The path to citizenship: Quiz preps immigrants about U.S. politics 

click to enlarge Huifang Xing, right, prepares for her U.S. naturalization test by identifying photographs of current U.S. politicians in a class at City College of San Francisco. - MIKE KOOZMIN/SF EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/SF Examiner
  • Huifang Xing, right, prepares for her U.S. naturalization test by identifying photographs of current U.S. politicians in a class at City College of San Francisco.
Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing series in which The San Francisco Examiner will follow immigrants as they go through the process of becoming naturalized U.S. citizens.

Instructor Pennie Lau started her intermediate U.S. citizenship class Monday at City College of San Francisco’s Chinatown-North Beach Campus by handing out two rectangular pieces of blue paper to each of her 20 students.

On each piece of paper was written either a title, first name or last name. Huifang Xing, 69, who has been in Lau’s class for two semesters, looked at the papers she’d received, containing the names “Pelosi” and “Ed.” On cue, many of the students, mostly monolingual Chinese, scrambled to arrange the words on the board as they’d been taught to do the previous week.

When the crowd had more or less dispersed, Xing walked up with her two slips.

“It’s wrong,” she said, pointing to the spot where a student had placed “Nancy” after “Governor.” Xing moved “Nancy” next to “House Representative” and inserted her “Pelosi” paper at the end to complete the line.

Xing then put her “Ed” paper in between “Mayor” and “Lee,” well aware of the San Francisco mayor’s name.

“Last week, it took 15 minutes. Not bad, this week it took 10 minutes. We’re getting better,” Lau said after the students had completed the exercise. She also corrected the students on one error, as they’d incorrectly swapped first names, spelling out “Vice President John Biden” and “Speaker of the House Joe Boehner.”

Lau then led her students through a drill identifying current political leaders by their photos. As she pointed to their faces on the overhead projector, Xing yelled out their names, often beating her classmates to the punch.

The Ingleside Heights legal permanent resident has been taking citizenship classes seven days a week since May 2013, both at City College and with the nonprofit Self-Help for the Elderly. Still, she hasn’t set a date for her naturalization test with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“I think she’s almost ready to take the test. I think she’s harder on herself than me,” Lau related. “She’s got a winning attitude, so I think she’ll be fine.”

But when Lau asked for volunteers to take a mock naturalization test, Xing didn’t raise her hand, and instead watched two classmates somewhat stumble through the process.

“I’m not ready,” Xing said in Cantonese. “Their English is better than mine. I’m not ready yet.”

Typically, City College students are ready to take their naturalization test with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services after three or four semesters, Lau said. The most difficult part of the test for Chinese monolingual candidates typically isn’t the history, geography and government questions — or even the reading and writing portion. It’s when they get asked personal questions from their application, Form N-400. “Native [English] speakers can handle all of that, but for our students, it’s really, really tough and they don’t like it,” Lau said. “It makes them nervous.”

During the summer session, Lau will teach a citizenship class focusing on the Form N-400 portion of the naturalization test. With that semester under her belt, Xing should be prepared for the examination, Lau added.

For the time being, Xing is taking Lau’s advice to study while on the move, although balancing family responsibilities with school isn’t easy. “I have no time to sit down and study,” Xing said. “So I study when I am on the bus, when I cook and go to the bathroom, because my English level is low.”

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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