King Man Lam Ng clearly remembers the day she passed the naturalization test for her citizenship application. "I was so nervous that I kept fiddling with the button on the plastic folder I took with me. The immigration officer who interviewed me must have been driven crazy by the noise, and she told me to stop doing that. And that made me more nervous," said Ng.
Still she passed the test. Two weeks later, at age 70, Ng took the oath and became a U.S. citizen. “I guess by then, all the internal debating was finished. I was sure I had made the right decision,” said Ng, who is now 79.
Many Chinese may have this kind of internal debate before they apply for U.S. citizenship. That is, if they ever apply. According to the Department of City Planning, there are 1.2 million New Yorkers who are eligible for citizenship but haven’t applied, including 120,000 Chinese.
“The language barrier is a major reason that makes eligible Chinese, especially seniors, hesitant to apply for citizenship,” said Joan Huang, Chinese community outreach coordinator at the MinKwon Center, a Flushing-based civic organization that helps immigrants apply for citizenship for free.
But many Chinese may not be aware that if they have been in the country for a certain number of years, they actually qualify to take the exam in their own language. (For example, you can take the test in your own language if you are over 50 years old and you have been a green card holder for 20 years, or if you are over 55 and have been a green card holder for 15 years.)
“The high application fee stops many people at the doorstop too. But many seniors are welfare recipients and are qualified for a fee waiver, ” said Huang.
But English was not a problem for Ng. She started to learn the language right after she arrived in the United States as a green card holder in 1999. And she prepared for the naturalization test for a year at a course offered by the Hamilton Madison House’s City Hall Senior Center, where she is a member. By the time she took the test, she could communicate well in English.
What she had been debating with herself came from her loyalty to China, a home country to which she once vowed to devote her life.
Born in Canton, China, Ng moved to the British-controlled Hong Kong with her family in 1949 before the Communist Party took over. Three years later, as a high school freshman, she ran away from home without leaving a note, and went back to mainland China with the money raised by a group of fellow students.
“My parents wanted me to become a nurse after graduation and find a job in Hong Kong. But I was thinking, ‘No matter what I do, I want to do it for my country and for the people there,’” said Ng.
She studied mechanical engineering at a vocational school sponsored by the Chinese government, figuring those skills might be most needed in a country that was eager for industrialization. She was assigned to work in a heavy machinery plant in Northeast China after graduation. Life was good for a few years. She married a former classmate of the vocational school. And soon, their first daughter was born.
But just as Ng and her husband, who was also a mechanical engineer, were working toward the goal of “catching up with the U.K. and the U.S.,” set by Chairman Mao Zedong, a catastrophe was on its way.
In 1966, the Cultural Revolution began, and China was engulfed in radical madness. The next year, Ng was put in jail, simply because she had family members living in capitalist Hong Kong. She was released after a year without being rehabilitated. Her life was turned upside down. She even lost an opportunity of getting into college because of her record.
In 1976, when the Cultural Revolution was over, Ng and her family moved to Hong Kong for good.
By then, a brother and a sister of hers had migrated to the United States. “In the 1960s, it was easy to come to the U.S. as refugees. If I followed them, I would have arrived in the U.S. in 1977,” said Ng. But she didn’t. “Neither my husband nor I wanted to be called a ‘refugee.’ We still loved China and wanted to contribute to China’s development whenever we could,” said Ng.
She did odd jobs in Hong Kong. And when her husband saved enough to open a printing firm, they opened it in Shenzhen, a river away from Hong Kong on the mainland, she said, which by then was designated a special economic zone under then President Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policy.
Ng didn’t consider coming to the United States until 1988 when her brother, a newly naturalized U.S. citizen, filed a family-based green card application for her and her family. “I belong to the generation that heard the slogan, ‘Down with American imperialism’ too often when we were kids. It was hard for me to imagine myself as an American,” said Ng, who agreed to apply to go to the United States for her daughters. “I wanted them to get the opportunities the U.S. can offer,” said Ng.
But it took more than 10 years for the application to be approved. By then, Ng’s husband had passed away, and her elder daughter had been aged out. The younger daughter, also a grown up, didn’t want to move to the United States. So the 65-year-old Ng arrived in her host country alone.
But things have changed. “Both of my daughters want to come to join me in the U.S. now. The only purpose for me to apply for citizenship was to sponsor them and their families,” said Ng.
Now, her biggest dream is for her daughters’ applications to be approved soon so that the family can reunite here. And she hopes that some kind of immigration reform passes that could expedite the currently lengthy process of petitioning family members to come to the United States. “I feel I owe the U.S. a lot. I am too old to give back to this country. I hope my daughters can do this for me. But they need to come as soon as possible because they are already in their 40s and 50s now,” said Ng.
Ng may not realize it, but she actually has been giving back to this country in her own way. Not long after she was naturalized, Scott Stringer, the then-Manhattan Borough President, visited City Hall Senior Center and allocated some funding for the citizenship prep course there. Ng, represented the members, gave a “thank you” speech. She promised him that, now that she is a citizen, she would vote in the elections every year. And she is keeping that promise.
Now, she says, she likes to share her experience of getting naturalized with her senior friends who are applying for citizenship. She helps them go over questions for the test. “I know some Chinese who don’t apply for American citizenship because they think, ‘I am Chinese. I shouldn’t become an American.’ I used to think so too. But now I think that you can be both,” said Ng.
“I still love China. I am happy when I see China making progress. To become an American citizen doesn’t mean you have betrayed China. It only means you are willing to also contribute to this new country where you live, together with so many immigrants from around the world.”
This article was produced as part of a New America Media fellowship program. To learn more about how to become a U.S. citizen, contact the MinKwon Center in New York at (718) 460-5600 or www.minkwon.org or visit the national New Americans Campaign at www.newamericanscampaign.org.
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