Tran Tran earning his citizenship certificate at the Asian Counseling Referral Center.

Tran Tran is 75 years-old. He lives in Renton and enjoys shopping and visiting with friends in the Phuc Loc Tho mini-mall in Seattle.

Tran emigrated from Vietnam in 2002 after his son sponsored him, but didn’t become a U.S. citizen until Jan. 5. Tran had been trying to become an American for three years.

“I feel liberated, free,” Tran said. He was a telegraph operator for the U.S. military, but speaks very little English. We conversed in Vietnamese.

This is a feeling shared by many other Asian immigrants who come from hardship and, like Tran, seek solace in the United States. Obtaining citizenship means freedom from oppressive governments and a chance to start over.

More people are seeking U.S. citizenship than ever. More than 744,000 people were naturalized last year while just over a century ago, fewer than 8,000 people had that privilege, according to the US federal Web site.

Tran tried fleeing to the United States with his son in the early 90s. As father and son ran toward a small boat that would take them away, his son, Quoc, made it onto the boat. Tran was caught and imprisoned for two months.

“Quoc was young,” Tran said. “He was faster. He got away.”

It is no surprise, then, why he was determined to become an American. He took the naturalization exam in 2007 and failed. His application was rejected when he tried again because of speculation his roommate was a family member.

Tran’s citizenship application didn’t go through until a case manager at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service sent his lease agreement to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Tran took the naturalization test again and failed it again.

He then enrolled in a class offered at the ACRS. Tran never missed a day, his teacher, Thu-Van Nguyen, said.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I can’t do it,’ ‘It’s too hard,’” Nguyen said. “But not Tran.”

Tran eventually got all the questions under his belt. What he didn’t have was money for the application. The ACRS gave him $675 – one of about four grants they receive from the state each year – for people such as Tran.

“He was determined to become a U.S. citizen and worked really hard,” said Xiangping Chen, naturalization coordinator at the ACRS. “We were very moved.”

Now that he’s a citizen, Tran wants to vote – and he’s not the only one. For many newly inducted U.S. citizens, registering to vote is a priority.

Yong Park holds up her citizenship certificate. In the background is a Korean armoire that Yong’s mother received for her wedding and a framed Chinese phrase that Yong’s father has had in the family for years. Photo credit: Vivian Luu.

That’s when citizenship becomes a right that is fought for, said Yong Park, who became a citizen on Oct. 19, 2009.

“We need to lift up our voices so our voices will be heard,” Park said. “Even as a minority, we have that right in the United States and we need to use it as much as we can.”

Park’s journey to gaining citizenship was easier than Tran’s. Her daughter, Mina, said her mother was “one of the lucky ones.”

Park and her daughter emigrated from South Korea in 1994. Divorced, she came to live with her parents in the U.S. She and Mina had a one-year visa.

But 1995 came and passed. Park and her daughter, then 5 years old, overstayed their visa.

“We were kind of illegal,” Mina Park said. She is now 19 years old.

Fearing deportation, mother and daughter became permanent residents in 1999.

“We were going to take it at the same time, but the cost was too high, so my mom was priority,” Mina Park said.

Yong Park completed her application at the Korean Women’s Association in Lynnwood. A month later, she was fingerprinted and soon after, was able to schedule her exam.

Park said studying the 100 civic questions for the test was hard.

“I would read the questions and answers regularly,” she said. “Then once a month, I would listen to them on audio.”

The hard work paid off. Park obtained U.S. citizenship in October. Her daughter, Mina, plans to get her U.S. citizenship later this year before studying abroad in Japan.

“I’ve never been too nervous about taking the test,” she said. “I think it’s more nerve-wracking for people because they’re scared they won’t understand the questions. That’s a legitimate reason to be afraid, but that’s no problem for me because I’m lucky – I speak and understand English.” Meanwhile, Mina’s mother says the experience has completed her.

“I thought, ‘Oh now I’m really an American,’” Yong Park said. “Before as a permanent resident, I didn’t feel any different than a natural resident, but after getting my citizenship, I felt like a real American.”

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