The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66
Shing Yin Khor (Writer, Artist, and Colours)
August 6, 2019
In 2016, Shing Yin Khor took a road trip down Route 66, stopping at the most iconic tourist spots. The trip was to find themselves, and also to mull over the meaning of being an immigrant in USA. With Donald Trump winning the election a mere six months after Khor’s trip, their ruminations on otherness have become even more poignant.
The American Dream? is a really calming, quirky memoir. Khor shares the minutiae of their journey in such exquisite detail that the reader actually feels like they’ve gone on the trip with them. We see the stops around Route 66 through the eyes of Khor the tourist, as well as the locals they meet. I loved learning about the history of Route 66—from its creation way back in 1926 to how it slowly evolved into a highway of legend rather than a required transportation path.
Beyond the route itself, every stop is also analysed. Khor highlights the towns’ histories, all while sharing their own personal experiences of this journey and their relationship with the country as a whole.
I love that Khor has effectively created a manual on road trips and camping. They fill the book with tips and tricks that are easy to understand and pick up. I can see many people reading this book and deciding to follow in their footsteps; I certainly feel like doing just that!
We also get to meet the people Khor met—with as much, or as little, detail as Khor knew of them. The people they meet add so much colour to the journey and to the story. But not all of them were pleasant experiences.
One thing that stood out for me in Khor’s travels was how religious the people they met were. Though the Bible-thumping isn’t as extreme as I expected, Khor still comes across their fair share of evangelists trying to save their eternal soul. It’s simultaneously hilarious and chilling.
I found this section of The American Dream? particularly interesting because I saw a lot of my own struggles with religion in the book. Khor talks about going to a Catholic school and its continued influence on them thru graduation, until they realised that they were an atheist. Like me, there was no specific moment when they became an atheist—it was a gradual process. I can’t pinpoint the moment I realised either, but it’s a feeling I have had for most of my life. I love how this section spoke to me.
Khor’s ruminations on religion in The American Dream? are definitely food for thought. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for them to travel for hours and days without contact with the outside world, trapped in a small car listening to Jesus Rock. I know I would have gone quite bonkers.
I appreciate that Khor also addresses the strangeness of having grown up in a culture of multiple religions, only to move to a country where one religion is often seen as superior to others. This would have been jarring for Khor, and it is something a number of readers will identify with, as well. I certainly did.
But aside from their thoughts on religion, what really struck me about The American Dream? was Shing’s feelings about immigration. We are reading this book in 2019 and since The American Dream? takes place in 2016, the book seems patently innocent—almost naïve.
There are no ICE cages for children in this book (though they were present at the time), no presidents who have over 20 women accusing them of assault, or a chief justice who somehow managed to gain office despite serious accusations against him.
In that sense The American Dream? is almost nostalgic—a trip through simpler times when freedom of movement was something still open to non-white people. Now, things have changed, something Khor notes at the end of their book, lamenting how much more dangerous travel has become for marginalised communities.
Interestingly, though Khor does mention some racist slights during their journey, it seems like nothing they encountered ever really blows up into aggressive racism. Neither does Khor wallow in it. They move on, which is what we do in real life. In that sense, The American Dream? is very true to life. However, by highlighting these micro-aggressions, Khor definitively tells readers what to expect from the people they meet on Route 66.
As compelling as this story is, I can’t not speak about the art, which is spectacular. I love the cute illustrations that Khor incorporates in their work—most of characters look like the large-headed Funko pops. Adorable.
But there are so many more artistic elements here one wouldn’t see in a regular comic book. Khor adds roadmaps, charts, and of course, the sights and sounds of everything they encounter. The richness they add to this book is wondrous, which gives readers more of that feeling of having been on this trip with Khor.
The way Khor illustrates nature in this book is breathtaking—there were a number of double-page spreads that you can’t help but be captivated by. Khor’s watercolour style lends itself to stunning landscapes, and made me feel like I was observing a work of art in a gallery, not reading a graphic novel.
The American Dream? is a book that Khor says is selfish because they wrote it to help discover themselves. But if it helps readers find themselves as well, that kind of selfishness can’t be a bad thing. We all need ways to find ourselves, either through a road trip or by listening to our favourite music, and this book will help us figure out how to do that.
This memoir is fun in many ways, but it also questions the otherness of people who haven’t lived in the USA from time immemorial. Are those people not valid because of this? Khor quietly rails against the injustice and we join them in doing so.
If there is one takeaway from The American Dream?, it is that otherness isn’t a bad thing, and the people and countries that accept you deserve to have you. Is this an easy topic to discuss? No. But the comics medium does an excellent job of ensuring that that conversation happens and that, for once, we the marginalised get our voices heard. That may not be everyone’s idea of the American dream, but it certainly needs to be now.