People often tell me that I have achieved the “American Dream” when they learn about my past as a refugee from Vietnam. I was born in a war-torn country. At one point in my life, I was not only homeless, but no country would allow my family to sit on the street corner as homeless people. Today, I am a skin cancer surgeon and lead a thriving medical practice.
When people talk about my American Dream, they talk as if I have completed a long race, crossed the finish line, and can finally rest after a medal has been placed around my neck. This might be a common view of the American Dream, but this is not how I see it.
The American Dream is not a destination you arrive at and are done with. It is a set of ideals you embrace and pursue through your work daily and for a lifetime. America offers more than just an opportunity to acquire a tangible reward for yourself. Being an American means to relentlessly pursue the ideals of democracy, liberty and equality. This pursuit almost always entails serving others.
Furthermore, if achieving the American Dream were a race, I certainly did not finish it on my own. I am only running one leg of a relay race that has been run by many generations of Americans before me, most recently by my father.
My father began his life in America not speaking English. His greatest professional ambition for me was that I could avoid a career of manual labor. He told me to study hard, so that I could get a white-collar job and sit in an office that’s air conditioned. Having his children work in an office was deeply personal because he spent most of his career standing on the assembly line performing manual labor.
Today, all 11 of his children have graduated from college. Together we have 22 university degrees, including five masters and six doctorates from schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, NYU, UPenn and other major universities.
When my father stood on the factory floor, he was using his hands to build a future for his children. He performed manual labor, so that I can use mine to hold the scalpel. What I do today as a surgeon has no more inherent dignity or worth than what my father did for three decades in the factory.
We find dignity and meaning by understanding how our work serves others. When we serve others, our work transcends beyond our own lifetime. My father passed away over three years ago, but everyday a part of his dream is alive when I can step into an exam room that is air conditioned.
Only in America could a manual laborer send 11 of his children to college. This is possible only because of the generations of Americans before us who served others and sacrificed dearly for the freedom of self-determination in this country.
The American Dream is an incredible testament of social mobility. However, I am nowhere near completing my journey as an American. As long as my heart is beating, I will commit to living as an American. I will vote. I will care about, live out, and protect the ideals of democracy, liberty, and equality by serving other Americans.
Each day, I proudly serve Americans as a skin cancer surgeon. My business employs roughly 100 Americans. As we grow, we will serve and employ even more. By the end of this year, we will be serving soldiers, veterans, ranchers, teachers, and our neighbors in nine offices across southern Colorado.
In the same way that my father found dignity and meaning from his work, I find mine from the people whom we serve. This is how I will continue to live my dream as an American. At some point when I can no longer do that, I will hand the baton on to the next generation.
I was once a refugee who had no home. Today, I am a proud American. I am your neighbor. I sit next to you at church. I have laid my roots deep here in Colorado and will watch my own children grow up as Americans. When I get up early in the morning, I go to work to serve other Americans. When I sleep at night, I dream American.
Vinh Chung, M.D., is a Mohs surgeon at Vanguard Skin Specialists. His memoir, “Where The Wind Leads,” is available everywhere books and ebooks are sold. He speaks widely on behalf of refugees and the vulnerable.