From the American Dream to British Reality: My Journey Home

When I informed my parents of my desire to move to California for university, their disappointment was palpable. They had embarked on the arduous journey from Taiwan and Malaysia to England for a new life, and now, their firstborn wished to journey even farther west to the United States. What could I say? This was my American dream, and I was determined to “make it.”

From the American Dream to British Reality: My Journey Home

I set my sights on U.S. colleges I had seen in films and immersed myself in SAT books, striving for an impressive score to navigate the admissions process. Soon enough, things began to unfold. I even skipped some of my sixth-form classes to attend interviews, which in movies were monumental moments of character development. However, it was hard to believe that the trajectory of my life was hinging on a Yale interview in a Starbucks, or that Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Columbia interviews would unfold in coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and members’ clubs. The interviews felt anticlimactic, and I purposely avoided checking the online application portal, fearing the end of my dream.

But destiny took a curious turn the year I applied to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). A mix-up in their admissions process led to candidates receiving housing emails before learning about their acceptance. When I called the hotline, the agent excitedly proclaimed, “Congratulations, welcome to UCLA.” Stunned, I hung up and harbored the news for a week before reluctantly sharing it with my parents, who eventually acquiesced to my expensive adventure.

UCLA’s campus was pristine, akin to a movie set, with every leaf promptly swept away. It was, in fact, a familiar backdrop, having featured in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Legally Blonde. Amid this picturesque setting, hip-hop dancers engaged in impromptu battles in parking lots, and the marching band rehearsed on the athletic fields.

I attempted to join a sorority, but their exclusive process of interviews, fetes, and formal receptions left me feeling out of place. Their matching cocktail dresses and off-key sorority songs didn’t align with my sense of humor, prompting me to withdraw before more songs could ensue.

From the American Dream to British Reality: My Journey Home

I did, however, find accommodation in a fraternity house during the summer months when some fraternity members returned home. The sticky, beer-stained floors were a testament to the house’s lively history, leading me to trek to the student union for a more bearable restroom experience.

Amidst all this, it became clear that everyone was tirelessly networking and branding themselves as commodities. One student even wore a suit at all times, ready for a potential job interview. Observing my peers’ relentless efforts to secure their future in the U.S., I began to mentally distance myself.

Los Angeles proved to be a complex city, filled with attractive individuals who had left their hometowns to chase dreams in Hollywood. The atmosphere felt transactional, with people constantly seeking better opportunities. In hindsight, I could have used my last summer to explore more, but instead, I ended up assisting at a friend’s restaurant, where I was berated by a customer for lukewarm soy milk.

After graduation, international students are granted a grace period of approximately three months to wrap up their affairs in the U.S. I exploited this to the fullest by scheduling my flight back to London on the second-to-last day. Upon my return, I resisted the allure of my teenage bedroom, fearing that I would wake up and dismiss the past few years as a dream. Although I missed my friends, professors, and the sunny Californian disposition, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief to be back among the irreverent and witty Britons.

From the American Dream to British Reality: My Journey Home

Before leaving the U.S., I applied to graduate schools in the UK. My mother encouraged me to accept an offer from the London School of Economics, the very institution my father had hoped to pursue his Ph.D. at before I was born and he prioritized financial stability. It was as though I was inheriting a legacy, continuing my family’s aspirations. My dreams were no longer solely American or personal.

Last year, I returned to the U.S. for a classmate’s wedding; she had found love during her Ph.D. program. It’s easy to ponder the “what ifs” had I stayed. Despite facing the realities of American life, there remains an indescribable pull. While I’m content in the UK, I’m also eagerly anticipating a short trip to the States next week. Some dreams from our teenage years are hard to shake.

Elaine Chong is a broadcast news journalist and documentary filmmaker at the BBC.

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