adjunct instructor. In the end, I decided to do neither and just talk about the weather in New England.

*Roger Calip is a freelance writer who teaches writing at LifeLearn, a continuing education center.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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