26.2 Miles to the Dream
My class at the elementary school that I attended in suburban Philadelphia was almost all
white except for a small group of Indian girls who all lived in an apartment complex. This friend
group of four played in the jungle gym together during recess and sat together during lunch.
Attached to their clothing, the smell of Indian curry wafted through the air when one of them
walked in the room. I always noticed immediately and cast my eyes down, away from the other
I lived in a small three bedroom house with a powerful exhaust above the stove to
neutralize the smell of Indian cooking. Apartments, on the other hand, typically do not have
exhausts. Even though my elementary school classmates did not know about this distinction, I
made sure to distance myself from this group of Indian girls so that I would not be associated
with them. Because our parents were friends, we sometimes went over to their apartments for
dinner and left our jackets in the car so that they wouldn’t catch the smell.
Slowly, the Indian girls at school moved from apartments to houses as their parents
transitioned from residency to practicing physicians and lost the distinct curry smell that
saturated their clothing. One step closer to the American Dream.
When my family moved from a three-bedroom to a five-bedroom house before my
freshman year of high school, my friend Julia, whose parents were thinking of downsizing, asked
me why we were moving. The new house was farther away from both my school and my
parents’ job, so it wasn’t for convenience sake.
I said something like, “just for more space”, suddenly worried that people would find out
that I too used to live in an apartment and then a small house before our newest one. My family
was on a different timeline than Julia’s though. The dream was never anything but reality for
them. My parents were on a decade-long marathon to catch it and were almost at the finish line.
Mile 1: moving to the U.K. because they couldn’t get U.S. visas. (The runner is excited
but nervous about the race and is feeling good overall.) Mile 4: redoing parts of their medical
training because their Indian degrees weren’t enough. (The runner questions starts to question
whether this was a good idea and why they always make things hard for themselves.) Mile 11:
moving to the U.S. with two suitcases and a child. (The runner wheezes with every breath and
wants to stop but is “in too deep”). Mile 14: taking two buses and walking for 20 minutes to get
to work each morning because they didn’t have a car. Mile 18: moving from an apartment to our
first house. Mile 20: our new house. (The runner can already imagine the feeling of crossing the
finish line and can’t feel her legs but the process is mechanical at this point anyways.)
The suburban house with the white picket fence stands for whatever you see at the top of
the mountain. Whatever you feel is worth the years of sacrifice and hard-work and loneliness and sadness and discomfort and pure terror. The white picket fence for my parents was the Ivy
League for their kids.
Even before any of us knew what the Ivy League was, the slow pressure of the dream
weighed on all of us as if there were a giant hand squeezing the air inside of our house. We all
felt the squeeze but also didn’t really know that it was there because of its constancy. The
pressure inspired my mom to work the night shift so that she could drive her kids to school in the morning and drive them to piano and basketball and Bharatanayam and tennis and Kumon in the evening before having to go to work again in the night. If she were lucky, she could get a few hours of punctuated sleep in the middle of the day. Whether they knew it or not, the squeezing hand followed my parents to private school visits, parent-teacher conferences, weekend squash
tournaments, and college tours.
And the hand followed me too. Although it was never said explicitly, I knew that the
sacrifices and time and money of my parents were investments into their dream of providing
their kids with the best opportunities that they could possibly have. Even from a young age, I
knew that I had to make sure that this investment would amount to something. I couldn’t fuck
up. And, even though my parents were more than satisfied with the Ivy League bumper sticker
that they added to the back of their cars, the dream hand followed me even after I opened the
long-awaited email welcoming me to Columbia.
The summer after my freshman year of college, a different giant hand knocked me off of the treadmill that I had been running on for the past five years of As and 2400s and trophies and awards and teacher praise. While the dream hand was stockier and omnipresent, this hand was slender and elusory, the hand of time.
One day during track practice in ninth grade, my fellow long-distance runners and I
completed a workout where we ran three miles on the treadmill but increased the speed with each mile from eight to nine to ten miles per hour. Halfway through the last mile, I heard my
teammate’s body slam into the ergs lined up behind the row of treadmills, although the whirring
of the machine continued without her. My teammate fell off the treadmill because her legs just
couldn’t take it anymore, but I was knocked off. Instead of crashing into the ergs, I was lifted
into an ethereal bubble where I floated until I was ready to walk again.
While levitating in the bubble, my legs continued to pump as if I were still running.
When I first left the treadmill, I realized that I didn’t even know that I was on it. Achieving
became like eating or sleeping or breathing. The dream hand still squeezed the bubble quietly,
but I now had the hand of time on my side.
