I have been in the US for close to 5 years now and in that time, my notion of the American dream has changed by leaps and bounds.
I used to see the US as the embodiment of my knight in shining armor. A place that would help me break off the shackles that seemed to metaphorically bind me, and whisk me to a land of magic and wonder where dreams came true. I've never been in love, but my relationship with this country might just be the greatest love affair of my life, second of course to the bond I've forged with myself over that time.
Now, I look at this country with a less rosy gaze, maybe because I spent the pandemic here as a scared college, and later, grad student, or maybe because of the numerous socio-political issues and gun violence that has wreaked havoc in the time I've been here, or perhaps because of my own illusions I've had to overcome while writing my American story, and the losses that came with it.
But, in some ways, I like to think that forming a more realistic relationship with the US had only led me to deepen my bond with this country.
Because what other place, despite its ups and downs, can still never fail to pull at your heartstrings? What other place do you long for when you've traveled the world and want to come back to a safe refuge? And what other place has felt the most like home as a third-culture kid who never felt like she fit in?
All these questions always lead me to the same answer.
So without much further ado, here's the evolution of my American journey over the past 5 years:
August 5, 2018: Age 20
Caption: Me, aged 20, at the Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge, a famous landmark in Omaha, where you get to stand in two states at the same time (Nebraska and Iowa) as it connects Omaha, NE and Council Bluffs, IO.
It's my 20th birthday. And I have no interest in celebrating it. The last few years have been a blur of teenage angst, relentless pursuit of academic validation, and a constant feeling of not fitting in. I am ushering in a whole new decade of my life, and I have nothing to show for it. I tell my family I'm not celebrating my 20th birthday because I'm going through an existential crisis.
Half of my life has been spent holed up in my room, daydreaming. Most of my dreams revolve around the same thing: me in the US, with a cozy apartment of my own, with a dedicated, loyal friend group and a love story for the ages.
But here I am, still in the UAE, still depressed, with no discernible social or personal life. I haven't gone to any parties, or been on road trips, or shared heart-to-hearts over warm campfires. I haven't made any mistakes. What changes can 20 possibly bring?
There is one silver lining though. Even though I'm enrolled in college in the UAE, I get to do an exchange program in the US. And they've placed me at a college in Omaha, Nebraska. It's no New York, LA or Chicago, that's for sure. But it's still the US. And if there's any place I have a shot at making my dreams come true for now, it's here.
August 5, 2019: Age 21
Caption: Me, celebrating my 21st birthday in Belgrade, Serbia. Most of my trip there was spent texting my friends how much I miss them, and counting down the days to come back to college, since I didn't want to miss any of the gossip!
My life feels like a dream. I'm in Serbia with my family for summer break, but I'm counting down the days to go back to my happy place, my Homaha. My exchange program was a phenomenal success. I have ticked off almost everything on my bucket list, and I feel as though I've lived more life in the one year I've been away, than the past 19 years. Within the first three months of being here, I decided to transfer, so now my part-time American dream has become a full-time one.
I have been to numerous college parties, even getting to sip from those famous red solo cups I idealized after seeing them in Hollywood movies. And my sitcom fantasy is now a reality. I have found the loves of my lives in all of my friends, people I would ride or die for.
I get to celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving, and loudly sing along to Mr Brightside, and Take Me Home, Country Roads, and Sweet Carolina.
All those years of deciding not to date to focus on studying have been thrown out the window, as I happily discuss the array of boys I'm talking to with my friends, who are more than happy to give me advice. My life feels like a movie. The US is better than I could have imagined. I'm 21 and life is fun! I knew the US would solve all my problems, hallelujah, I'm cured! How could things get ever get worse?
August 5, 2020: Age 22
Caption: Me, celebrating my 22nd birthday, doing an escape room with my friends in Omaha. They planned a lovely day of surprises for me to cheer me up and celebrate my first birthday away from the family.
Turns out the one way to ruin a fairytale existence is by introducing a level of dystopia into it. It's my 22nd birthday, and "I'm not feeling 22" as Taylor Swift would put it. The pandemic has ruined everything. Well, not initially. I spent the first three months at a friend's family farmhouse in Missouri with my best friends, and that was fun. I took long walks in nature, fished, and fed baby cows, even got to roast marshmallows over campfires like I have always wanted.
And quarantining with so many people while away from my own family, taught me the value of community during these times.
But now we are back in Omaha. There have been protests on the street after the George Floyd incident, and I feel helpless. The world seems bleak and cruel. This is also the first birthday I'm celebrating away from my family, there's still discussions on whether international students should be allowed to stay in the country if classes go completely online, and I also happen to be heartbroken. Way to turn 22, eh?
But I am determined to not let this faze me. My friends have thrown me a great surprise party filled with adventures. And I'm Apps, the sunshine of this group, I always live in my Appsverse!
So what if I'm sad and all I want to do is just run away. And run away to where exactly? This is all I know. The American dream is what I have fought for. Why should I let these external events affect that? I'm just going to repress this pain, and hope it doesn't come back to bite me later.
