Crosscut

From rural Vietnam to the Washington state ballot box

My Tam Nguyen, 28, talks about surviving cancer, getting her U.S. citizenship and being able to vote for the first time.

By Stacey Solie

November 06, 2012.

Stacey Solie: Tell me about yourself.

My Tam Nguyen: I'm from a fishing village, Ham Tan, northeast of Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam. I've been in the U.S. since February of 1992, since I was eight years old. I got my green card ten years ago, but I had to wait five years before I was eligible to apply (for citizenship). I became a citizen July 2012.
 
What do you have to do to get citizenship?

There's a lot of paperwork. Lots of pictures, appointments and interviews. I sent my papers in in April. Then I got a letter back in May or June. In the first letter they send you, they ask you to get your "biometrics" taken.

What are "biometrics"?

It's when you go to get fingerprinted. You prove that you're a real human being. Now, they do it by computer scanner, there's no ink. Then you get another letter giving you another date and time for taking your citizenship test. I got my letter in June.The last time I was that excited was when I got my college admissions letter.

What's in the letter?

They send you a packet of 100 questions that you might be asked during the citizenship exam. These include everything from "What is the longest river in the U.S.?, to "What year was the Constitution written?" to "Name a Native American tribe."  I asked a lot of my friends the questions, and they were like, "I have no idea.'

Where did you go to take the test?

I had to go to the Department of Homeland Security building. Have you ever been? I recommend going for the sheer hilarity. It's in Tukwila, and you have to pay for parking. It's the most ugly building with the most beautiful journey. I did my interview in the morning and then I had my ceremony on the same day. I didn't know it would happen that day. They swear you in right after.
I walked off the stage and registered to vote with One America. That's an advocacy organization that specifically works with immigrants and refugees.

Why did you decide to go for citizenship this year?

Well, in the past year I also survived cancer. I had non-Hodgkins diffused Large b-cell lymphoma. I had tumors in my neck and in my brain and my lymph nodes. I had chemo, radiation, I had my stem cells harvested and a shunt plate put under my scalp, through my brain, down my neck and through my stomach, because I was having spinal fluid problems. The fluid was causing optic nerve pressure and causing me to go blind. My last round of treatment was the end of January. That was such a major life step. I'm like, I need to get my ducks in a row.

How does it feel to be a United States citizen?

I cried when I read the Constitution. I don't think a lot of people even know what those words mean. In Vietnam, if you went to a Buddhist temple the police would come. They didn't like it when we congregated.

What's your voting game plan?

I'm going to fill out my ballot (this past Sunday). But I want to go to the ballot box on Election Day. I kind of want that romance.

Stacey Solie is a Seattle-based reporter, writer and editor and an adjunct at the University of Washington where she leads narrative non-fiction workshops for scientists. She has contributed to The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Seattle Times and was the founding editor of The Science Chronicles, an environmental conservation monthly. Follow her @staceysolie

View this story online at: http://crosscut.com/2012/11/06/culture-ethnicity/111339/beating-cancer-check-next-voting/

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Printed on October 25, 2014