Opinion: Chasing the American Dream — to China

Nancy Bruni’s son, Alessandro, studies his Chinese in preparation for his trip to China. (Photo by Nancy Bruni)

Nancy Bruni, who moved to the United States from Taiwan as a child, works at a non-profit organization for arts education and lives in Brooklyn. A mother of two, she is a public education advocate, volunteer and mentor.

Has the “American Dream” gone abroad?

That is the question I asked myself after it was posed in the New York Times article, “Many U.S. Immigrant Children Seek American Dream Abroad.” From the anger of the Occupy Wall Street protesters – many of them out of work and unhappy with their station in life – it certainly seems that the American Dream is not working out for many people here.

We are an expatriate family. My husband hails from Florence, Italy, and moved here some 30 years ago. I came from Taiwan almost 40 years ago.  We raised two children in Brooklyn, and we raised them to not be bound by borders when it comes to pursuing their dreams. So many immigrants have been unafraid to travel here in search of the American Dream. We figured, why not the reverse?

My son doesn’t know it, but we have been preparing him for this since he was in the 7th grade.  We started by sending him five hours away to New Hampshire, then 10 hours away to Michigan — further and further from home. This summer, as a 15-year-old, he will travel to China to study Mandarin Chinese, as well as the country’s culture and economics, at the Beijing Normal University in Zhuhai.

Students in the the National Security Language Initiative for Youth show off their work. (Photo courtesy of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth)

He’s going with the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, all expenses paid and sponsored by the United States government. Our government has the right idea. For years, families from around the world have sent their children here to go to college or work, and then bring American wealth and ideals back to their home countries. In this ever-growing global economy, families here in the United States must prepare our children to go away, then come back to contribute what they have learned.

Jobs and industries have been on the move for years worldwide. Let’s take the Chinese in Italy, for example.  Italy has long been considered the center of the haute fashion industry, and we pay big money for the “Made in Italy” label. In recent years, the label remains the same, but perhaps it should read “Made in Italy, by the Chinese.” Chinese factory owners and workers have settled quietly in Prato, slowly learning Italian, and taking what was once the pride of Italian industry and making it Chinese. What the Chinese have done, in short, is make their dreams come true in another part of the world — much to the chagrin of the Italians.

This is the reality that many Occupy Wall Street protesters are facing: an outsourced and changing job market, and here in America, a lack of training and educational preparedness. If I had a crystal ball, I’d say that this trend will continue, and our children will face the same predicament. So what to do?

Prepare them the right way – with the understanding that learning at least one other language is a way to make our children marketable and competitive. Unfortunately, foreign language learning is an area that America is at its weakest. In New York City’s public education curriculum, language classes are not required until high school, from age 14 up, and only for an average of two years — a period that is too short to learn any language in-depth.

There is also great resistance from students themselves.  How many times have I heard from kids, “Oh, learning a language is way too hard?”

On this front, other nations are passing us by. According to the Asia Society, 21 of the top 25 industrialized countries begin the study of world languages in elementary school. And 21 of the 31 European countries require students to study another language for at least nine years.

Students in the the National Security Language Initiative for Youth. (Photo courtesy of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth)

I will admit that my son’s study of language started late, in the 8th grade — but living in a language-rich community has its opportunities. We are now in a hurry to get his other languages learned, so he is studying Mandarin at Bard High School Early College, and picking up Arabic at our local corner store. He goes to the Yemeni-owned store to try out Arabic phrases, then off to the Shanghai restaurant, where he practices his fledgling Mandarin on unsuspecting waiters.

His NSLI-Y trip to Zhuhai, China, will help him to know Mandarin and the country more intimately. Next year, he wants to go to Jordan or Morocco to better his Arabic.  So many languages, and so many places in the world to know!

The American Dream is still alive, but its center has shifted.  For our family, America will always be our home, but for our children to realize all that was promised in the American Dream, they may have to first build their lives elsewhere.

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