The American Dream

“Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.”

-James Truslow Adams’s definition of the American Dream

For the past month and a half, I have been working at an internship with an NGO that helps African immigrants in Chicago.  Refugees and asylum seekers are given help with attaining legal status, improving their level of English, understanding the American social service system, and with the task of restarting their lives, safe from whatever may have threatened them in their countries of origin.  Many are given the chance to live what is considered the American Dream; to start with nothing but a green card, and then to work their way toward financial stability and a comfortable home for themselves, their families, and their children.  As I mentioned in my last post, the process of feeling at home in a new place takes a long time, and it certainly must take longer for those who had no choice but to leave home.  After dreaming for years of a better life in America, the life here for immigrants is not all spacious green lawns, smiling kids, and sleek cars.  Usually, it involves living in small apartments, making frequent trips on public transportation to wait in lines for social services, and to struggle to find city schools that offer quality education.
One of my projects at work has been to research where in Chicago the majority of African immigrants live.  The North side is often thought of as the immigrant neighborhood, and has many African, Arab, and South Asian restaurants that are well-known throughout the city.  However, I found that only a fraction of Africans live in this area.  The majority actually live much further south, in the African-American neighborhoods that are rarely (if ever) seen by tourists and even by most Chicago residents.  These neighborhoods are known for their empty lots, lack of fresh food, gangs, and high crime rates.  Africans are supposedly the most educated immigrant group in the U.S., yet in Chicago, they often live in neighborhoods where they fit in based on skin color, but not at all by education level or by culture.
Living on the South side of Chicago is probably better than living somewhere where one could be killed just for his or her religious or political beliefs.  But is really the American Dream?   Can life really be richer and fuller for immigrants who become implicated in the worst of America’s social problems?

The Land of Opportunities

When I was about to land in Chicago, the TV screens on the airplane showed a video welcoming passengers to the U.S.  It showed green lawns, kids chasing golden retrievers, and people of every skin color.  Despite having lived the majority of my life in America and already knowing exactly what it looks like, the video made me pretty excited about arriving in the land of opportunity.

The photos in this post are of bread I've made.  This is yogurt bread and date-sesame bread.

The photos in this post are of bread I’ve made. This is yogurt bread and date-sesame bread.

America isn’t really as perfect as it looks on that video, although that’s not much of a surprise.  However, after being away for a year, there are several things that have surprised me.  First would be the no guns allowed sign all over Chicago (thanks to the conceal and carry law being passed), which is on a lot of public buildings; it’s odd to think that people need to be told that weapons do not belong in public buildings.  Not that I wanted to take a gun into the library, anyway.  Men wearing their pants so low that their butts hang out is not new, but it is still kind of surprising to see after not seeing it for so long (maybe some of them could use a djellaba).  Occasionally getting catcalls when I’m walking to my internship on the South Side is also not new, but is pretty disappointing – I thought I was going to have a break from that!  It is much easier to go for runs or walks here without worrying about what I’m wearing, but it’s not as different from Morocco as I was imagining it to be all of last year.

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Oatmeal bread

Another surprise came to me at Walmart.  I made my first ever trip to the all-American store last weekend, and only now do I really understand the purpose of giving up sugar.  Walmart is full of packaged foods, nearly all of which have sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup.  It’s in cereals, peanut butter, bread, yogurt, and pre-prepared meals.  Someone shopping only at Walmart would truly be challenged to totally give up sugar.  And what’s more, the food doesn’t taste the same here, even if bought at fancier stores than Walmart.  The carrots aren’t as sweet, the eggs aren’t as rich, the olive oil doesn’t taste like olives, and the Philadelphia cream cheese has ten ingredients instead of the four in Morocco’s (or Spain’s) version of the exact same brand.  These were difficult discoveries for me when I arrived; I love cooking and baking so much, so I want the ingredients to taste good!

Challah (egg bread)

Challah (egg bread)

I know from working with refugees that new immigrants (and even those who have been abroad for quite a while) have trouble adjusting, unfavorably comparing everything to equivalents in their home country.  It takes a long time to get used to little differences and to both appreciate what is better in the new country and to stop comparing it to the old.  It’s oddly not that much easier when the new country is also where you are from.  I guess I’ve got six more weeks to work on it.  Well, at least my bread loaves are pretty!

