After Hoa Tran fled as Saigon fell in 1975 to the North Vietnamese, she spent her first year in the United States "crying all the time."
"I was very homesick," the 52-year-old Gaithersburg woman recalls. "I told my manager at work to please keep me busy because if I'm not busy I get homesick."
Now, five years later, Tran can look back on the traumatic first months in the United States when she was dependent on food stamps, and on her subsequent job as a cashier in a 7-Eleven when she worried she would lose her 70 word-per-minute typing skill.
Life has become smoother for her. Tran finally got a typing job at IBM in Gaithersburg. She and her husband, Can Le, now own a four-bedroom town house in Gaithersburg and two Dodge cars. She admits that she even is getting used to eating hamburgers for lunch at work.
This year, Tran and her family will be able to get an even firmer toehold in the new world. Because they have lived here five years, they are eligible to become U.S. citizens. The family members -- including her five adult children -- already have sent in the four-page applications for citizenship.
Tran's story of initial despair interwoven with emerging success is a familiar one for the 112,000 Indochinese refugees who came to the United States when Saigon fell in April 1975. Of the estimated 18,000 refugees now in the Washington area, at least 3,000 live in the Maryland suburbs, primarily in Silver Spring and Hyattsville.
Many of the refugees of 1975, having achieved some stability in housing and jobs, now are seeking U.S. citizenship.
An estimated 60,000 Indochinese throughout the nation are expected to apply for 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 to help prepare the refugees 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 the largest number of such classes, which are held in Vietnamese, Cantonese and English. nSince mid-May, about 100 refugees have attended the eight to 16-week free courses at five locations.
Hoa Tran, who attends a session with other Maryland residents at the Indochinese Community Center at 1628 16th St. NW in Washington, says, "American history is very interesting to many of us here. If we accept that this is our country, we have to know the history."
Trans says the classes give her a structure for learning. "If I didn't follow the class," she admits, "I would ignore American history because I'm so busy."
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 as getting the information."
A major reason many refugees worry about the interview is that they must show the INS agent they are able to converse in English and must answer questions about U.S. government and history in English.
Aline Grognet, associate director of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Arlington, says, "The amount of English you need to know for those tests is possibly more than you need for real survival."
Both Montgomery and Prince George's counties offer English courses for refugees, as do several private agencies. The Takoma-East Silver Spring (TESS) Community Center assists refugees with their applications and distributes books to help them study for the interview.
Cuong Do, a community service aide at TESS, says the refugees' "knowledge of politics here is very limited. They express a lot of worry about the exam, especially the old people who cannot speak English very well." a
Some Vietnamese feel the English requirements is especially hard on elderly refugees who often spend their days in Vietnamese-speaking homes, not working in the English-speaking world outside.
The INS does allow refugees over 50 years old who have lived in the United States at least 20 years to take the oral exam in their native language, but this does not apply to Vietnamese who have been here just years.
"I think it is a shame to have old people have to learn enough English for the exam," says one Vietnamese who asked not to be identified. He adds that the English requirement forces elderly applicants to concentrate more on learning the language, rather than on what he considers the most important requirement -- learning about U.S. politics and history. He worries that the INS agent, in an effort to help elderly applicants pass the interview phase, sometimes might not ask enough in-depth questions to test their knowledge of this country.
To ensure the INS naturalizes only elderly refugees who have a good grasp of U.S. history and government, he proposes that the refugees be allowed to take a written exam in their native language, then converse briefly with an INS agent to determine that they have some fundamental knowledge of English.
The man also criticized what he sees as an impulsive rush toward citizenship by his fellow refugees. Many Vietnamese say they want to become citizens in order to get a better job or to make it easier for their relatives still in Vietnam to be allowed into the United States.
"I wouldn't like to see them just rushing into citizenship because they need a better job," the Vietnamese says. "I'm having doubts, myself, about whether we can be very loyal to the country if our loyalty is also elsewhere. What if we had a war with Vietnam? Would I want to send my children to fight in such a war?"
Hoa Tran says she would be "proud" to be a U.S. citizen.
"America is a great big country and the people are nice," she says. "People in this country aren't afraid to be hungry or sick without help from the government."
But even the badge of citizenship may not keep some refugees from being torn between loyalties to the old and new countries.
Lien Nguyen, 26, of Silver Spring, remembers the "beautiful days in Saigon when you went out on the street and saw what seemed like hundreds and thousands of school girls in white ao-dai dresses. They looked like butterflies flying around."
Nguyen, who arrived here in 1975 and has applied for citizenship, says she sometimes has dreams at night of climbing the fruit trees around her grandparents' house near Saigon.
"I've breathed the Vietnamese air for more than 20 years," Nguyen says. "That's something I'm always proud of. Vietnam will be with me no matter how old I get."
Says Hoa Tran, "We are Vietnamese. If we stay living one hundred years or one thousand years, we still are Vietnamese."