When my legs slowed down a little bit, I first asked myself, why do I feel so
uncomfortable having so much free time? While some of my friends were doing internships in
New York City and updating their LinkedIns, I had no internship, no LinkedIn, and no purpose. I
knew that, fundamentally, this feeling was irrational. After all, wasn’t youth supposed to be
about freedom and reckless behavior like that John Mellencamp song?
A little ditty 'bout Jack & Diane
Two American kids growing up in the heart land.
Jack, he's gonna be a football star
Diane's debutante backseat of Jacky's car
My newly acquired free time allowed me to ask myself a number of questions about
mechanical processes in my life that I had never before challenged. I asked myself, what am I
getting out of being on the varsity squash team at Columbia? I had practiced for two hours every
day in high school and competed in squash tournaments up and down the East Coast in high
school and had finally achieved my goal of playing on a varsity college team. I enjoyed it but
also realized that the full-time commitment of being a varsity athlete kept me trapped on the very treadmill that I wanted to escape from, chasing the gold coins of tournament titles and rankings and MVP. I decided at this moment that I needed to leave the squash team in order to fully leave the treadmill and feel like a human being again. The dream hand loosened its grip just a little bit.
Still floating in the ether, I then asked myself, why am I pursuing a major in Computer
Science when I don’t even know if I really like it? In my college admissions essay, I wrote about
how in high school, I chose my activities based on what I thought I should be interested in rather
than what I was actually interested in and that I wanted to give myself room to explore in
college. I realized then that I was doing the very thing that I vowed against doing in my college
essay and then decided to take four classes in subjects that I was interested in other than
Computer Science in the Fall semester. My legs slowed down and the grip of the dream hand
relaxed a bit more.
By the end of the summer, my legs had slowed down enough that the time hand could put
me down on a long road so that I could begin to walk again. Although the pressure of the dream
was still present (and would always be), I have since been able to slow down my heart rate,
release the lactic acid from my muscles, and wipe the sweat from my forehead. I can now spend
30 minutes drinking a cup of coffee without feeling guilty about it and am okay with grades
below an A. So that’s progress.
In my immediate community growing up, all of my parents’ family friends were doctors
or engineers and, one-by-one, their kids followed them into these same fields. If someone in the
community did something slightly out of the ordinary like journalism or theater, they risked
being considered a fuck up. Even in the smallest things like taking a gap year or choosing a
major other than STEM or studying abroad. No one would ever say anything aloud, of course,
but in hushed tones, parents would suggest to their kids, do you really think you’ll be able to
make enough to pay for health insurance if you go into journalism? You would think that,
because our parents came to this country so that their kids would have “better opportunities”,
they would encourage their kids to go into fields that would have been nearly impossible to break into in India like public service or the arts. The mechanic path-following baffles me, but most of my peers are convinced that there is no other option. Didn’t our parents come to America so that we would have more options? Freedom of choice?
The truth is that everyone in this community was also chasing the dream, just like my
parents. The stocky hand squeezed the air around all of them and all of their kids. But if our
parents didn’t come here for us to be rockstars and actresses, why did they come here? What was so appealing about America anyways?
On January 6th, the day of the capitol insurrection, my mom said to me: Never thought
we would see this day. If we had known that it would be like this... The end of this sentence is too
hard to say. And pointless really, because all of the years of retaking exams and applying for
Visas and sleeping on apartment floors had to have all been for something, right? I’ve asked her
before, why did you decide to come to America?, and she said something vague about better
opportunities and because her sister was already here in California. I’m not sure that she really
Maybe the marathon of the American Dream (for my parents at least) was completed on a
treadmill instead of asphalt. Maybe America, for my parents, was the next mark of achievement.
So that their kids could “achieve” even more (land of the free, am I right?). In any case, I get the
feeling. And I would have done the same if I were in their shoes.
The invisible hand of the dream squeezes the air around me. But I find comfort in
knowing that cosmically, there are no expectations for people when they are born (even though
familially, that’s a different story). Every small success that we have therefore exceeds the
universe’s expectations for us. I no longer wish to run laps on the treadmill of success.
Mile 26.2: sending kids off to college, hoping that they’ll choose practical careers but
knowing that you’ve done all that you can do and the rest is in their hands. There’s no medal at
the end of this race, but my parents join me along the long path and we walk together, picking up
lavender flowers on the side of the road, stopping for coffee, slowing down and speeding up as