Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.F. ExaminerHuifang Xing takes part in a class put on by Self-Help for the Ederly

Practice makes perfect for citizenship hopefuls in SF class

THE PATH TO CITIZENSHIP

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

Standing tall with a smile, Huifang Xing confidently awaited questions on a naturalization test.

“What is your name?”

“Huifang Xing,” the 68-year-old Chinese national said immediately.

“What is your first name?”

“Huifang.”

“What is your last name?”

“Xing.”

“Do you have a middle name?”

“No middle name.”

“What is your name on your passport?”

Xing paused, struggling slightly to comprehend the question.

“What is your name?”

“Huifang Xing.”

“Do you want to change your name?”

“No change name.”

“No change,” said the questioner, adding, “Pass.”

“Thank you,” Xing said before bowing in the traditional Chinese way.

On Tuesday, it wasn't a real naturalization test that Xing passed but a practice exam that her teacher Lin Tan with Self-Help for the Elderly made her do before about 50 of her classmates in the semiweekly advanced citizenship class at the Portsmouth Square clubhouse in Chinatown.

A legal permanent resident in San Francisco for four years and eight months, Xing is eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship in one month. Two weeks ago, she attended a workshop sponsored by the San Francisco Pathways to Citizenship Initiative and filled out her Form N-400 to apply. And though she has taken English and citizenship classes up to seven days a week since May 2013, she does not quite feel ready for the actual test.

“I don't think it's too difficult,” Xing said in Cantonese. “I'm excited, but I just feel like I don't have enough time.”

As the caretaker of her grandchildren, Xing wakes up at 3 a.m. every day to cook, exercise and take the kids to school before going to her English and citizenship classes with Self-Help for the Elderly, a lead agency in the pathways initiative, and City College of San Francisco. Since she lives at Ingleside Heights, it takes her about two hours by bus to get from her grandchildren's school to her own classes. And because she has to pick them up, she can only stay for an hour of instruction.

Some naturalization applicants can adequately prepare for the test in as little as three months. But it has taken Xing more than a year and a half partly due to her inability to attend full classes, and because she only had three years of education growing up in Kaiping, a county-level city in the Guangdong province of China. The eldest child in her poor family, it was her responsibility to help take care of her three brothers and two sisters.

“I didn't learn my ABCs until I came here,” Xing said.

That low literacy level is common among immigrants in the Self-Help for Elderly citizenship classes. To help them pass the test, Tan, 55, created a workbook that highlights keywords in the 100 U.S. government questions section with the answers and drills them into her students' memories through songs and repetition.

Thanks to this method — and encouraging them to be confident — Tan said 97 percent of her students passed their citizenship test last year on the first try.

“Most of these students, City College would not take in, but they passed here. It's amazing,” said Tan, who has also taught at the community college for 16 years. “Sometimes the City College students know the whole history, but it's also about body language.”

Students who attend the free Self-Help for the Elderly classes, averaging 70 years old, “help each other, like a family,” Tan added. And when students pass the test that includes some of the 100 civic questions, reading and writing, they come back and share the experience — along with some Chinese sweets.

While Xing still has some work to do, she has come a long way.

“She did pretty good,” Tan said of Xing's performance Tuesday. “The first day, I saw she was very, very shy. Now she has more confidence, smiles and speaks loudly in class.”

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