Enter the dragon: My american dream and nightmare
(First of two parts)
"You can get every thing in life that you want, if you help enough, other people get what they want."
That's what my first business mentor in college said. His was a rags-to-riches immigrant story; Seattle-based real-estate developer and millionaire many times over. I was quick to let him know of my skepticism.
Later I would discover that what he meant by "every thing" didn't necessarily equate to the same "thing" for everybody. And, after 13 years of living in the United States, I would come to prove this to myself time and time again. This is my #BalikBayan story - a journey of self-discovery.
Ours is a family of humble roots. Mom's father was a street-smart self-taught barangay tanod (community watchman) who didn't even finish grade school. He fed his family by breeding hogs in their backyard, while his wife (my grandma) hand-wrapped cigarettes at the La Suerte factory in Parañaque.
My dad's father was a Cantonese entrepreneur who ventured into a fried chicken restaurant business and import-export sales in the 1950's. Unfortunately, over-work and stress ended his life and livelihood--which was on the brink of expansion--short; so, my resourceful grandma was forced to abruptly open a small hair and nail salon in Pasay. Many years passed and she married a Filipino US-Army veteran in the States. Later she'd be the reason our family would be given the privilege to immigrate to America.
Throughout my early life, I saw both my parents work very long hours. My dad, in particular, would do long stretches of working 2 or 3 jobs for many years, struggling to sustain our family of 7.
It was a very happy and love-filled childhood but it felt like money was being made hand over fist. His time with us was limited and that resulted in a lot of unfulfilled longing and empty promises.
The dream of coming to America was hard-pressed on me. It was inescapable. Seeing the smiling faces in sitcoms, movies and magazines gave me the impression that all Americans had unlimited freedom and financial resources to do anything and buy anything they wanted on a whim.
If you're like me and had relatives in the US, the anticipation of the balikbayan boxes they sent, along with the unique scent that permeated the air while unpacking them, only served to anchor and cement those hopes and sentiments even further.
In high school, amidst of finding myself, I began to look for role models. Interestingly enough Bruce Lee filled that unlikely hero role and it was he who cemented my dream of coming to America.
Learning about how he thrived and overcame discrimination in a foreign land dazzled me. I found that his endless pursuit of self-perfection was more worthwhile than the lifeless academics they were force-feeding me in high school.
When I learned that he went to the University of Washington in Seattle, close to where my grandma and uncle lived, I immediately set forth an intention that someday I would attend that very same University as well!
That opportunity came one day when dad said that we could be on our way to the United States soon because grandma's 10-year long petition had finally been approved and that all we needed to do now was go through the interview process!
You can imagine my excitement! Up to that point I was a relentless Taekwondo black-belt and the whole plan was to join De La Salle University's varsity team and fight my way to a free scholarship.
I couldn't believe how fast the process went. Our family found out on my 18th birthday in March of 2000. We had our interview in May and we were off to the "Land of Milk & Honey" by June at the turn of the new century.
Upon arriving I was full of zeal to start my new life. That summer I immediately set out to find my first job and gravitated to what felt natural to me - selling retail sporting goods. Surprisingly enough it was the first and only job that I applied for and also got accepted to.
At first, my goal was just to make enough money to buy a car and get around. I achieved that in about 4 short months.
Even so, like most newcomers, I could recall being painfully and overly polite - it was quite awkward. By default it's only natural for us Filipinos to value respect so I addressed anyone who was older than me with "Sir and Ma'am".
I was already fluent in English and had an almost perfect American accent; yet, I would get antagonistic reactions from people, especially my co-workers. I would realize later that people mistook it to mean I was condescending and patronizing towards them. Looking back I didn't experience any obvious racism at work but I was probably less favored to receive certain privileges because of how green I was.
I quickly outgrew that job and felt this deep need to start looking for different jobs so I could make more money to buy more stuff. Stuff that I thought I needed to compensate for this self-imposed and perceived lack of wealth that I experienced in the Philippines.
I became sort of like this rabid consumer who felt incomplete and unworthy if I didn't possess the latest and greatest stuff. I felt a hint of this lack while in the Philippines but in my early American life I noticed this feeling magnify. The focus was all about me.
I started trading holidays for overtime. Family relationships deteriorated and all I could think about was earning more greenbacks.
I became rebellious towards my parents and felt this unexplained resentment. My relationship with my family deteriorated and all I could focus on was hitting that next pay grade. Ditching old jobs and moving on to that next big thing - always trying to prove myself. It was a pretty empty existence.
This endured for 5 years. I was getting high off of easy credit and my spending went out of control. This produced a negative feedback loop where I became even more resentful and I only redeemed myself by diving deeper into work.
Until finally I was 23 and wanted my independence. I got a really good paying job at a telecommunications company, racked up even more hours, to match my spending habits. In the hopes of feeling fulfilled, I eventually bought my first house. "I have arrived!" I said to myself. I even bought a sports car shortly thereafter.
But you know what happened? I didn't feel any happier. On the outside it seemed as if I was living the American dream that was hammered-on in those early memories. But deep inside, I wasn't any closer to this picture-show happiness they were displaying at the sitcoms and catalogs I saw during childhood.
I started reflecting on my life before coming to the US. I had so much moxie and ambition that I started to relish the way things were before I immigrated.
Now that I've achieved all that I've set out to do, it seemed that I've been reduced to nothing more than just a mere hamster on a wheel.
Teddy Lim wears many hats and has been in sales for most of his life. Currently he works for the internet sales and marketing division of AutoNation INC. A blogger since 2010 he also uses his expertise to vlog and coach about a myriad of self-development topics. His mission is to help small-business owners and entrepreneurs increase profits by providing tools that expand their audience and influence online. Follow him on Facebook and YouTube.