I met a young fisherman named Manuel in Costa Rica a few summers ago. I use the term “fisherman” lightly because his only real purpose was to help the captain navigate, rig the lines, and fetch cold beer from the ice chest. I caught the fish. I was the fisherman. He was mostly a glorified manservant.
While drinking beer in the afternoon doldrums, he asked me a question I was not quite prepared for. He asked, “What is the American Dream?”
“Fucking awesome.” I replied without hesitation. He looked at me blankly, as only an ignorant foreigner could. I realized that he knew nothing of my alma mater, and I didn’t even know where to begin his education on the subject. I chugged the last of my beer and jiggled the empty bottle in the air.
He stood up and took the bottle from my hand. When he returned from the ice chest with a cold one, I took a deep breath and paused for a moment before speaking.
“The American Dream is impossible to describe, really. It’s the greatest metaphor on Earth. It’s like drinking single malt bourbon while riding a giant red, white, and blue eagle. Not the bird. The F-15. At mach 2. While getting a blowjob.”
He remained silent, clearly not grasping the awesomeness of what I had just described.
“I don’t like bourbon,” he replied.
“No, I don’t expect you would. Your culture is still primitive. Only the upper echelons of society develop an appreciation for bourbon.”
I knew he didn’t know what the word echelon meant. Perhaps I used it on purpose for that very reason. Nothing makes you feel superior to someone in a foreign country more than refusing to acknowledge the language barrier. Fuck him for not knowing English.
I tried again.
“The American Dream is like catching the game winning football in overtime in the Super Bowl, and then running a train on every single cheerleader and her mom, and her sister too, if she’s hot.”
His eyes lit up with a faint glimmer of recognition as he spoke, “Si, futbol. Like the World Cup.”
“No, that’s soccer. Soccer is the Dane Cook of sports. That’s not football. That’s foosball. Repeat after me. Foosball.”
“Foosball,” he parroted in a heavy accent.
This was going to be more difficult than I thought. His English was garbage and my Spanish was indifferent. I felt like I was trying to teach a gorilla the advanced principles of calculus in sign language, and all he was doing was masturbating with poop.
I didn’t have the patience for this shit. In order to communicate his own inferiority to him, I’d have to speak in terms he could relate to. I was done trying to find common ground. He probably wouldn’t understand me, but then again, I’m American. I don’t give a fuck.
“Who owns this boat?” I asked.
“El jefe. The boss,” he replied.
“Why don’t you own your own boat?” I asked.
“Too much work,” he replied. “Too much money. He pay for gas, he pay if break. I like drive and fish. Easy for me.”
“That’s the difference between your dream and my dream,” I said. “You’d rather be a wage slave. I’d rather be an owner.”
“More work?” he responded. “No gracias.”
“More responsibility, not necessarily more work. The world is an ocean of opportunity, and America is the biggest fishing boat on the seven seas. In America you can catch all the fish you want without ever having to touch a reel.”
Finally he was starting to understand. Even though “K” was not the kind of response I was hoping for, at least it showed that he was following along.
“The American Dream isn’t about working hard and making money. The American Dream is about working hard and building something for yourself, something bigger than yourself.”
“Like…a house?” he asked.
“Sure, if you want to be poor you can build houses, but the American Dream is about owning the company that hires smart people to design the houses and then pays poor people to build them. Do you understand?”
There’s no way he could possibly understand. He came from a long line of uneducated fishermen who squandered their money on pussy and booze. Any extra cash that didn’t go towards food and rent, he spent on hookers. You can’t really blame him for that, though. He’s only human.
“There’s no limit to what you can build in America. You can build a website, create a company, write books, make music, design video games, or direct porn. You can build an idea, a movement, a fan base…anything you set your mind to. The American Dream is about being in control of your creations, whatever they may be. The things that you build ultimately serve to free you from the burden of work. You can pay others to do the dirty work of manifesting your dreams. You can free your time to do more of what you actually want to do. That’s the American Dream, and that’s why America is so awesome.”
We both stared out at the horizon in the wake of El Jefe’s massive boat. I couldn’t tell if he was deep in thought or if he hadn’t understood a word of what I said. The silence would have been awkward either way. After a moment of self-reflection, he turned to me.
“If America is so great, then why you come here?” he curiously asked.
“Because it’s fucking cheap, Manuel. Now get me another beer.”