Fulfilling a dream of U.S. citizenship - at 102

Chat Tran, who came from Vietnam in 1999, with his grandson Tony Tran, taking the oath in Philadelphia.
Chat Tran, who came from Vietnam in 1999, with his grandson Tony Tran, taking the oath in Philadelphia. (ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 12, 2012

For Chat Tran, the path to U.S. citizenship began in 1910, in what was then Saigon in French Indochina. It ended in Philadelphia, at 16th and Callowhill Streets, on Friday - his 102d birthday.

Tran, a small man with an engaging smile, was among 69 people from 37 countries who were sworn in as new citizens in a half-hour afternoon ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office.

Before the start of the swearing-in at a ceremonial courtroom, Tony Bryson, district director of the agency, greeted about 200 people in the room - the new citizens and their relatives.

"We have a very special guest in our audience, Mr. Tran," Bryson said. "Today is his birthday. And he's 102 years old."

The room erupted in applause as Tran sat beaming in a front-row seat. Wearing a white shirt, blue slacks, white sneakers, and a blue navy cap, Tran intently watched the festivities.

Bryson said he scheduled the event for Tran's birthday, adding that citizenship ceremonies were conducted about five times per week. Tran, who lives with a grandson in Juniata Park, is the second person older than 100 to become a new citizen in Philadelphia.

Tran and the other new Americans - the youngest 18 - viewed some short videos honoring new citizens, including a message from President Obama.

"This is now officially your country," Obama said. "Always remember: In America, no dream is impossible."

At the end of each of four videos, Tran smiled and applauded.

Tran, who speaks little English, stood with the help of a cane as he and the other new citizens were sworn in as a group. His grandson Tony Tran then placed his hand over Chat Tran's on the cane.

When it was Chat Tran's turn to step forward and receive his citizenship certificate, loud applause rang out again.

After the ceremony, Tran, a widower and former rice farmer who came to Philadelphia in 1999 from what is now Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to be with his family, met with reporters eager to learn about his life.

Relatives said Tran's parents each lived to be more than 115.

Tran's great-grandson Chris Tran, 16, son of Tony Tran, sat proudly with him, handling reporters' questions.

"I'm very proud and honored to witness this event," Chris Tran said of the ceremony. "It's very valuable, and it's once in a lifetime. He has been looking forward to this for a very long time."

Asked why his great-grandfather embarked on the citizenship process at such a late age - it involved taking classes to learn about his new country - Chris Tran said, "It was to fulfill his duty as an American citizen. That's why he wanted to do it. Just to be an American citizen."

Officials said only 28 people older than 100 have been naturalized in the country's history. The oldest person to be naturalized was 117 years old and a native of Turkey, in Los Angeles in 1997.

Bryson, the district director, said Tran was the first person older than 100 that he had sworn in.

"I've been doing this for about eight years," Bryson said. "This is a very special one also because it's his birthday."

Chris Tran said Chat Tran's family owned a farm in Saigon and mostly grew rice. He said his great-grandfather enjoyed teaching his grandchildren and great-grandchildren the Vietnamese language and alphabet.

With his great-grandson translating, Chat Tran was asked how he felt about the ceremony and all of the attention.

"He's surprised that the news media was coming today," Chris Tran said. "He didn't know the media would be here."

Tony Tran said his grandfather told him he was "excited to become a citizen at 102 years old."

"For him, he's very, very proud of himself that he has accomplished this," Chris Tran said. "And very blessed."

Chris Tran said Chat Tran's relatives have lived here for decades.

Since arriving in Philadelphia, Chat Tran has been in good health and never been hospitalized, his relatives said.

Many family members gathered at his home before the ceremony, Chris Tran said.

"Our whole family is very proud," he said. "We were all cheering him on this morning when he left the house. We wished him good luck and everything."

A surprise birthday party was scheduled for Friday night.

"We will have family dinner," Chris said. "Everybody will sit down and talk to him. That's about it. Usually on his birthday, he calls all the grandsons and everyone."


Contact Vernon Clark

at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

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