By Jessica Sutter
Many foreigners grow up hearing about how America is the greatest country in the world, and that anyone can come here and achieve their dreams. For many of our ancestors, this was true, but is it different now?
Nike Takano, a good friend of mine, fashion designer and student, moved here from Japan expecting Hollywood glitz and glamor, but was greeted with a poor education system and faced with homelessness. When he told me he was making the decision to go back, I was sad and surprised. Instinctually I wanted to ask “why?”, but before the words could leave my mouth, I was met with an influx of reasons in my mind as to why he wouldn’t want to be here. Our country has several problems that need to be dealt with and it isn’t as easy to navigate as it was in the past. I sat down with him and asked what exactly he thinks is wrong with the country, how it was different from what he expected, and what factors played into his decision to leave.
Both of Nike’s parents work at a U.S. Army base in Japan, so American patriotism and propaganda wasn’t something he was unfamiliar with. When asked how Japanese people view America, he said “They love it, they control the people to like America that's why. If something happens in Japan, America always helps us, if China attacks us, we rely on America to save us. America is a big back up for us.” Nike made his first significant move at a young age when he chose to go to a high school in New Zealand. He was initially interested in Marine Biology before discovering his love of fashion. Gradually learning English and meeting new friends, Nike realized he loved the freedom of living in a country where he could be whoever he wanted to. He was introduced to drugs, partying, and a wildly different social culture that he fell in love with. When considering colleges, his advisor told him Los Angeles would be the perfect place for him to study new, innovative fashion. Nike had seen American life through the lens of movies like American Pie; filled with crazy partying, sex, drugs, alcohol, and most of all, freedom. The media frames Los Angeles as a place where anyone can become famous at the drop of a hat, so he came here expecting big things, and what he was met with was quite the opposite of what he expected.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, he stayed a few weeks in a hotel while waiting to move into his dorm at Orange Coast College (OCC). He was told when he arrived at the college that they couldn’t process his dorm request, and the only other room available was a private dorm room for $2,000 a month, which was far above his budget. A couple of weeks into his U.S. arrival, Nike was already denied the “crazy” American dorm life he had dreamed of, and was now faced with homelessness. He ended up meeting another international student without a place to stay, and they lived in his hotel together for weeks, while looking for permanent housing. They searched for affordable housing, but were unsuccessful. Nike stayed with various people that he met through dating apps or classes. During this time, he did achieve one American dream: getting his dream car, a Toyota 86. Once he got his car, it became his new home.
Even though this sounds like it would be a hard time for anyone to go through, he was still elated to be here. “At the time, I didn't really care about the money, because I was just happy to be living a crazy life. Like it's something I couldn't do in Japan, sleep in my car. It was my first dream car, so it was fun. I had a sheet folding into a tent. I subscribed to a gym and they had a shower and sauna and everything.” he explained.
Nike tried to find work, but without a valid green card, found his choices limited. Employers that did agree to hire him and pay him “under the table”, often took advantage of him, worked him long hours and sometimes didn’t pay him all his wages. He jumped between multiple jobs during his stay here, which made it hard for him to focus on his studies.
At school, he attracted many more friends with his outstanding sense of style. He was by far the best dressed in the fashion program at OCC, catching the eyes of many. People were sympathetic to his situation, so he jumped between a few different classmates' homes, including mine, where he ended up staying until he left the country. He was never completely sure where he would end up and for how long, and he felt most Americans were unreliable.
Feeling lost and stressed with work, living situations, navigating a new country, and going to school all at once, he was finally faced with the reality of what it is like to live here. All of the stress from just trying to eat and have a place to rest his head was hindering his ability to learn to his full potential. On top of that, he felt that the education system was extremely lacking compared to New Zealand or Japan. After experiencing student life in America, he said “I feel that many Americans are not well educated. I think the school system is not right. In America, everyone just goes to school and takes boring classes, but New Zealand is different. Math and English are mandatory until the second year of high school, but after that, everyone can take any classes they want, so everyone can think about what kind of career they want to pursue in the future from the time they are in high school. Therefore, those who go to college can concentrate on what they really want to do.” Because of the flexibility of this school system, Nike was able to take a fashion class and discover his passion early on, allowing him to start planning his future early. It’s easy to say Nike has many critiques on this country after experiencing the reality of what it’s like to try to survive here, yet he doesn’t regret coming here.
Even through all this hardship, he felt like it was fun to live here, but it wasn’t best for him and his goals anymore. He said, “It's fun to live here, it's like a dream; driving my car crazy, doing weed, doing drugs, but that's what I shouldn't do. I came here to become a fashion designer.” Nike realized there was too much temptation at his disposal here and he knew he needed more structure to achieve his goals.
Even with his critiques, he still says “My life has certainly changed since coming to the U.S. My life now will be less boring than other college students, but I am investing in my future.” For Nike, heading back home to where he has a place to stay and feels like he can focus, is a better idea at this point in his life. “I returned to Japan because I thought the U.S. would have a negative impact on my life,” he said. “Weed and cars can be done anytime, but I am 21 years old. I don't want to waste my life on drugs and cars. That's something I can do when I'm rich. There are priorities in this world. Right now my priorities are making money and honing my skills.”
Nike is now back home, taking Artificial Intelligence and Special FX classes at the Digital Hollywood University. Next year he plans to enter the fashion program at ESMOD International and start his own online business. He plans to come back and visit his friends here once a year, and is considering moving back here once he is done with school and has made his fortune. He emphasizes that although he does not hate the country, he knows this isn’t a country where he will be able to successfully complete his goals without the distractions and hardships of living here hindering him.
This story is a firsthand account of how growing up with American propaganda affects people’s perception and what happens when you make such a big move and find out not all of what you dreamed about was true. Many people from more strict and structured countries are drawn to America for the freedoms it allows; however, the reality of living in this free country can be much different than what it seems. Through his experience, Nike’s learned that the amount of temptation in a “free” country can easily lead to distractions and bad decisions that can lead him away from the things most important to him. It is crucial we listen to foreigners' perception and experience here, and that we see America from all different perspectives, not just our own.