“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” is the first sentence I thought to myself as I landed in Boston for the first time. I thought I was being funny, seeing as I never owned a pet nor did I ever really think of Kansas as a home that I could click my heels and magically return to. Having traveled quite a bit throughout my childhood actually made me feel a bit more like Toto than Dorothy—my parents brought me on every journey they took and I was just there to experience it, being too small to really have an opinion. Yet, the film created an inside joke in my family about our lasting nostalgia for Kansas.
Technically speaking, we weren’t really meant to end up in the middle of nowhere: Manhattan, Kan. But at the same time, we were. After I was born, my family was quick to realize that we could not sustain ourselves in Romania. So, as most Romanians do, we left to seek a better life. We were hoping to be able to find a home, a stable life, and happiness just like my parents saw in The Wizard of Oz. My mom, having previously worked in a lab in Germany, saw the opportunity to work in America as a golden ticket that said “Manhattan.” But she wasn’t quite well informed enough to realize that “Manhattan” was followed by “KS.” The only Manhattan she knew was from Sex and the City. So naturally, getting off the plane surrounded by cornfields was a shock.
My mother’s initial experience of confusing Kansas with New York set the tone for what reality would look like in the following years. What we envisioned often looked completely different from what actually happened, and this was an especially alienating experience in a time before the internet was readily accessible. But, we were on a chase—one that every immigrant coming to America knows well enough. Through movies and TV shows, many of us feel that America is a promise of a better future, and to some degree, a guarantee of obtaining the American Dream.
While we can debate exactly what the “American Dream” means, for my parents it was concrete: avoid poverty and give Ana the most opportunities possible to avoid poverty. During the financial crisis of 2008, America failed us for half of our American dream and that set us in motion toward Boston, Mass. (this time we checked the state). It took several years to really understand and cope with the intense emotions that were involved with America failing to meet our high expectations. There was anger. Lots and lots of anger. Though, when we probably needed it most, we refused to ask America to help us because we couldn’t handle potentially feeling let down again.
By the time we (and America) began recuperating from the devastating year, it quickly became apparent that the American Dream is not a foreign object that you simply obtain, it is a game. The game of the American Dream is set up so that people who have distant relatives who came off the Mayflower or weathered Ellis Island have known how to play for centuries at this point. It was occasionally embarrassing and costly to stumble around trying to figure out what it takes to consider yourself a player. The infatuation with America that we once held quickly dissipated as we struggled to understand how the game was supposed to work.
Our American dream was strongly tied to financial literacy because my parents’ experiences in Romania in the ’80s and ’90s showed us that money is an important asset for survival. But I was too small to really know that, and the trauma that they both incurred as a result of the Nicolae Ceausescu regime was past the expression of words, especially words I could understand in a language that was meaningful to me.
I was growing into a different person than my parents hoped. I knew American culture in a different light because I was surrounded by it more than they were. I wanted different things than they could possibly afford to give me, and after more than ten years of not having visited Romania, they considered me more and more American despite my passport stating otherwise. The things that brought us together, heavily rooted in Romanian pride and heritage, were not as personal to me as they once were. While my parents focused on survival, I focused on transforming myself into two acceptable versions: one for at school and one at home.
Years later, The Wizard of Oz still brings me a sense of familiarity, like an unspoken inside joke. My family looks different now, and I am not a person to judge whether it’s better or worse than before. The biggest difference, though, is the understanding that “the American Dream” is not what the movies and shows depicted. That popular depiction is an exaggerated view of America through rose-colored glasses for the people who feel they have exhausted every option in the country they were born in.
While it wasn’t easy, my family acclimated to different territories time after time, and my parents especially did their best to do right by me while battling their own expectations for themselves and the rest of America. We now have a home and trust in the system that supported us physically and mentally, and I have been able to join an extensive community of immigrants and attend one of the most prestigious schools in the country.
We aren’t merely surviving anymore. We won the game.
Featured Graphic by Olivia Charbonneau/ Heights Editor