This isn't bread!  It's South African Bobotie, a dish made with lentils (or meat), bread crumbs, and egg/milk/banana topping.

This isn’t bread! It’s South African Bobotie, a dish made with lentils (or meat), bread crumbs, and egg/milk/banana topping.

Quality of Life

One might think that since Morocco is a developing country, the quality of life here would be significantly lower than in the US.  However, I would say that for me it is much higher, partly for personal reasons, but also partly due to aspects of life in Morocco that make things easy.

The trams run right through the center of town and are always very convenient.

The trams run right through the center of town and are always very convenient.

My quality of life is certainly higher here than it would be if I had stayed in Chicago.  First of all, the weather is much better; I no longer have to brace myself for below-freezing temperatures and strong winds every time I go out.  This means that walking around on a Sunday afternoon in December is pleasant instead of painful.  I live in a neighborhood where everything I need is easily available to me, and I can even run down to a little store right across the street for milk, eggs, and household items.  I often learn new French or Arabic words when I do so, because the shopkeepers are patient about teaching them to me.  The quality of the produce is much higher here, because it is shipped a shorter distance.  There is more variety, and everything I get is fresh because it is sold only when it is in season and at its best.  As you know if you have been reading my blog, I love shopping for vegetables, so varied produce is like heaven for me!  All of the food I eat and transportation I use is also much cheaper than it would be in the US.

It's hard to wait for these trains in the cold!

It’s hard to wait for these trains in the Chicago winters….

More specific to my situation is the fact that I take a school bus to work and so never have to wait for the public bus, and I am able to exercise using the school track and in my apartment, which has very big rooms.  My kitchen is beautiful and was already stocked with dishes and appliances when I arrived.  I live in a safer neighborhood than I did in Chicago, and though I’m sure there is plenty of crime in this big city, nobody has a gun, and public drunkenness is extremely rare.

It's much easier in the sunlight!

It’s much easier in the sunlight!

Morocco may still be developing, but I would say it is moving pretty quickly.  I hope Chicago can keep up!

Homesickness

Last week, I was looking through the photos on my computer in order to find one to use for my last blog entry.  I stumbled upon a series of photos from my second year of college of my friends, beautiful fall weather, and us smiling big smiles.  A wave of homesickness washed over me.  But when I thought about it, I realized that what I missed when I saw that photo wasn’t “home,” but just one situation I have really fond memories of.  I do love fall weather, the smell of the wind in the pine trees in the Midwest, and leaves changing colors.  I did have really good friends that year, though I haven’t kept in touch with all of them.  I also really liked the life of the student, where I could mostly make my own schedule.  But I wouldn’t say I really miss any of those things (except for maybe not having to wake up at 5:30am), and even if I were looking at that same photo in Chicago, I would still have felt that longing for the time that it was taken.
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The majestic halls and skyscrapers of Chicago, from above and below
Living in Casablanca just feels like life to me, not life away from home.  I have good friends here, I have a good job, I exercise regularly, and I cook the foods that I like to cook.  I have something to do every weekend, and have people to talk to about anything I’m worried about.  So when I feel sad, its not necessarily homesickness; rather, it’s just sadness with the idea that everything could be perfect somewhere else, particularly somewhere where my mom would cook me dinner.
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This is my mom.  Isn’t she pretty?  She’s smart, too.
Last week when I was sick I called my mom and told her, “I’m home sick!”  Which she heard as “I’m homesick!”  But I know that even when I have problems here, going home wouldn’t solve them, it would just be an escape.  I’ve thought about this a lot lately because some of my colleagues have mentioned being homesick.  They express a desire to be elsewhere, not always home (although trips back home for the holidays are drawing near for some).  It’s too bad that not everyone loves living in the country that I chose to live in (twice!), and that they haven’t discovered things to love about this place yet.  But living abroad is hard, and sometimes the things that might have been clear at our “home” might not be clear elsewhere.  Some day, we’ll look back on photos of sunny Morocco and feel a wave of “homesickness,” longing for the days we spent here!
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Awwww.