I'm More Disillusioned About America | Opinion

"I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free," the famous 1984 Lee Greenwood "God Bless the U.S.A." song goes. I wonder if I can sing the same tune these days.

It feels like there's a cost to being an American now, and it's affecting my sense of personal security. I'm always watching my back. I'm on high alert.

As an immigrant, I wanted to be as mainstream American as possible. I wanted to fit in. I joined sports leagues, I had my fair share of McDonald's and I cared about being a well-rounded person—more than the model minority stereotype. I officially became an American citizen before I turned 13, embracing what was opposite to my parents' Korean culture, which was all about Confucianism, staying quiet and conformity. I relished the idea of independence. I loved the First Amendment and how it protected the freedom of the press and speech.

I was grateful to be an American where both my parents and I could pursue our American dream of economic opportunity. I was glad I could have a different kind of future that didn't mean being chained to a desk or conforming to Korean social norms. I also wanted to break generational trauma, write for popular magazines and go to college in the States where I could change majors twice and take electives. I was so sure my life was going to be better than if I had gone to South Korea.

Now, I'm not so sure anymore.

"We've got it upside down. ... We lose the ability to step forward, be an example to the world, if we cannot solve these problems of disorder in our house here at home," former supreme allied commander of NATO admiral James Stavridis recently told Stephen Colbert in response to gun violence and our standing with other countries.

Hate crimes, specifically targeting Asian American and Pacific Islanders, have gone up significantly since the pandemic, and the recent Texas school shooting has unnerved me. My heart sinks whenever I come across a photo of one of the children who were senselessly killed.

A child holds an American flag
A child holds an American flag as protesters march through the streets on May 29, 2020, in St Louis, Mo. Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

I feel terrified that I or other fellow Americans might be yelled at, or shot on the street, or at a grocery store simply shopping for milk. This rising terror within our nation questions how and if America is great.

What is happening to the American way of life? Is there really no way to prevent rising levels of mass shootings, violence and hate crimes? In other countries, there is more emphasis on community over the individual. In Korean culture, such incidents would not necessarily bring up a debate or delay. The people at large would bring shame into the conversation, outcasting the criminal. I believe there would be immediate consequences. Here in the U.S., we see similar nightmares play out repeatedly with no real action taking place. Headlines say gun control legislation, despite passing in the House, will fail in the Senate.

Because my grandfather emigrated to the American territory of Guam, I was able to grow up in a tiny, 212-square mile melting pot. Race wasn't nearly as politicized, and I could ride my bike outside with no worries. Maybe we were sheltered.

Many people around the world think of the U.S. as a first-world country with all the amenities and turkey trimmings. We have jobs, literacy, life expectancy and civic participation. But what about quality of life today? America still seems so big to me, and things appear more and more out of control both in cities but also in smaller towns, as we saw in Aurora and Newtown. I can't fathom taking the subway in New York City or passing by a school or a church or a hospital. Where would we score on the Freedom House's freedom index—after the string of recent shootings, occurring even in places of worship?

For those who may say: "Go back where you come from!" This is my home country. I've spent more than half of my life in the mainland. And my fellow Americans from coast to coast are heartbroken. We need waves of change. We cannot live like this anymore. I'm hopeful politicians will be truly brave, stand up and take action for a better tomorrow, a better America.

I want to be free of this type of terror. It is my new American dream: to no longer have recurring nightmares of the dangerous reality we live in. We can't go back in time, but I hope we can move forward again with change, hope and leadership. For liberty and justice for all.

Ko Im is a 1.5-generation immigrant and award-winning storyteller. A graduate of Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania, she currently resides in Seattle.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.