(Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)
Harvard-Westlake High School

Cafeteria staff members pursue the American Dream

When Harvard-Westlake cafeteria staffer June thinks of home, she pictures rows of closely spaced houses, swarms of motorcycles and sheets of humid air pressing against her skin.

Most of all, June, said she thinks of her mother and her sister, who manage a small, family-owned advertising business in Bangkok, Thailand. June is identified by her first name only due to safety and privacy concerns.

“I miss my family and my mom the most,” June said. “[They are] still in Thailand and [have] never been to the United States because it’s hard to get a visa.”

When June immigrated to the U.S. alone at 27 years old, she was struck by her newfound sense of independence and isolation, she said. In order to cope with her separation from her family, June immersed herself in the large Thai community in Los Angeles, which has a population of 27,000 people, according to the Pew Research Center.

June later found employment as a full-time waitress at a Thai restaurant in Hollywood, before Healthy Choice Catering hired her as a member of the school’s cafeteria staff. She said she prefers working at the school over the restaurant, as she feels uncomfortable engaging in small talk but still enjoys seeing the same faces each day in the cafeteria.

“I don’t talk well [in English], so [working at the school is] good for me because I don’t have to talk a lot,” June said. “I didn’t like working at a restaurant as a waitress because I don’t like meeting a lot of different people.”

June said she came to the U.S. not to find employment, but to learn English at California State University, Northridge and obtain a Bachelor of Economics degree. However, once in the U.S., she was forced to become a waitress to support herself financially instead of working to fulfill her initial Dream.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Sympathizer” and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC Viet Thanh Nguyen said that, while the U.S.’s reputation as a land of increased social mobility has persisted, the idea of the American Dream is primarily founded on misconceptions.

In fact, according to a 2014 Global Attitudes Survey published by the Pew Research Center, 94 percent of Thai individuals interviewed believe that their children will find more opportunities for success at home, compared to four percent who say that future generations will experience more social mobility elsewhere.

“The American Dream says that everybody wants to come to the U.S. and that we have more possibility for upward mobility than any other country,” Nguyen said. “Academic studies show that some other countries, in fact, have a greater possibility for movement between classes than we do. But the power of our mythology endures, even as economic inequality grows ever deeper and makes the Dream less possible.”

Like June, cafeteria staffer Phairot Janthep was born in Bangkok and immigrated to the U.S. at 14 years old.

In the cafeteria, a gold-rimmed plaque hangs on the wall above the salad bar, next to a pot of artificial orchids. The plaque commemorates the life of Janthep’s godfather, Thiak Lor, who encouraged Janthep to come to the U.S. after he immigrated in 1955.

Lor hired a Thai-speaking tutor to teach Janthep and several other immigrant students how to speak English in an effort to provide his godson with thorough high school education, Janthep said.

“I came to America for more education because in order to have a good education in Thailand, you have to have a lot of money and go to an international school,” Janthep said. “[In America], there’s more education for everyone.”

Growing up, Janthep said he lived with Lor in America and flew back to Thailand every summer to visit his mother in her open-front sewing shop near Phuket. During the school year, Janthep accompanied Lor to the Wolverine cafeteria after class but only started working full-time after his godfather died in 2008.

Although Janthep spent most of his adolescence in America, he said he still faced discrimination due to his Chinese-Thai descent.

“When I came [to America], I couldn’t speak English at all, so people tried to make fun of me,” Janthep said. “I could read a little bit, but I couldn’t pronounce the words right. [My peers] were not mean, though; they were kids, and kids are just kids.”

June said she also felt unwelcome in America, as some individuals have openly dismissed her due to her accent.

“I felt bad sometimes because I don’t fully know English,” June said. “Some people don’t listen to me [because of my accent]. When I went to a meeting for my son at school and asked something from the officer, they said, ‘I don’t understand you,’ and they left.”

The subject of immigration has deeply divided the United States, splitting the country up along party lines and resulting in the spread of extremism and xenophobia against minorities.

“[The current administration] has separated families at the border, thrown children into camps and lost track of separated children,” Nguyen said. “Its ambition is to roll back immigration policy before the 1965 Immigration Act, which sought to correct nearly a century of racist immigration policy beginning with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and culminating with the 1924 Immigration Act that closed immigration to almost all non-white people.”

Junior Samantha McLoughlin said she believes that opposition to immigration is based on the deeply entrenched racial hierarchy in the U.S. and the fear that immigrants are taking jobs from American-born citizens.

In order to combat xenophobia and encourage immigration into the United States, McLoughlin said the government should lessen the severity of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, which call for an increase in ICE agents and non-citizen deportations.

“Although such desire for harsh regulations on immigration is often simply a desire to protect one’s family, lifestyle and country, I think that arguments against increased immigration often suffer from implicit xenophobia and racism,” McLoughlin said. “Personally, I think that quotas should be increased, the process for applying for citizenship should be shortened and less rigorous and deportations of undocumented immigrations should be massively decreased.”

Despite the U.S.’s reputation as a haven for immigrants, junior Sarah Rivera, a child of two immigrants, said the American Dream is drifting out of reach for refugees and people of color.

“Immigration is crucial not only socially to enrich cultures but also to keep healthy economies and international relations,” Rivera said. “However, I don’t think the American Dream exists anymore just because the world has become too convoluted, and at this point, it’s more of a distant vision that under the right lucky circumstances can become a reality.”

In a political climate that questions the value of immigrants and their contributions to society, June said she holds onto her memories of her homeland as a means of comfort. Despite living in America for over a decade, both Janthep and June said they identify themselves as Thai.

“My godfather wanted to fulfill the American Dream,” Janthep said. “A lot of Asians want to come to the United States to have a good life, and [my godfather] wanted me to have a good future. But I miss Thailand; it’s my hometown. I am proud to be Thai.”

*Last name held upon request