I have accepted over a dozen invitations to speak to students from 7th graders to college seniors. With rare exception I am asked to speak on one of two topics:
- The American Dream
- A typical day in New York City
My first reaction was to say that with a metro area population of nearly 20 million people, there was no such thing as a typical day in New York City, and the American Dream looks different for different people, but pretty quickly I realized I was missing the point. I recalled something I was told at our Fulbright pre-departure orientation in Washington DC, “When people in your host country ask you questions about America, they may really be asking questions about their own country – trying to understand how you see them through your American lens.”
That is not to say that Georgians aren’t genuinely curious about life in the United States, and particularly New York City. Outside of New York itself, I see more NY Yankee hats here than anywhere else I have ever been, and yet I doubt anyone wearing those hats has ever seen a baseball game. I know because I tried desperately to find a place to watch opening day and struck out (excuse my pun).
That phenomenon sums up a lot of the fascination with American culture. Georgians are well versed in the music, fashion, and movies coming from beyond their borders, but it is rare for them to be able to talk with someone who has experience with the substance behind the style. It reminds me of when I was in graduate school and struck up a conversation with a bartender overseas who asked me if I owned a horse because I told him my family lived in Texas at the time. Or even closer to home when someone I met in Arkansas told me they were surprised after their visit to New York State that there were farms, because all they ever knew about New York was the city. There is no substitute for traveling and seeing places with you own eyes, but the opportunity to talk with someone who has lived it is as good a substitute as many will ever get.
The American Dream discussions are something completely different though. One student captured it perfectly with her question. After she referenced Michelle Obama’s American Dream speech this student talked about how for Americans their dreams are not realized in isolation, but through a combination of hard work and the opportunities provided for them by their country. She then asked me, “How can Georgians realize their own version of the American Dream in a country without the resources to support them and provide opportunities for success like America does?”
Let that sink in: Over and over again, the students I meet choose this as the most important thing they want to talk about – How can they manifest their own version of the American Dream. This was my first student seminar and it is also when I knew I had to be prepared for some very serious and thoughtful questions in these talks.
My perception of the students I have met in Kutaisi is that they are bright, well educated, and deeply curious about the world around them. I have been thoroughly impressed with them and I have no doubt that I could, for example, take the entire group of college students I met with in my last seminar, put them in an American university, and they would succeed at a high level (more on that in my next blog post). I was almost brought to tears of joy (the kind of tears only other teachers will truly understand) when I casually offered a ‘Denmark is a prison’ reference from Hamlet, paused realizing I may have lost them, and they proceed to accurately put that quote in context and relate it back to the point I was just making. If I was giving a talk about Shakespeare, or even literature, I would have been quite pleased. This was in the context of me talking about the psychology of synthesized happiness which means they were just walking around with a deep understanding of Hamlet they could pull on whenever they needed it. And then they did just that, using their 3rd language.
But I digress. So the more we talked the more it became clear to me that their interest in the American Dream is not the same as their interest in a day in the life in New York. The latter is a fun way to let the mind wander to a dream trip, a fantasy that puts them in the scenes they have seen countless times in movies their entire lives. The former though, that is much more. The American Dream represents an ideal that means more outside of the United States than I ever realized. It is the promise that if you work hard you can achieve great things for yourself, your family, and ultimately make a difference in the world. I have to add that they are not naive, they understand that luck (or something like it) plays a role, they know that the playing field is not even for all people. The fundamental point they make to me over and over again though is a yearning to have that opportunity to achieve great things, and to see their hard work rewarded. Whether their perception of the American Dream is perfectly on point or not is less important than the ideal it represent for their own dream – the Georgian Dream.