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Realizing the American Dream Abroad

Opinion | November 3, 2014

My grandparents live in Venetian Isles, a gated Floridian retirement community eerily similar to Seinfeld’s “Del Boca Vista,” where everyone has a Spanish-style home with terracotta roof tiles, a manicured lawn, and access to a multitude of amenities. Financially stable, surrounded by friends, well-traveled, and always tan—my grandparents are living the American Dream. But they don’t have the US to thank for their current lifestyle. They are grateful to Busan, South Korea and Jakarta, Indonesia.

My grandfather, Sheldon Kesslen, knew one industry and he knew it well: shoes. He was practically raised in a New England shoe factory owned by his father, and everyone in his family joined the trade. As the New England shoe business thrived, so did the factories he managed, and he was able to enjoy the success of the shoe business until the 1980s. But by 1991, the situation changed. New England shoe manufacturing had become financially unsustainable as Americans’ growing desire for cheaper shoes resulted in companies being forced to look abroad. The costs of American manufacturing were simply too high. New England, a region that once had thousands of factories, quickly saw plants closing and major job losses. My grandfather knew that the factory he managed was doomed to shut down, and he had no domestic options to rely on. At 54 years-old, he was faced with two choices: start over in a new industry or move to Asia and continue to work in the shoe business.

When Reebok offered my grandfather a job in Busan, South Korea, as a Production Manager, he had to look up the city on a map, never having heard of it before. Discussing his decision to accept the job at Reebok, my grandfather said, “[My wife] and I always joked we would have to move to Asia, but suddenly that joke become our reality. I couldn’t continue to do my job in America. The only way I could remain in my field was to go abroad.”

For the second time in their lives, my grandparents left the US, and this time it seemed permanent. With all of their children out of the house and no job prospects at home, they had nothing tying them to America. After three years in Busan with Reebok, they were transferred to Jakarta for two years. When offered a job as Senior Technical Advisor for Nike, he and my grandmother moved back to Busan where they spent five years until his retirement in 2001. They look back at their ten years abroad as some of the best years of their life.

While my grandfather was at work, my grandmother spent most of her time participating in charity work in local communities. When asked why she volunteered so often, she said, “I felt like it was important to give back to the countries that gave me so much. I was so grateful that South Korea and Indonesia provided my husband with a steady job, I wanted to do as much as possible to return the favor.” While many feel indebted to America for the opportunities it affords them, my grandparents, conversely, feel indebted to Asia. Their time abroad afforded them opportunities America no longer could. Perhaps if they had achieved this level of success in the US, they may have taken part in similar charity work here. And although they acknowledge that they worked for American companies while abroad, they are grateful for their work in South Korea and Indonesia, which allowed them to save for retirement and live the way they do now.

There is certainly irony in my grandparents’ story. Currently, they embody the American Dream: they are retired in Florida in a home they own with the ability to live comfortably, spend discretionally, and travel. However, it was the country that promised them this ”easily-achievable” goal that ultimately failed them. The collapse of US manufacturing almost destroyed them when my grandfather was left jobless, financially insecure, and with almost no opportunity to find work domestically. My grandparents were neglected by the very economy whose optimistic dream they were promised: if they worked hard, saved wisely and followed the rules, the American Dream would be theirs. And while they did eventually find success, they had to fly across the world to obtain it.

My grandparents’ experience isn’t unique. Each year, the number of Americans working abroad rises. While it is difficult to determine exactly how many Americans are employed overseas, estimates from the Migration Policy Institute say the number could be close to 6.8 million, an all-time high. According to an April 2014 New York Times report, many children of US immigrants are returning to their parents’ homelands in hopes of better economic opportunities—a trend not surprising when sources such as The Week are reporting that less than 50 percent of Americans believe the American Dream is actually attainable for the masses. Although this isn’t the case for my grandparents, who are not of Asian decent, this situation proves fascinating. These children, whose parents came here in hope of a better life and more opportunity, feel stifled by America and believe that innovation and success are more attainable abroad. India is an example of this phenomenon, as Indian officials say that in 2010, over 100,000 people of Indian descent immigrated to India.

These trends should cause alarm. US citizens increasingly believe that they cannot achieve the American Dream in America, the nation founded on the principle that everyone has equal opportunity to succeed. As more and more Americans chose to go work internationally, we have to wonder what its implications will be for our economy. Will we see a reverse in the brain drain? Will Americans take their degrees and go abroad in search of prosperity? Will they then return to America to retire, like my grandparents, or will they seek a global American diaspora?

While the American Dream has never been perfect, for a long time it has been something that the majority of Americans believed in. If more and more Americans feel that the dream is moving toward an impending doom, it will die. America will be a country where only the rich get richer—something that no one wants to see happen. Like most, I have doubts about our nation’s future. I am concerned that millennials might be the first generation of citizens who are worse off than their parents. And it is because of these doubts that I believe we must do all we can to maintain the American dream—the one thing that seems to have kept our nation going for this long. I don’t want the fate of my grandparents to be the fate of future generations.