Class migrants

Filed under: Writing |

Much is said about people moving from one country to another, or about people of one race living among those of a different race. But not as much is said about people crossing class barriers. As someone who has lived in two classes, I can say it’s a whiplashy experience that never quite leaves you.

I remember the first time I heard that, overwhelmingly, people tend to marry people of their own social class. It was during college, in the midst of all my Pretty Woman “one day my prince will come” fantasies, and I was appalled at the notion. Did having grown up poor mean I’d always be poor, destined to only consort with the destitute?

It didn’t. But what I’d come to realize, as I moved up the economic rungs, is that social level is about a lot of real and institutional barriers, yes, but also about some internal ones. I didn’t always make great financial choices, for example. I operated from a dread that resources were scarce.

I had a deep discomfort in dealing with low-skilled tradespeople – landscapers and house cleaners, for example – because they filled me with a vast uneasiness in their proximity to the experiences I had worked so hard to leave behind. I remember my mom cleaning houses for next to nothing to make a few extra dollars for food, or sewing on her machine on the pieces of fabric she brought home from the sweatshop (my original work-from-home example). I helped cut apart the collars or pockets she’d sew in a line, one after another, at five cents a pop, because if I cut she could finish up that much faster and make me a quick dress for my Barbie dolls from the scraps. I remember her exhausted slump, even nine months pregnant with my brother. I didn’t want to see her need reflected in the eyes of the women I now paid to clean my toilets. Moving on up did not always feel clean.

So it is, I sit in my comfortable home and look at my nice things. They have not come without struggle, but it is struggle redefined, the struggle of having to do without a European vacation, not without shoes. Lack happens at every level, I’m sure. Right now there’s someone somewhere lamenting her yacht is too small. Right now there’s someone thinking she may need to turn another trick to buy formula for her baby.

This is one of the great untold secrets of the American Dream. Not that it’s false, because it’s not, but that there are other layers to it, fraught with discomfort and loneliness and the vague sense you’ve left some precious, honorable part of you behind.

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