The following post is the fourth of a series about American values sparked by my renunciation of US citizenship in November 2015.
In my last two posts, I discussed four of the six key American values emphasized in the textbook American Ways: individual freedom and self-reliance, and then equality and competition. The last two are material wealth and hard work, and in many ways these are, or at any rate have become, core values in American society.They’re what informs the American Dream.
It all started with the earliest settlers: the Puritans. Their idea of a “pure” religion required that they devote their lives to doing God’s will, which involved piety and hard work. Implied in that belief was the idea that if one prospered as a result of that hard work, it was God’s reward for piety.
Over the generations, the emphasis has shifted away from piety, but remained on hard work. To this day, Americans believe in hard work as a solution to just about any problem.
Doing poorly in school? Study harder. Didn’t get picked to play on the team? Practice harder. Didn’t get the promotion you expected? Work harder—which often translates in the US to working far more hours than you’re paid for.
The Puritans may have believed that wealth was a sign of God’s grace as a reward for hard work, but these days the two are linked more directly. It’s a very simple message: if you just work hard enough, you too can become wealthy.
As in Puritan times, then, material wealth is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s okay, even admired, in the US, to show off your wealth. Here in the Netherlands, Calvinistic sobriety dictates that displaying your wealth is Just. Not. Done. Americans, on the other hand, love to splash out publicly. The huge mansion, the top-of-the-line car, the diamond jewelry: it’s all okay, even admired, as a sign of your just reward for working hard.
This is one of the reasons, I think, why Donald Trump gets so much support. His campaign website describes him as
the very definition of the American success story, continually setting the standards of excellence while expanding his interests in real estate, sports and entertainment.
His wealth, then, is admirable in American culture. It’s no wonder he brings it up so often.
The American Dream
Which leads us, of course, to the American Dream. For many who immigrated to the US, like my grandparents who were Jews from the Ukraine, the American Dream was a combination of all the values I’ve discussed.
Once they had arrived, material wealth and the opportunity to pursue it were what mattered most. They were happy to put in whatever work was necessary to achieve that material wealth. For many, too, it meant foregoing enjoying the fruits of their labor themselves in order to make the American Dream possible for their children.
My grandparents worked hard all their lives. They worked their ways out of poverty, though they were never wealthy and never had the opportunity to get an education beyond high school. Both my parents, on the other hand, were able to go to college and attain all the hallmarks of the American Dream: a large home in the suburbs, two cars in the garage, children who could also go to college, and the occasional trip, even overseas.
The Overseas American and the American Dream
I have always believed in the American Dream too, though defined somewhat more broadly to mean whatever you dream, not exclusively material wealth. I have always bought into the value of hard work. I urge my children and my students to work hard—to do their very best—in order to reach their goals. If they fail, I tell them to work harder.
So here I am, in the Netherlands with my Dutch husband, living the American Dream. Our typical upper-middle-class lifestyle has allowed us to get a good education, live comfortably, and travel often. One of our kids is doing her Masters and the other is in secondary school preparing for college.
We live the American Dream, yet we’re not in America. Maybe that’s the lesson to be drawn from this whole situation with FATCA and renouncing citizenship and the threatened withholding of passports and all the rest of the complicated, unfair mess that is American policy toward overseas Americans: the American Dream is available in other places as well.
I feel as if, rather than rejecting America, America has rejected me by making it so difficult to remain American. Yet I’ve embraced American values to an extent I wasn’t even aware of.
If truth be told, what it comes down to is this: I don’t need America to attain the American Dream.[tweetthis hidden_hashtags=”#FATCA #expat”]I don’t need America to attain the American Dream.[/tweetthis]
If you’re an overseas American, I’d love to hear from you! And even if you’re not! Just add your comment below.