Ambition, Part Two.
Several of the contributors to Double Bind: Women and Ambition, edited by Robin Romm, (see previous post, Ambition, Part One), were also immigrants or the children of immigrants. For them, this adds another layer of expectations regarding the “proper” scope of ambition. In “Doubly Denied,” Christina Henriquez writes:
To be an immigrant, after all, to uproot your life, to walk away from everything you have known with the goal of going somewhere new and with the hope of finding something better is to be, necessarily, ambitious.
At the same time I was reading Double Bind, I saw a play by Jason Kim, The Model American, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. I came away not liking the play, but a friend pointed out that I spent a half hour talking about it, so while I still think it had flaws as a play, it was certainly thought provoking. The playwright said he wanted to write about the gay immigrant experience, but I did not think that was integral to the play. The main character was gay, but it was clear he would have betrayed a lover of any gender. His ambition leads him to abandon his lover, betray the man who gave him his first job even though he lied on his application, and destroy a fellow immigrant. Early in the play, while they are both residents at a shelter, he shares with that immigrant that he will never be content to be an assistant, or even the boss at his company. He wants to be the CEO of Coca Cola, the most American company he knows. It becomes apparent that anyone who gets in his way, or doesn’t further that goal, is expendable.
The man who founded a company to sell handmade items from developing countries while bettering the lives of artisans and their communities must be pushed aside when he refuses to expand at the expense of his ideals. The relationship with a lover who gave him a place to live and expensive meals in addition to his devotion, is, like his job, founded on lies and must be forsaken. The immigrant he met in the shelter returns to Korea. He cannot tolerate the lack of respect and being relegated to menial work. The American dream is a sham for him. But when he returns, and asks his by now successful friend for a job, his friend offers him a janitor’s position because he will never fit into the corporate culture. Later we learn that the Korean has died operating heavy machinery.
In the final scene, each immigrant at a naturalization ceremony says something inspiring about his or her goals and accomplishments, but the protagonist can only weep. He has clearly crossed the line from ambition to greed, but to what degree is this simply becoming a “Model American?”