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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Shrink Wrap

My mail has been flooded with political advertisements in the past few weeks. I have to confess I look at them rather carefully, especially the ones that try to persuade me to vote for one candidate or another (as opposed to one proposion or another). I'm interested in their stories, fascinated -- it's a fascination I'm slightly embarrassed about -- by the way the campaign packages the candidates' lives for my consumption. I lingered more than usual over a glossy postcard about John Duong, who's running for mayor of Irvine. There was a photograph of his family on the postcard: he with his wife and two children against a background suffused with golden afternoon light. The children, a boy, Ethan, and a girl, Lizzie, wore white; Duong wore a red polo shirt and his wife, Vicki, a blue blouse. Perfect color scheme, perfect smiles, perfect hairstyles, perfect American first names. I stared and stared, and a feeling of nausea filled my stomach, as if I'd eaten too many pieces of bad birthday cake.

I read the story of John Duong's life, bracing myself for cliche, and it was all there, in rather beautiful prose: the escape from Vietnam, the long-suffering of the parents for the good of the child, the graduate business degree, the executive position at an investment firm. "A product of the American dream" is what the campaign calls John Duong. I picture some volunteer for the campaign, an English major with a future in advertising, writing up John Duong's biographical sketch, patting herself on the back for coming up with this perfectly obsequious phrase. It tells this consummerist society exactly what it wants to hear. It tells people to stop thinking of John Duong as a person. That's too hard, too disturbing; we love here in America to watch how the mighty fall, and for our enjoyment to be complete we have to persuade ouselves that the mighty are angels of light before their descent into hell.

Running for political office turns you from a person into a thing, immigrant or not. But I'm more interested in how simply being an immigrant, with no political ambitions, with not even a desire to be part of the political process by voting, makes you vulnerable to being turned into a product. There's great rigidity in the conventional understanding of the American dream: you make lots of money, become famous, or, ideally, both. I've seen one family after another, from the group of my parents' acquaintances, fall for this narrow dream. They've become doctors and lawyers, bought houses on hills and started elderly care and office cleaning businesses, married and had two or three children, gone back to church for the sake of the children despite doubts and youthful rebellions; they work fifty and sixty hours a week and say even after they've had too much beer at Fourth of July barbeques: This is what we've come to America for. Truly this is a country of infinite possibilities.

It takes all I've got to resist being packaged into something that's acceptable and familiar, making my life an advertisement for the American dream.Iit's so hard because an ordered universe in which everything is categorized and pigeonholed is immensely comforting. I have fantasies about being a lawyer, about the intellectual stimulation and the high salary, the respect I would get from my parents and my parents' friends. It seems sometimes that if I become a lawyer (or a doctor, or a business owner) I will have no existential doubts, no fear of tomorrow. It's so tempting to believe the picture suffused with golden afternoon light. It's so hard to teach your heart not to be a spoiled child's heart but to go for the difficult pleasures, for the unbeaten path.


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