Its three hours from Chillicothe, Missouri to
Omaha. Not long compared to the time that it has taken
Ming Chen to get to this day. Most of his friends are
back at school sitting in class - a place he would normally
be. But not today. Today he is going to Omaha with his
mother in his brothers car to become a U.S. citizen.
Chen was born in a small town in China, one that, unless
you have a passion for Chinese geography, you have probably
never heard of. He lived a normal life, with his two
brothers, Bao and Kevin, and their two parents.
But when Chen was five the unthinkable happened --
his father lost his battle with cancer.
Chens mother owned a fabric store where she made
clothes. She could decide when she worked, and sometimes
people would come to the Chen house and special order
clothing from her. But the first couple of years after
Chens father died were hard. The family ran out
of money and had to ask relatives to help. Around the
same time, Chens mother decided that it was time
to make a change: the family would be immigrating to
the United States.
I dont really know why we came, Chen
says sighting a number of possible reasons. My
mom wanted us to get a good education, but my dad dying
might have had something to do with it.
When he was seven, the family flew to a city in China
to get visas. Three years later they were getting on
the plane to America. After the long plane ride to Denver,
with a short connecting flight to Kansas City, the Chen
family was in a new country, starting a new life, with
only one member, Chens brother Kevin, speaking
I couldnt communicate with anyone,
Chen says. I spoke no English.
He started school a few days later. His new school didnt
have an ESL (English as a Secondary Language) program.
He missed the bus after school because he didnt
know which one to get on and the school had to special
order one for him.
During that time, Chens mother worked as a waitress,
making just enough money to make ends meet, saving the
At school, Chen excelled at spelling and math. He still
didnt speak a lot of English, but he was beginning
to remember some of the words.
Family, he says, was very important at the time. It
was the only two years that the entire family would
be together in America. After he finished fifth grade,
his mother decided it was time to move. She had plans
of opening a Chinese restaurant in a town in Nebraska
called Hastings. Chen and his brother Bao went with
her, but Kevin, his oldest brother stayed behind in
My whole family kind of fell apart, Chen
says. Kevin wanted to stay in Kansas.
Kevin was sixteen or seventeen at the time Chen remembers.
He went onto work part time while going finishing up
high school. Then he moved to California to go to college.
Chen continued to pick up more English, and make friends.
He did well in school, excelling especially in math
and science classes. But his mother decided to relocate
again, this time to Chillicothe, Missouri, where she
would open yet another restaurant. Chen and Bao decided
to stay in Hastings.
Becoming a citizen
It wasnt until Chen started filling out forms for
college and scholarships that he realized something. He
lived in America, but he wasnt a citizen. He had
to do all the same things as everyone else, but without
the perks that come along with citizenship. Scholarships?
From a purely academic standpoint, Chen qualified for
almost all of them, but still couldnt get any, because
he had always marked the permanent resident
box instead of the U.S. citizen box.
It was at that point that he decided to apply for citizenship.
He applied through his mom, filling out the N-600 form
and a $460 check. Four months later, he and his mother
are sitting in the lobby of a large one story building
in Omaha. Soon he will watch an educational film about
being an American citizen. He will say the pledge of
allegiance, and sing the national anthem. He will be
handed a single sheet of paper, with a signature and
his picture. Then he will finally be an American Citizen.