SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA—Many of us, particularly of the generations X and older, grew up believing the USA is a paradise where dreams can come true if you work hard enough.
The proverbial land of milk, honey, and Hershey’s chocolates became a prime destination for migrants who dreamt of having a house with a white picket fence and two cars in the garage, a living situation not easily attainable for many in the Philippines.
Helping to create the dream were relatives in California or New Jersey or the other 48 states who sent home Spam, Crest toothpaste, and Milky Way bars in balikbayan boxes. Upon opening the boxes, one got a whiff of a scent associated with “Stateside goods” or the so-called “amoy Tate.”
There were also the photos they sent, of themselves posing in scarves and boots on a snowy hill in Tahoe; in swimsuits on a cruiseship; in sunglasses and shorts in Disneyland.
All these artifacts created an image of America that was attractive and desirable. We were envious of those who jetted off on family petitions or fiancée visas. We wished we too were making snowmen and posing with Mickey Mouse.
And it was possible to fulfill the American dream back in the 1960s up until the ‘80s. The 1965 Act or the Immigration and Nationality Act welcomed immigrants based on family ties and special skills; this led to huge numbers of migrants from Asia and Hispanic countries.
But by the early 1990s, economic recessions had made jobs scarce. The Great Recession of 2007-2008 dealt a significant blow to the US economy from which it is still recovering.
It is now more difficult than before for new immigrants to sustain themselves, much less become financially successful. For those 40s or over, it’s even harder. At that time, usually one has already had career experience and climbed their way up the ladder in their fields in the Philippines. They’ve made the coffee and photocopied the documents, and were perhaps managers already.
Healthcare workers such as nurses and physicians usually have a better time of it, though some nurses might start off working retail until they pass their state licensing exams or wait for positions to open up.
For those who aren’t in healthcare, coming to America to work is like pressing a reset button. No matter that you’re 50 and ran a department back in corporate Manila: for many, their first jobs in the US are in retail or administrative positions (meaning they make the coffee and photocopy the documents). You start all over from the bottom and work your way up again, something that you’ve likely done before. It can be very frustrating.
And there’s a feeling that you’re always playing catch-up. Buying a house, unless you have your own substantial savings, might not be the best decision—how can you pay off a 30-year mortgage if you’re only 10 or 15 years away from retirement?
America is a place for starting. It’s great for young people who are fresh out of school and eager to make their mark. It’s not a great place for starting over when you’re older unless you accept that life will mostly likely be tough. If you’re alone, forget it. Retail and many office positions don’t pay very much and finances will be stretched thin unless you can live with relatives or have a working spouse to help out.
Housing is very expensive particularly in areas where the big tech companies are located, like the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle. Even if salaries are high, the high demand for housing also pushes prices up.
This has pushed many Californians to move to Las Vegas, where houses are cheaper. A fixer-upper two-bedroom home costs around $600,000 in the Bay Area, but a new five-bedroom in Las Vegas will set you back only $250,000. However, salaries are also lower in Las Vegas. So there’s always a catch.
It’s possible to earn more by taking on extra jobs or overtime or working an extra shift. But that leads to overwork, stress, and burnout. You also might not get a job in your particular field—you might have to reinvent yourself or settle for feeling unfulfilled.
For some Filipinos here in the US, that’s the reality of life. Yes, they can buy Spam and Crest and all the chocolates they want, but they’re toiling hard. No, not all of them can afford to buy a house or car and some are living in dinky apartments and taking public transportation.
The American dream doesn’t come true for everyone, particularly these days. Can we even say there still is an American dream? It’s not like it used to be, that’s for sure.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Facebook and