on American Dream

A story that celebrates the ways in which you’ve failed at the American Dream

Taeyoon Choi
4 min readJan 21, 2022

I recently contributed to Deem Journal Issue 3. My article Other Networks is available online. Deem is a ‘biannual print journal and online platform focused on design as social practice’. I’ve been very much enjoying the articles and the lush visual elements. In the journal, Mia Birdsong’s Freedom Workbook asks the readers to write a story ‘celebrates the ways in which you’ve failed at the American Dream.’

This prompt was a blow to my guts. It challenged me to reflect on myself in ways that I feel vulnerable. Since moving back to South Korea in 2020, I’ve been feeling a sense of failure in my American Dream.

In the spirit of learning from the grief, to reclaim the word ‘Failure’ as a moment of reckoning to opening up, instead of permanent closure, I ask myself the difficult questions regarding my time in America, first as a foreign student and then as an immigrant, and now as an ex-pat.

The concept of the American Dream, similar to Manifest Destiny, is tied to the deeply problematic history of colonization, displacement of the indigenous and first nations, labor exploitation which continue today. The American Dream is historically categorized under pillars of Democracy, Liberty, Opportunity, Equality, with the bespoke promises of social mobility, material prosperity, and consumerism. The new American Dream, for some young people including myself, looks different. Democracy may have been replaced by ‘Diversity’, Liberty may have been replaced by ‘Free’ as in Free Market, Opportunity may have been replaced by ‘Inclusion’, Equality may have been replaced by ‘Equity’. The new American Dream centers on ‘Representation’ and ‘Social Justice’ while maintaining the preconditions of the American Dream in the past.

I struggled with my identity and ethics while living in America. In reflection,

I succeeded to

  • find my voice as an artist
  • make authentic friends who come from diverse backgrounds, become an active member of a few creative and intellectual communities
  • climb up the professional ladder to the point of having some power and recognition
  • speak up against racism, sexism, ableism in personal and professional settings
  • uplift others, students and colleagues, to further their career in America

I failed to

  • build material wealth
  • root in America, feel protected and grounded, truly immigrate and integrate
  • protect me and my loved ones from racist slurs and attacks in the streets, stores, and public spaces.
  • bring structural changes to the racism, sexism, and ableism in my professional spaces and community
  • find true freedom

Perhaps these failures are shared experiences of first-generation immigrants and foreign students. To learn from my failures, I thought about what advice I would give to other people who are moving to the states, as foreign students or immigrants for them to have an easier time.

1. Build the legal, financial, emotional support network for yourself, locally and globally. The support network includes people and services that you can turn to at a moment’s notice. Such as lawyers, CPAs, movers, handymen, local politicians, religious or spiritual community, creative practitioners, community leaders, neighbors, therapists, and primary care physicians. Do not think you can survive and thrive in a new place alone, or just with your partner. or just with people of the same ethnicity. Your support network will bring so much more than practical help. They will also be your source of joy, connection, friendship, and a shared purpose.

2. Understand your rights, and ask for your rights. You may not understand the legal systems and customs in the new country. Foreigners and immigrants often give up their rights because they do not know what they are entitled to. Understanding your rights as a person, foreigner, employee, student, tenant, community member, will help you when you really need help.

3. Do not be surprised by other people’s perceptions of you, your identity, your face, your culture, and your food. Many people, especially in segregated places, hold a prejudice about foreigners and their culture. Give them a second chance to learn and appreciate you. If they insist on criticizing and ridiculing you, protect yourself from their harmful comments and actions.

4. Build material wealth, resources, credit, and savings. It’s important to build financial stability to live in America, and anywhere else. If you need to make a decision between ethical principles and lucrative profits, do follow your morals. If you face short-term, negative consequences for following your ethical principles, understand you may be getting a more meaningful return from your decisions. Take the time to devise strategies for long-term survival with your ethical principles.

5. Think about the generation after you. You may be alone, or just with your partner in America now. Think about how your future children, community members, others who look up to you, can benefit from your experience as a recent immigrant. At some point, you may want or be forced to, choose between returning to your home country, or continuing to live in America. Regardless of your decision and action, your time as a new immigrant can build the road for the future generation.

I dream about returning to America. I miss my friends, community, and what may be possible only there.




Taeyoon Choi

immigrant. art. tech. learning. accessibility. inclusion. Co-founder @sfpc. fellow @datasociety. artist http://taeyoonchoi.com