Dear America

Dear America,

To my Ahgong, you were a refuge. Not a shining light that called him but an escape from monotonous darkness. He didn’t come to arrive, he came to go, and yet somehow that didn’t matter. You still offered him so much: towering schools, lush libraries, and opportunities shining with crystals of light. You accepted him, based not on his past but on his future, a future that shined almost as bright as you.

To my Baba, you were an opponent. You represented everything she wanted and everything she thought she couldn’t have. To her you shined like a star, with a light so stunning and so far out of reach. She could never appreciate your quintessential beauty, only see how hers was lacking. Every night she looked in the mirror and rubbed the dark circles out of her eyes, not bothering to look beyond the surface and see the strong, capable woman inside. Instead she would glare at the mirror, at you, and blame the iridescent glass for beating her in a battle she could never win.

To me, well, it’s complicated. You’ve meant a lot of things. You used to be a beacon of brightness on lonely nights, something I could look to as I lay in bed with all the other lights turned out. You were a cornucopia of opportunities—lush, ripe, and waiting for me to come and pick as I chose. You provided a dream life for all Americans, and a dream for everyone else. You were the country that welcomed my Ahgong, the light that sparked a fierce loyalty in his eyes. I used to look at you with that same light.

But now it’s a bit different. I’m starting to see beyond the light of your skyscrapers. I see the shadows behind them, where immigrants like my grandparents are being tossed out of work even though the calluses on their hands are etched representations of their hardest labor. I see the windows that adorn each floor, and how they are being washed by people getting $7 an hour, people risking their lives polishing a building inside of which they will never be allowed. I see the walls that were planned by men, built by men, and after all these years still owned by men. I see society built on calculated standards of beauty, and I start to see why my Baba despised her mirror. More and more I’m losing sight of the brilliant fire my grandfather saw.

Sometimes I lie awake at night, my thoughts melding with darkness. I don’t have your comforting light any longer, but there are nights I like to think I don’t need it anymore. There are other nights I know I still do. And it’s those nights I know other people still need it too. It’s on those nights that I’ve come to realize that embers still have hearts of fire. They are small but can provide a glow. So in the middle of all these shadows, America, you still have a chance. You just need to look out your windows, open your doors, and let your light illuminate what you’ve forgotten how to see. Then you will realize you can still be the land that welcomed my grandfather, you can still be a brilliant fire in a darkened room.

You can still be something to me.

Don’t miss the First and Second Prize–winning “Dear America” essays from our “Tell Me a Story” High School Contest.