Ngoc Nu Ho cringes each time she comes to a form that asks, "Are you a U.S. citizen?"
Reluctantly, she checks the box marked "no."
"I want to be able to fill in 'yes,'" says the 42-year-old Falls Church woman, her high, gentle voice rising in dismay. "I don't want to be an adopted child any longer. I want to be part of a real family. I want a country for myself."
Ho left Saigon in 1975, just as it was falling to the North Vietnamese. Her sense of dangling between two worlds -- the beloved land she was forced to abandon and the new land whose ways are often at odds with her own -- is a familiar one for the 112,000 Indochinese refugees who came to the U.S. in 1975, including at least 6,000 in Northern Virginia.
This year, many of them will be able to get a firmer toehold in the new world. Because they have lived here five years, the refugees of 1975 are eligible to become U.S. citizens.
At least 60,000 Indochinese refugees throughout the nation are expected to seek citizenship by the end of the year. To help smooth the process, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has encouraged local agencies to set up special classes for the Vietnamese to help prepare them for the crucial oral examination that will test their knowledge of U.S. history and government. The exam largely determines whether the refugees are qualified to become citizens.
In this area, the Psychiatric Institute Foundation sponsors what is considered the largest series of classes, which are held in Vietnamese, Cantonese and English. Since mid-May, about 100 refugees have attended the eight- to 16-week courses at five locations, including one in Falls Church.
Tuyet Nguyen, 38, a social worker who lives in Vienna, says the class "summarizes main ideas -- and it's always more interesting to hear class discussion. Other people's ideas give you a deeper thought about concepts of American history."
Another benefit of the classes is the opportunity to practice the INS interview in role-playing sessions. Says Alex Stein, director of the Psychiatric Institute Foundation's Adult Education Center and project director of the classes, "Getting over the fear of the interview is sometimes as important (to the refugees) as getting the information."
Le Pham, instructor of classes in the District and Falls Church who is a doctoral candidate in American studies, says he stresses that America is a land of immigrants.
Pham finds his students have the most difficulty with the idea that U.S. citizens can express their opinions freely.
"The Vietnamese tends to consider petitions a form of defiance," he explains. "He is taught to obey and respect authority."
As a result, Pham says, "We transfer the responsibility of politics to the government. The Vietnamese Feels that even if he participated, he wouldn't make much change in government."
In a recent class, Pham lectured on the Bill of Rights and conducted a lively discussion among the 16 participants. Ngoc Nu ho, one of the students, observed during a discussion of freedom of the press that the U.S. press in 1975 "didn't speak out what the (South) Vietnamese really thought of the end of the war."
When Pham explained the right to bear arms, Ngoc Dung, 43, of Arlington, wondered, "Would John F. Kennedy have been shot if we hadn't had freedom to carry weapons?"
One woman asked, "Why do we believe to wait five years to become American citizens?" Pham answered that the residency requirement is "to make sure that you want to live permanently in this country."
It is, in fact, the idea that they might have to live for rest of their lives in the U.S. that is one of the hardest aspects of adjustment, says Pham.
Ho reflects this ambivalence. She recalls the night an airplane took her away from her "quiet and sweet land" -- and from her parents and friends.
"Any time I see something beautiful, the sky, the trees, I think of my parents, and I am sad," she says. "I thinkk the people in Oriental countries are happier than here. This is a large country and it is so hard to meet each other."
But her parents have written that in today's Vietmam, "everything has changed, economically, culturally, everything is upside-down." A major reason for applying for citizenship, in fact, is that it will be easier to get permission for her parents to move here.
Asked what she likes about the U.S., her face dissolves in a smile and she says quickly, "So many things. After five years we feel that this is our land, our country."
But Ho and other immigrants probably will have to wait several months before they appear in a federal court and actually are sworn in as citizens of this country.
Even now, with the flow of Vietnamese applications just beginning, the wait can be six to eight months, according to INS officials. After INS receives an application and reviews it, an agency official calls each person for an interview that can take from 15 minutes to more than an hour.
The applicant must bring two character witnesses, demonstrate an ability to converse in English, be able to sign his or her name (there is no literacy test) and answer basic questions about U.S. government and history. l
"It's not anything designed to entrap them," says Kellogg Whittick, director of the Washington District office of INS, which processes Northern Virginia applicants. "The Interview is just to have them show a certain knowledge that we are a nation that is government by the people."
Verne Jervis, an INS public information officer, explains there are no set questions during the interview.
"It's a judgement thing to a large extent on the part of the examiner that (the applicant) meets the requirement."
For some refugees, even the badge of citizenship may leave them torn between the old and new.
Tuyet Nguyen says that when she thinks of home, it's Vietnam, not Vienna.
As she nibbles a banh bao, a Vietnamese dumpling stuffed with pork sauage, she says she misses Vietnam for its "way of living the easiness. Over here it's a lot of competition."
Nguyen describes her ambivalence over whether to act like a Vietnamese woman who is "obedient to her husband" and a U.S. woman "who demands this and demands that."
She concludes, "I want to find the middle way."