August 5, 2021: Age 23
Caption: Me, aged 23, posing for a photojournalism class and looking forward to new beginnings in Chicago, as I embarked on a year-long master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University
I'm finally back home with my family for the summer, but they couldn't fly out for my college graduation because of pandemic restrictions. I'm all set to go to grad school at the top journalism school in the US: Northwestern University, in Chicago. And honestly, I'm ready for it.
I need a change. The last few years have transformed me, and my strategy of pretending everything was fine clearly didn't work. I'm unhappy. And I have no clue who I am. I have just graduated and I'm going to a school where the people are more likely to be older with much more experience than me. I mean I've only just begun to learn how to "adult," how am I supposed to fit in? What if post-graduation life sucks? My mood fluctuates between me excitedly talking about change to me wanting things to stay the same.
More importantly, I'm not sure who I can talk to about this. I feel like people only seem to know a version of me that I have outgrown, and every time she is brought up, I'm annoyed. She was too naive, too easily influenced, too impulsive.
In hindsight, I think I was being unfair because honestly, she was also bright, bubbly, happy, confident and creative, but 23-year-old me was hard on myself.
All of the fun "mistakes" I made in college now seemed to haunt me at every turn and I was scared I wouldn't be able to move past them. And my family hadn't seen me for a year and a half, and every time I come home, I regress to the teenager holed up in her room.
The point is, for the first time in my life, I want to be able to learn how to deal with my shit on my own, because I could now see the damage that can occur when you're overly reliant on external circumstances and what other people think of you. And there was no way in hell I was letting anyone other than me, decide what my story is.
Maybe it was time to become my own knight in shining armor, even if that was not what I had originally envisioned for me.
August 5, 2022: Age 24
Caption: Me with my classmates on a backpack journalism trip in New Orleans, a few months shy of turning 24. By far, the highlight of my year.
Chicago was incredible. In every sense of the word. In many ways, it helped me manifest the life I have always wanted.
I was lucky to find a community here as well, and I became far more confident in myself. And journalism school, while intense, was empowering. I got to work for publications like Education Week and The Chicago Reporter, travel to New Orleans and the Louisiana Gulf Coast to cover Native American communities, speak at panels, travel for conferences, and even go to law school for a quarter for a media law course.
I learned how to cook, and maintain my gorgeous apartment. And yes, I would still be disheartened at the news that would pour in, like the overturning of Roe v. Wade or news of yet another mass shooting. But now I could actually voice those concerns, and even report on them. It wasn't much, but it was something.
Caption: Me at the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, a day after turning 24. Not as starstruck by the landmark as when I was 21, but still happy to be there!
I celebrated my 24th birthday in New York City, which had been my dream city forever. I had visited it earlier in college when I was 21 and remembered being overcome by tears when walking along the Brooklyn Bridge. I described the feeling of being there at that time as "being sucked into my television screen."
But this time around, I felt it was warm, and cramped, and smelly and sticky and loud. I loved and still love New York, but I could now see it wasn't perfect, and it was definitely not always like the movies. It was real, and full of life. And life is messy.
It made me miss DC, the city I moved to for my internship at Education Week, and more importantly, the New York trip helped me come to an important realization: it's okay to outgrow what you once thought you wanted.
Maybe New York wasn't in the cards for now, but DC/MD could be.
Caption: Posing for an end of the year selfie at my new apartment in North Bethesda, MD.
And for now, I'm still in this chapter. Of 24. Of new beginnings. Of shedding old dreams and embracing new ones. Of being terrified of my twenties, but also being ready to take on the challenge. More importantly, if there is one thing I'm thankful for is, that I haven't yet outgrown the US. Maybe I will one day. Maybe I won't. Either way, I think I'll be okay.
I currently work as a growth and justice reporter for Bethesda Beat and Bethesda Magazine in Maryland. I have a gorgeous apartment in a beautiful neighborhood in North Bethesda, and I have made some good friends this year, cooked a ton, and I'm also getting my drivers license! Every day, I'm getting closer to the adult I've longed of becoming. There's definitely more stuff to be ticked off, and fears to work on though.
As part of my new job, I report on public safety, which means many of the stories can be grim in nature sometimes.
Whenever I talk to my family over video call about these stories, my dad says, "After hearing all this news, why do you still choose to be in this country?"
I usually just laugh the comment off, but I know the answer now. And it's not the same Hollywood/sitcom schtick, "my life is a movie" answer I would have given three years ago.
It's because the US has allowed me to grow and evolve and make mistakes and learn from them, without judgement. Much like the country itself continues to grow and evolve, and make mistakes and learn from them. And despite its flaws, I have always been welcomed and treated by Americans with friendship, kindness and respect.
The US hasn't been as much a knight in shining armor for me as it has been a friend, and a mentor that has guided me through my twenties with a steady hand and a warm heart. For everything I have lost, I have gained twice as much in wisdom, experience and meaningful connections.
And I know, whether I've been in Omaha, or Chicago, or DC, if "Take me home country roads" comes on, you best believe I'm going to sing it with all my patriotic spirit!
Because the US turned me from Apoorvaa, the girl who spent most of her time in her own head, to Apps, the girl who actually goes out and tries to make those dreams a reality. And for that, I will forever be grateful.