My story of family poverty in the most expensive region of the United States
I was born in Los Angeles, but spent my elementary years in a village in a small South Asian country. Our home there, while not pallacial, was comfortable, cozy, and a short walk from my school. More importantly, our home was happy. I lived with my parents, my two older brothers, and a ratty stray dog who subsisted off our table scraps. But we were hungry: not only for food, but for opportunity. We could feel the world expanding and we wanted to be a part of it. So in 2010, we came with our cousins to Fremont, California, and our American life (take two) began.
However, we soon realized that there is a tremendous difference between the cost of living in the Silicon Valley and in a developing country whose top export is sugar cubes. Things that we once considered basics—pens, socks, menstrual pads, bread—became luxury items. I remember sticking my Science Fair presentation to a poster board using cooked rice, since we did not want to spend valuable money on frivolities like glue. Eventually, we were pushed out of Fremont, into a relatively less expensive neighboring town. But these adjustments were, and still are, trivial in comparison to the opportunity we’re surrounded with, here in California.
The main place where these adversities did take their toll was within my family. Controlled—and viciously antagonized—by our lack of money, my dad returned to an old vice, later leaving our family. My mother developed health issues which remained untreated as long as we remained uninsured. My brothers, who spent time in foster care before I was born, are still suffering the sins of that system. I work 20 hours a week; my brothers and mom, nearly 60 each. We are a close-knit family—especially now that my dad returned—and we often find a way to enjoy a movie or buy nice clothing. So none of this is to evoke pity, but rather, to illustrate the pressures of making do with fixed income in such an affluent community whose costs are only rising.
The high school in the town I live in is a very different environment than American is. Absenteeism was high, few advanced courses were offered, and the people around me seemed to struggle in many of the same ways my family did. It seemed to my family that the entire American dream was this drive to be surrounded with people who elevated us; what we see, my mother reasons, we will become. So together we made a decision that was terrifying at the time… using our cousins’ address, I enrolled at American High School.
It was simultaneously the best and the worst decision we ever made. I am so grateful for the safe environment, the multitude of courses, the motivated and motivating student body. But the fear was often overwhelming. Don’t call anybody home. No getting rides from people. Take the later bus so nobody sees where you get off. There were so many rules to remember.
After graduating, I heaved a sigh of relief at completing not only four years of high school, but four years of deception. I know that not every non-Fremont student at our school is struggling financially, just as I know that many struggling families somehow make do in Fremont. What we have in common is both a certain gnawing guilt and also an accompanying skepticism: should a city line determine our educational outcomes? And are our education outcomes so neatly tied to property taxes paid, AP courses offered, the demographics of our student body? We took this risk in return for the risk that education takes on us, this nebulous promise of a better future, of deliverance at the end of four years of work and play. And I guess we drank the Kool-Aid.
There’s a lot that I’m not sure about, even to this day. Am I a criminal? What should I have done? What should be done about the thousands of students at the school I left behind, and at dangerous and failing schools around the country? But through all these questions which will never be answered, what I am sure of is that America was my family’s land of opportunity, all those years ago. Now let’s let American be one too.