My God! How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy! ~Thomas Jefferson
Intellectually I know that America is no better than any other country; emotionally I know she is better than every other country. ~Sinclair Lewis
On the Saturday before Election Day I visited my hairdresser, Le, for a haircut. Le has been my hairdresser for over ten years. Le is a petite Vietnamese woman with a sharp tongue and fast hands. She’s quick and efficient, but delivers quality every time. Her chair-side manner is sharp and acerbic. If you ask for a style that she knows will not suit you, she tells you straight up, in her heavily accented English – “I no miracle worker. That cut no work for you.” She is about 4’8”, and wears eight-inch platforms. Her toes are always freshly polished, with lots of glitter. She loves to watch – and bet – on football. Occasionally she sports a strategically placed red or blond streak in her hair. But when she yells at me for being late, I cower.
She is also a savvy business woman. I became her customer many years ago when she worked in a very fancy salon, run by a man who was such a high fashion icon he was known around town by his first name only. Le left him to start her own salon. She is one of the hardest workers I know. Her business is a family affair – her brother, her children, her husband all work part time in her shop. But she is indisputably the boss. Her shop is not fancy; children’s toys might rest in a corner; golden Buddhas share shelf space with Catholic crosses.
During the economic boom of the late 1990’s she opened a second larger salon and spa in the far-out southern suburbs. She struggled for several years to juggle both locations, working 6 days a week and experimenting with various kinds of marketing approaches. When the economy went south a few years ago, she had to close the second shop.
On Saturday we got to talking about the upcoming election. I asked her if she was an American citizen – with a snort, she said, “Of course, 27 years since I took the oath”. Then I asked her how she came to America. An amazing story ensued. She fled Vietnam when she was 15, along with her 9 year old brother. She and her brother were part of the “boat people”, the over 2 million Vietnamese who fled during that time. In Vietnam in the 1980’s, the new communist government sent many people to re-education camps or new economic zones. Millions were imprisoned with no trials. Many died in camps or were tortured or abused. Many more starved, or committed suicide. Le and her brother left their parents behind, and fled to Thailand in a small boat, packed with refugees. It cost $3000 per person for them to gain passage on the boat, a fortune to their parents at the time. If they were caught they could have been tortured, imprisoned or killed.
She and her brother made it to Thailand, and eventually immigrated to California, as Le had an uncle located there. She served as the primary parent for her brother and didn’t see her parents for years. I knew Le was one tough little cookie, but I had no idea exactly how tough she was.
I am a resident of a swing state. We have been inundated with negative campaigning over the past several months. I am a Obama supporter, but I have many friends who are just as strident in their support for Romney. The vitriolic deluge of negative commentary hitting my Facebook has been both amazing and disheartening.
My conversation with Le was a powerful and refreshing checkpoint on the eve of the election. Whichever side we support, it’s easy to think this country is going off the rails. Hatred, lack of cooperation, polarization, gridlock – it all can seem so hopeless. But who among us can imagine what it would be like to risk everything – simply everything – to seek a better life in the United States of America?
Regardless of what the results of the election are tonight, take a moment to be thankful for the United States of America. Take a moment to be thankful for our imperfect, messy, sometimes even ugly and mean democracy. It’s that very imperfect democracy and our unique dream of freedom that must have called so strongly to Le, her brother, and the millions of other immigrants who chose to risk everything to seek our shores.