By Collin Sebastian
Cynics bother me. I had never really identified as an optimist until I started identifying as not a pessimist. My struggle with cynicism can best be summed up by the business cliche, “The more time you focus on the problem, the less time you focus on the solution.” It seems like I run into at least a half dozen cynics per week, always ranting about how change is impossible, how our culture is going town the toilet, or how we’re facing our inevitable self-destruction. Invariably, these same people have a holier-than-thou diatribe railing against the corruption of society by the evils of things like Facebook or television.
“Do you remember when people used to read books?” some 20-year-old on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) will mutter sarcastically. “Facebook is soooooo superficial,” her friend will say in his $200 skinny jeans, wrinkled in a suspiciously perfect asymmetry. “At least Tumblr hasn’t lost its soul…yet."
I usually try to ignore these conversations, but last week, one caught me completely off-guard. The statement was heartbreaking, and although it came from a 20-something, he didn’t fit the profile of someone I’d normally find myself rolling my eyes at. His hair wasn’t styled. He wasn’t wearing anything remotely resembling a blouse. He looked working class - the kind of guy who wrapped his fingers every day around a hammer instead of a mouse. He said to his friend, “The American Dream is dead, man. Just give up on it already.”
The words left his mouth and hit my ears with all the force of his hardest punch. I don’t know why, but my heart sank.
Very few people ever assume this about me, but I’m a first-generation immigrant. I was born in Singapore, and my family moved to the U.S. when I was very young. My parents, like so many other immigrants, wanted their children to get the best possible education: a U.S. education (I can hear some of you being cynical right now. Stop it for five minutes and keep reading).
My parents grew up in abject poverty, but they had been reasonably successful in Singapore - solid middle class by Sing’ standards. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the country controls wealth distribution very tightly, and the schools there are highly, insanely, ridiculously competitive. My parents wanted something different for us, so they packed up our humble life and moved us to the quintessence of the American experience: Portland, Oregon.
One of the first things to understand is that the American dollar pretty much kicks the crap out of most other forms of currency in the globe. When we moved in the '80s, one U.S. dollar was worth two Singapore dollars, so immediately our family’s savings were cut in half. Also, the types of rent controls and assistance programs that we took for granted in Singapore simply didn’t exist in the U.S.
Needless to say, the adjustment was hard. My parents, my two sisters, and I lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment on the poorer side of town. My favorite toy as a four-year-old was my dad’s hammer. I would sit in the middle of the kitchen and take a completely inappropriate level of pleasure in knocking on the floor, or as my angry neighbor referred to it, his, “F’ing ceiling all f’ing day.”
My parents’ life was a story of three steps forward, two steps back, and it was never easy. Both my dad and mom put themselves through night school; my dad getting an Associate of Arts degree in Engineering and my mom the same in nursing. My sisters, 10 and eight years older, respectively, were the first people in my family to graduate a four-year university.
After my dad was laid off from his job, he took whatever work he could to make ends meet. A proud man, he did everything from fixing cars to delivering papers. I remember waking up at 3am, chasing down his car and making him take me on his route. For better or worse, he stole my first tricycle because he couldn’t afford to buy me one, and he used to make my Halloween costumes out of cardboard.
My mom worked the night shift as a trauma nurse and took me to preschool on the bus. She’d come home after a 12-hour shift and somehow still find the energy to make me breakfast in the morning and play with me on her days off. Despite being exhausted, she’d help me with my math homework and teach me to play chess.
They worked incredibly hard. They took a family that, at one point, had a total of $100 in the bank, and through what seemed like sheer force of will, carried us into the upper-middle class.
My parents retired last year - my dad was 64, my mom was 59. They bought themselves this great little house on a lake, 15 years after having put three kids through college, and paying off all their debt. They’ve watched my siblings and me find our dream jobs - jobs that make us happy and pay us more than we probably deserve. They’ve kept us humble and grateful and reminded us that, at least in our family, the American Dream is still alive and well.
As I think about our story, I look back at that guy on the BART and wonder how my family did it. The thing that bothers me so much about his particular cynicism is that I’m afraid he might be right. I’m not sure we could have made it today - is it possible the economic tumult of the '80s and '90s was actually more manageable than today's? The more I think about it, the more I realize how lucky we were (although I hate that term because somehow “luck” implies that my parents didn’t earn everything they have). Maybe timing is a better word? We ran into the right opportunities at the right moments, which was critical to getting us where we are.
My mom, with typical her cryptic Asian prophetic ambiguity, simply answered, "People are luck.” And in true, filial-pious fashion, it made perfect sense to me.
Here’s how I figure it: my parents, my sisters, and I didn’t do this alone. As hard as we’ve all worked in our lives, we all had friends, colleagues, bosses, neighbors, or complete strangers that have helped or hurt us, creating, for all intents and purposes, good or bad luck.
Over the past week, I’ve tried to think about myself as having the power to create luck for those around me. It’s quite a narcissistically delightful way to look at your place in the world, but it’s given me pause on more than a few occasions.
It’s also made me a lot happier. I float around the busy streets of San Francisco imaging myself as this ethereal force, “Luck.” And I imagine a small fraction of the people I encounter might find the strength to persevere a little bit longer if they think that maybe, just maybe, luck is on their side.
The American Dream will always take hard work. It will probably always be a measured dance of three steps forward, two steps back. And although I may not have the power to make people try harder, I take solace that, for those who do continue to give it their all, if the timing’s right, I might be able to create the little bit of good luck they need to make their dreams come true.