The novel opens with the family having achieved the economic prosperity and success associated with the “American dream.” Wealthy enough not to have to work, the woman’s life is full of traditional American signs of prosperity and class. She owns her house in the suburbs, wears white gloves, and hires a maid to clean her house. For all intents and purposes, she has achieved the American dream of a secure, middle-class lifestyle.
It quickly becomes clear, however, that the woman’s class status and wealth cannot protect her or her family from racism and internment. As soon as the U.S. government turns on its Japanese-American citizens, the woman’s wealth and perceived security all disappear. Overnight, the government freezes her bank accounts and takes away the family’s civil liberties. This sudden and staggering injustice, especially compared to the family’s previous status in America, suggests that the “American dream” might only be a fantasy for minority groups. Because they don’t have the security of being a part of the dominant white majority, Asian-Americans and other minorities can easily be turned against and demonized as “other” or not “real” Americans.
Interestingly, at the internment camp class divisions within the Japanese-American community become more blurred. Businessmen become janitors and the wealthy have no access to their money, so there is no real way to back up any elite status they might want to maintain. In this way, institutional racism paradoxically equalizes the Japanese-American community by uniting everyone under the same shared struggle. There are still exceptions to this, however: even after the woman loses her wealth, her former maid—who is also interned at the camp—continues her social role as lower-class “help” when she helps carry the woman’s bucket of water to the barracks. This small interaction suggests that class divisions do not ever fully disappear, even when a community shares a common race, ethnicity, and living situation, and is also struggling against a single mutual oppressor.
When the family returns home after the war, the woman begins anew her pursuit of the American dream. With few job opportunities for Japanese-Americans after the war, the woman takes a job as a domestic worker in order to provide for her children. Having achieved the “dream” and then having had it snatched away from her, she is forced to begin again from the bottom. The novel ultimately suggests that for people of color, the American dream is something of a mirage, or perhaps a nightmare.
Social Class and the American Dream ThemeTracker
Social Class and the American Dream Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine
She took The Gleaners out of its frame and looked at the picture one last time. She wondered why she had let it hang in the kitchen for so long. It bothered her, the way those peasants were forever bent over above that endless field of wheat. “Look up” she wanted to say to them. “Look up, look up!” The Gleaners, she decided, would have to go. She set the picture outside with the garbage.
She was ten years old and she knew what she liked. Boys and black licorice and Dorothy Lamour. Her favorite song on the radio was “Don’t Fence Me in.”
One evening as the boy’s mother was hauling a bucket of water from the washroom she ran into her former housekeeper, Mrs. Ueno. “When she saw me she grabbed the bucket right out of my hands and insisted upon carrying it home for me…I tried to tell her that she no longer worked for me. ‘Mrs. Ueno,’ I said, ‘here we’re all equal,’ but of course she wouldn’t listen. When we got back to the barracks she set the bucket down by the front door and then she bowed and hurried off into the darkness. I didn’t even get a chance to thank her.”
“I lost an earring on the train. Did I ever tell you that?”
He shook his head…
“What did it look like?”
“It looked like a pearl,” she said. “It was a pearl.”
“Maybe it rolled behind the seat.”
“Or maybe,” she said, “it’s just gone. Sometimes things disappear and there’s not getting the back. That’s just how it is…I had no business wearing those earrings in the first place,” she said after a while. “No business at all.”
Nothing’s changed, we said to ourselves. The war had been an interruption, nothing more. We would pick up our lives where we had left off and go on. We would go back to school again. We would study hard, every day, to make up for lost time. We would seek out old classmates…We would listen to their music. We would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again!