Immigration Built the American Dream

Pranav Guru
5 min readDec 19, 2021

I’m not just a first-generation American.

I’m also a second generation Canadian since I was born there. With regards to the U.S., I’m what you call 1.75 generation, as it’s been specifically used to describe situations like mine where immigrants arrive before the age of five.

As someone whose parents initially immigrated from India, you grow up hearing stories of immigration and narratives of pursuing the American Dream that are nothing like your own.

One particular moment stuck out in the sixth grade in the form of an unexpected assignment for Social Studies class. We were tasked to interview our families to assemble an authentic “Immigration Journal” in which we had to write entries about the experiences our families had traveling to and getting their lives started in America, and even go as far as include pictures and physical artifacts.

This was one of the earlier times I began to notice there was something different about me compared to those I was surrounded by growing up.

My class consisted of descendants of Pilgrims who stepped off the Mayflower, or kids whose ancestors boarded cargo ships leaving the famines of Ireland. These, of course, included emotional stories of forefathers arriving to America in the midst of African slave trade or antisemitism in Europe.

Point is, I was surrounded by kids whose families had been in this great nation for generation after generation.

Long story short, I talked to my teacher. We started off the conversation chuckling at how my situation was different than everybody else’s, but he gave me a simple game plan so that I could still follow the rubric;

Use the real pictures (albeit in black-and-white) and push every historic date back 100 years to the day.

That same aforementioned plot that took place during the Industrial Revolution continues to take place to this day.

I’ve always believed the American Dream had the potential to be real. After all, the nation built by immigrants was not only maintained by their children, but improved upon by future generations. All so that as many people can believe in the dream as possible.

And yet, for years, something felt different.

Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman is known for his outspoken political activism. In 2005, he once opened up on his personal belief that Black History Month should not be celebrated to the degree at which it is. He quoted, “Black history is American history”, adding how there is no such thing as “white history month”.

As a child, I could never repeat a similar sentence that would apply to me. Primarily I could never personally bring myself to believe that the history of South Asian or Indian Americans had anything remotely close to the impact of African Americans on the history of the nation.

Oddly enough, I stumbled across the most unlikely rebuttal argument while I was in college.

While taking a class on the History of Modern China during my final semester, our professor showed two videos before simply going around asking kids with their hands up for their thoughts.

The videos were from the 2001 PBS miniseries Ancestors in the Americas. This is he first episode, entitled “Coolies, Sailors & Settlers: Voyage to the New World” originally aired on Mar 23, 2001.
The second part of the aforementioned episode chronicled some of the first en masse arrivals of Asian Americans to the United States — including those known as ‘East Indians’ — during the 18th and 19th centuries. The episode’s description cited that it was “due to global economic and political forces.”

The episode begins with the narration, “Today and for over 200 years, Asians have been a part of the life of the Americas.” This immediately got me thinking; What was the experience like for the first Asians in America? How did their life parallel those of the first immigrants of my family tree (in my case, my own parents), as well as the lives of the immigrant stores we’ve grown accustomed to hearing from the 18th and 19th centuries?

Midway through the 19th century, Asians traveled all over the world — from other parts of Asian to the Caribbean — to take part in cheap or indentured labor.

Not only did Asian immigrants who — like those in my family — arrived following the opportunities post-Civil Rights Movement represent the tip of the iceberg, but it’s arguable these 19th century voyages also represented the same tip.

As the narrator clearly highlighted, “You may think Asians are recent immigrants. But really, Asians have been in North America even longer than America has been in existence as a republic.”

Even as far back as the 18th century, sailors and traders landed in the Americas because they had sailed out to fulfill their ambitions on the East Coast. Some lands of which would later become known as the 13 original colonies.

These included Chinese, Filipino, and even Asian Indian sailors. Some even organized communities, such as Manila Village — an 18th-century Filipino fishing settlement — in present-day Louisiana.

This was spurred — in part — by colonial conquest. Despite Rudyard Kipling’s quote that “East is East and West is West and ne’er the twain shall meet,” the lines had been blurred as to East and West since the Renaissance period ushered in the era of colonialism. The United States was not to be outdone, eventually conquering present-day Hawaii and even the former Spanish colony of the Philippines.

The voyages to and from America were so influential to the new republic that even Thomas Jefferson is said to have dined on dinner plates made in China (yes, this was before outsourcing).

It is believed that the very tea dumped into the Boston Harbor on the fateful December 16, 1773 was Chinese tea.

Ultimately, my takeaway from the docuseries was that when discussing the history of the Asian diaspora in the United States, describing Asian immigration as “fairly recent” is disingenuous to say the least. And that non-recent instances of American history that have become household terms — such as the Chinese Exclusion Act or Japanese internment — barely scratch the surface.

Compared to the Asian immigrants who arrived in America to — for example — build the Transcontinental Railroad or settle in Louisiana’s Manila Village, my parents and I are fairly recent immigrants. But at the end of the day, that didn’t make me different from those other kids in the sixth-grade classroom.

The first gurudwara in the U.S. was built in Stockton, CA in 1912. It is shown here in 1915, 50 years before the landmark Immigration & Nationality Act was passed.

While it may have felt odd turning in an assignment that was nothing like my classmates, my teacher — ever the learned and idealistic man — came to me afterward. He told me whether or not a family’s immigration story begins six generations ago at Angel Island or one generation ago at O’Hare International Airport, the bare-bones content of said story is all the same.

It couldn’t be more true. Two ambitious working parents coming to America with everything they have and their infant son in tow, because the nation promised them that if they work hard they could have anything they wanted. From the riches money could buy, to even a say in government.

After all, that is the paraphrased American Dream.