It's easy to take America for granted.
Land of the free, home of the brave -- but perhaps more than that, a place of plenty even in a time of recession.
Do you really think about it that often?
Melissa Daraphet does.
She's running a successful business -- Melissa's Nail & Hair Salon in the College Green Shopping Center on Olive Avenue -- and her kids get a typically good American education.
Melissa herself works like crazy, but she enjoys her holidays, too -- especially to watch her beloved Los Angeles Lakers.
But she never, ever assumes this lifestyle came from any God-given right.
It's far too easy to recall those scary days when she was growing up in Vietnam, and Viet Cong insurgents were overrunning the country.
"A lot of people from our village (Nha Trang) were stuck there when the Communists came," Melissa says. "Some of them, we don't know what happened to them. I was 9 years old in 1979, when my father told us all that we had to leave. It all happened very fast."
Melissa, who was born Cuc Thi Nguyen, does remember that she was very, very lucky.
"Nha Trang is on the sea, and my father was a fisherman," she says. "He owned a boat, so we had a chance to get away."
Melissa's father quietly herded her 10 brothers and sisters, along with as many relatives as possible, onto his fishing vessel one night and made a dash toward the open sea.
"There were 75 of us on the boat, and it was very scary," she says. "The guards at the shore were paid to let us get away. They had to make it seem like they were trying to stop us, though, so they had to shoot toward the boat."
Melissa and the other children hung on for dear life -- a thousand miles across choppy, battering waves to the Philippines.
And in fact, Melissa believes that trip and a yearlong confinement in a Philippine refugee camp made life easier when the family eventually was allowed into America, where they had relatives.
"You learn to adapt," she says. "There's no choice. I learned to speak English from watching American shows. And then when we finally were sent to Merced, I was pretty good at basketball because I was rougher than a lot of other girls."
Even seeing Melissa now -- barely bigger than a drop of water -- it's hard to imagine her banging her way around in a game of hoops, much less as a wee thing on that rocking boat in the dead of night.
"I'm glad it happened to me that way," she says, "because for us, America was just a dream, and we never knew for sure that we'd ever make it."
Melissa is determined that her own children -- though they have more toys and games than she did -- never assume that things will be handed to them.
"I want them to know they're fortunate," she says, "and that they have to work hard to earn all these opportunities. Sure, I want them to have some things that I didn't, but not just by sitting around doing nothing. To me, America is still a dream."
Anyone who shrugs off that idea might want to drop by for a haircut or a manicure.
Melissa will be happy to get your head back on your shoulders -- and not just with her clipping shears.
Steve Cameron is a columnist for the Sun-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.