My American Dream

Clear skies over the earthquake site in Kahramanmaraş, Türkiye. A cloud of warm breath hovers above the NBC News reporter’s head signifying freezing cold. He maneuvers up a pile of cement rubble, paints the scene with his palms as if telling about an ancient civilization that once was. My body is confused about how to receive this scene from my motherland. This could be any other story that a valiant journalist delivers from an exotic state, Afghanistan, Syria, or Sudan. Identifying more with the reporter than the people humming in a strange dialect in the background, the audience can dial in and tap out. Not quite internalizing the suffering but concerned and sympathetic from a safe space. A nationwide agony is softened in translation. I feel a thinning of my sense of identity, of my ties to the old country.

But then the reporter extends the microphone to a young man freshly rescued from the rubble. With a subtle glance, a simple sigh exhaled in my mother tongue, an entire culture’s context floods in. Kinship strikes a chord.

I see this kid. I can read him. The adrenaline of being alive, the shock of losing his entire community, but the strangest of all, the shine in his eyes for making it onto American television. He points to a riotous pile of pancaked concrete, where the people who would be most proud of him for showing off his English — his sister, his mother, his cousins — are lost. The chord is struck.

With a whoosh abject guilt sets in. Watching this scene from my partially achieved American Dream in which I came to Hollywood, liked the smell and wanted to make it in the neighborhood, but I’m still not a Turkish version of JLo on MTV, I’m still Aslı from Istanbul, watching a Turkish kid’s crushed dreams on TV… I dissociate.

A thinning. Although not just that.

See, in the melting pot, friends check in with friends when this stuff happens. The earthquake in Türkiye, the explosion in Beirut, the revolution in Iran, the protests in Paris, the oil spill in the Philippines. You check in with college friends, international neighbors, American dreamers. And you know it’s big when you get a text “hope your family is ok,” before you hear from your family who are supposed to be sleeping in their time zone. You hold your breath and pray they are, while knowing many others aren’t, yet life in your chosen home goes on. This duality of grief and relief is built into the immigrant experience. Saved from the worst by distance, but not quite immune to vicarious trauma. Yearning for what you left behind while chasing the promises of the new land. Times like this open a gateway into someone’s world. Even if it’s barely ajar, it forms a bond. The chord resonates with not only one’s own but the people talking into the microphone of a foreign correspondent. Because you have a friend who’s originally from there and you know they’ll have feelings about it. Emotions are universal. No language is foreign. Everyone is kin.

This is the American Dream that I didn’t anticipate, but the one that I got. With thinning came an expansion of my identity toward every piece of land one could be from on this Earth. A sense of being held by and caring for people from all over the world.


The official toll of the 2023 Türkiye-Syria earthquake was 59,259. If you would like to show support, here’s a donation link for a community-rooted organization that funds ongoing education for orphans:

Image: Supplied by the author.

Asli Sonceley
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