Buddha seems to be pleased today. His plastic tummy holds a small sand trap where the Vietnamese women who work at the nail salon put their offerings daily. By the number of incense stick nubs, I could only guess that these women were dedicated to their prayers.
Every two weeks or so I visit this haven to indulge in a manicure and a pedicure. My favorite nail technician possesses classic Asian beauty and a demure personality. She is one of the hardest working people I know. Petite and jean-clad, today she has her sleek black hair pinned up. She wears delicate jewelry; a simple diamond at her throat and small silver hoops in her ears. She works six days a week, nine or 10 hours a day, for tips. Two of the three meals a day are eaten in the small office in the back of the shop.
As she works on my hands, I notice a government-issued civics primer on her workstation. When I question her, she quietly explains that her citizenship interview is in a few days. She is very nervous. She has studied hard and she really kept up with the presidential campaign and results. She must pass this interview if she is to become a citizen and vote as one.
Next to me is a meticulously dressed woman, slightly older than middle-aged. Her slim jeans and designer blouse attest to her taste. The layers in her brunet hair are perfect — like the frosting on a beautiful wedding cake. Her makeup comes from the expensive department store counters and complements her blue eyes.
Overhearing my conversation, she laughingly comments that most Americans probably could not pass the same citizenship interview. My technician smiles meekly and mentions that on the Tonight Show, Jay Leno interviews Americans who think that Cuba is in Africa and who can't name the vice president.
The woman chats for a moment or two about how busy she is running her business. She asks if we would like to see her new diamond and emerald ring. The thing covers two knuckles and must have cost a fortune. In deference to good manners, I admit that it is beautiful. All of the Vietnamese girls in the shop take a moment to come over and admire it. Perhaps they are wondering if they will ever be able to afford such a thing.
The woman and her husband are going to Costa Rica and then to the Caribbean for vacation. Before I can congratulate her, she turns her attention back to her own nails and begins to chat with whoever is listening about an upcoming party.
I pause to wonder if she knows who the vice president is. I wonder if she has registered to vote, or if she could pass the citizenship test. Then I dare to wonder if I could pass it myself. I happily console myself with the knowledge that I know who the vice president is, and I can definitely point out Cuba on the map.
I suddenly realize that these two women are not the polar opposites they appear to be on the surface. They have something in common. They are both pursuing the American dream.
My Vietnamese friend echoes the early immigrants to America. Perhaps she dreams of a house of her own. Maybe she can bring her mother and sister here from Vietnam.
The other woman has built a successful business. She enjoys the benefits of profit and sees the American dream through the eyes of the great American entrepreneurs. My parents had the 1950s dream of a large house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and 2.5 children.
I realize that the new American dream is no longer a shared vision. It is individual.
America has chosen her new leader from two men who seemed vastly different on the surface. At heart, though, I must believe that each man held to his own version of what America's new dream should be. Neither was wrong, they were just different.
As I leave the shop, I glance at the plastic Buddha and silently ask him to grant my friend the confidence and wisdom to pass her test and achieve her dream. Then I ask the same for our president-elect. Two new dreams are born.
Libby Oberg, a U.S. Navy veteran, is a government contractor who lives in Oldsmar.