Rethinking American Exceptionalism

Rethinking American Exceptionalism

This piece is inspired by a conversation that I had with a friend of mine regarding our work permit status as international students, the effect of the 2020 H-1B ban, and what the future holds for us in the US. As I was writing this piece, ICE made a decision to deport any international students that are not taking at least one in-person class in the fall semester despite the US situation with COVID-19. Fortunately, the decision has since been reverted, partly thanks to a collection of universities that sued the Trump administration in federal court. As for the 2020 H-1B visa temporary ban — unfortunately, it did not receive the same amount of attention.

I have seen posts on LinkedIn and stories from my friends about how this decision greatly impacts their life and career trajectory for the next couple of years. When I see people post their stories on LinkedIn on how the H-1B ban affected them while simultaneously seeking help to find their next employment, it genuinely bothers me to a certain degree. This is not because I’m imagining myself to be in their position (I’m only a year or two into my career), but it’s because these people spent years dedicating their professional and personal lives to the United States, and within a flip of a switch, their entire livelihoods are turned upside down.

Branding 101

I’m sure that all of us have seen that clip of Jeff Daniels from the Newsroom at some point. It went viral eight years ago on Youtube for criticizing the United States’ status as the “best country in the world”. In 2020, a clip from this fake TV show feels more relevant than ever. The US has one of the worst responses to COVID-19 when it clearly had a headstart compared to certain countries in terms of time and information. Politics aside, there was a clear lack of unity, preparedness, and thoughtful discussions surrounding COVID-19 within the US back in March. To make matters worse, the lockdown and its economic impact emphasized the nation’s income inequality that has been growing rapidly since 2008, causing frustration amongst the people and creating potential civil unrest derived from the lack of equal opportunity. When one thinks it can no longer get any worse, the current administration is actively tweaking (or at least it feels like so) US immigration policies surrounding foreign talents which have clearly started to deter educated immigrants from picking the US as their “land of opportunity” despite the dream that it once offered.

The United States is one of the greatest “brand” in the world. Pay close attention to the word brand. A brand can be described as an accumulation of actions and policies which an entity portrays externally with the hopes of gaining relevance, status, and awareness from the people. The main goal of having a strong brand is to instill your entity’s presence in people’s minds, while simultaneously sharing your vision. When we think of Nike, there’s a subconscious bias that the company offers a superior product line, enabling us to perform our workouts better when using their gears. When we think of Coca Cola, we think that it’s always better than Pepsi despite the majority of people not being able to taste the difference.

It Comes From a Good Place

Through Holywood and its role as the world’s superpower in the last century, the United States has been actively branding itself as a place for dreamers, for people that seek opportunity, and for those who want a better life. Stories surrounding the American dream is often conveyed through movies and other forms of entertainment, slowly influencing the mindset of the entire world.

Ironically, this “branding strategy” actually came from a good place. The US was indeed all of the above. It was the place for immigrants and for people who could not lead comfortable lives in their own country due to various economic and geopolitical reasons to settle and start anew. However, this very same notion that built the US is currently being attacked, and the US branding now feels like a direct-to-consumer company on Instagram that sells overpriced mediocre products through false promises and beautification filters. So there’s that — externally, the US is deterring foreign talents; internally it’s facing income inequality and the lack of unity.

The world is constantly shifting, and if there’s one thing that we can learn from history, it shows us that there will never be a permanent superpower in the world. All the greats from the Roman Empire to the Mongols had at one point in history, got defeated by others, or caused their own demise. Similar to the circle of life itself.

There are many arguments that can be proposed on whether or not this same cycle is happening right in front of our eyes. One can assess the military, economic, and technological might of various countries and come up with an argument that the US is still the only sole global superpower. One thing that’s clear, however, is that opportunity itself has been disrupted and distributed, meaning that you won’t get the same leverage and value by staying in the US compared to the previous generations of immigrants.

Are you going to stay?

As an international student who’s currently working in the US, I often get this question from friends, families, and even colleagues. If you ask me this question back in high school when I was preparing for my SAT, I would’ve said that I absolutely want to stay in the US long-term. Fast forward two years — if you ask me this question in college, I would’ve said that I consider the US as my second home but I’m not fully certain that staying long-term is what I really want. In 2020, I still consider the US as my second home. I completely adore the diverse culture, vibrant intellectuals, and massive opportunities that the US provides despite the recent negativities. I want to have a staying power in the form of a permanent residency or even citizenship.

However, when I’m offered a better opportunity, I won’t consider “not being in the US” as a determining factor in my decision-making process.

Wait. What?

You read that right. I will not force myself to stay within the US and face the arduous immigration process if things don’t go right for me. The tremendous difficulty, challenge, and uncertainty that I’ll consistently face is not the most attractive option when presented with a better opportunity because of how the world has changed in the past few decades. Opportunities in other developed and emerging countries are rising rapidly, making the benefit of being in the US no longer the same compared to fifty years ago.

After all, would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?

What I want to underline is that working towards staying in the US long-term from within through various work permits and visas might not be the only viable option anymore, especially if you need to sacrifice your twenties and live in a constant state of uncertainty. Capitalism is so entrenched in our world that almost any country’s passport is an investment away. If you can become successful financially wherever you’re in the world, you will eventually be able to have the option to seek permanent residency or even travel in and out of any country in the world through various investment-related visas (including the US).

Alas, if there’s one thing that I hope my fellow international students can learn from this piece, is to never dismiss the thoughts of seeking a better opportunity abroad.

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