“I SPENT a year in a refugee camp yet somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage,” said an emotional Ke Quy Huan as he accepted his Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Everything Everywhere All At Once. “They say stories like this only happen in the movies. I cannot believe this is happening to me. This is the American dream.”
Traditional and social media loved Huan’s speech for two reasons: the former Goonies star made a comeback after a long absence from the screen and two, he gave the “perfect” speech on a stage which has been too often used to “air grievances about our country, culture” one movie critic wrote.
Huan was eight when he came to the US via Hong Kong after fleeing his home country Vietnam. Last month, the Biden administration said it would limit asylum to migrants who pass through a third nation. It echoes a similar effort by the Trump administration which was blocked in court. It is unlikely to deter the thousands who will risk their lives to escape conflict, abuse, and economic crises to reach US shores in search of the American dream.
We know that not everyone has equal opportunities to move up in life. Millennials in the US may be the first generation to be poorer than their parents. Capitalism has benefited the wealthy but has done squat to figure out how to redistribute wealth — and yet the dream thrives.
What unites the escapees is an anger at injustice.
Who benefits from this dream? Certainly CEOs have long been living the dream while innumerable people can’t make ends meet or afford healthcare. Those who tried to challenge the inequalities wrought by the capitalist structures, like Senator Bernie Sanders, were rejected by voters. In fact, after Huan’s win, Sanders tweeted a grim reminder: “Just a few years ago, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, he lost his healthcare because he was not working. Yes, we must end the employer-based, for-profit healthcare system and finally guarantee healthcare as a right to all.”
All this talk of the American dream led me to question what the Pakistani dream is. I believe that dream is to get out of the country.
At least 800,000 Pakistanis emigrated in 2022 when inflation was at 24.5 per cent, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. Last month, they reported inflation was 31pc and decision-makers seem unable to manage anything so of course more people will want to leave. For security — physical, financial, emotional and mental.
In 2000, the BBC cited a survey by Gallup Pakistan which found that two-thirds of Pakistan’s adult population wanted to go abroad to work and did not want to return. In 1984, a similar survey said only 17pc wanted to move abroad.
In 2001, I wrote a piece for Dawn’s Sunday magazine ‘Why I came back’, a rejoinder of sorts to an earlier piece about why someone wanted to leave. I don’t identify as that hopeful person anymore, and I don’t harbour regrets, but I feel resigned. When students write to ask me how they can get out, I don’t sell hope anymore. (Sidebar: I’m always going to advocate for careers in the news media but I add more caveats because I still believe independent journalism can hold the powerful to account.)
I watch videos of young overseas Pakistanis screaming in rage about their leader being their red line and I marvel at their love for a land they haven’t been to. Are they fighting to ‘save’ a nation that forced their parents to leave, or do they feel they can’t realise their own ‘passport-holding country’ dream and want to live in Pakistan because they feel they belong here? Everyone seems to be escaping to somewhere but what unites the escapees is an anger at injustice, even if the source of injustice is wildly different.
What can folks do to redirect their anger at the gross inequality and lack of opportunity brought about by the architects of dreams?
So many Pakistanis brought into the dreams promised by leaders — civilian, military, a hotchpotch of the two — about a progressive country, free of ethnic or religious hate, where access to social services and justice was possible. No one has delivered on their promises but they have all become wealthier.
Dreams seem less about opportunity than about acquiring material things. Governments support homeowners but absolve themselves of providing homes for the poor. If the pursuit of happiness is driven by greed, it will lead to collapse as witnessed in the 1920s. Whichever leadership emerges next in Pakistan, it must make promises based on equality and accord opportunities to all. To do anything else will plunge people into a worse nightmare.
The writer researches newsroom culture in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2023