Dai – Your Regular Groceries Store Owner
“Twenty Lunar New Years abroad: Just another day
Shovel snow over our heads
Why do we keep seeking something faraway?
Having neither rice cakes nor Mother this Tet.”Le Quang Dai, Prague, Feb. 5, 2019
In daily conversations, 47-year-old Le Quang Dai likes quoting Vietnamese legends and ancient idioms. His friends say he is quite a poet. They enjoy reading his poems on Facebook and relate to his experience.
Dai wrote the poem above on the first day of the Year of the Pig 2019 according to the lunar calendar.
Living away from his home country, unable to take days off work to celebrate Tet, the biggest Vietnamese national holiday of the year, Dai can only express his homesickness through poetry. He misses Vietnam every day. It is surreal for him to think that twenty years ago, the CR was the “Promised Land,” an alternative to his miserable reality in Vietnam.
“My generation came to the Czech Republic only because of money” Dai says. “If they say they want to learn new things and expand their minds, they are lying.”
The 50s: The Vietnamese First Arrival in the Czech Republic
During the 1950s, most of the Vietnamese immigrants were war orphans and students with government stipends. After the Vietnam War, at the beginning of the ‘80s, the Vietnamese and Czechoslovak governments agreed on a labor exchange program.
The 90s Brings Surge of Vietnamese Migrants
The Time of Freedom and Lax Immigrant Laws
When Dai uses the term “my generation,” he refers to the wave of Vietnamese who emigrated to the CR during the 1990s.
Back then, Vietnam was still struggling economically despite the its Economic Reforms 13 years prior. Dai, at the time, was a young military general, based in Hue city, where one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War was fought. He yearned for a better life.
The Vietnamese had arrived in Czechoslovakia as early as the 1950s, but the ‘90s were what historian and ethnologist Stanislav Brouček calls “the time of freedom” for the Vietnamese.
The end of the twentieth century saw flocks of them migrate to the CR dreaming of riches thanks to the country’s lax immigration laws and newly open economy.
Tighter Borders, Greater Demand to Cross It
After the labor exchange agreement expired in 1990, twenty thousand Vietnamese residents remained in the country, continued working and started families.
The 1989 “Velvet Revolution” in the CR was the turning point for the country and the immigrants living there. Taking advantage of legal loopholes after the regime change and economic reforms, many immigrants, including the Vietnamese, participated in illegal transportation of goods and people through the CR. Dai was part of this wave of immigrants.
According to Stanislav Brouček’s study published in “The Visible and Invisible Vietnamese in the Czech Republic,” the Vietnamese immigrants not only moved to the CR for financial gains but also for the sake of their families.
Human Traffickers as Travel Agencies
The Vietnamese often migrate as a “family strategy” for greater prosperity, better education, higher living standard and ultimately, a better life for the future generation. To achieve this goal, the Vietnamese found different ways to emigrate to the CR, both legally and illegally. Brouček writes in detail about the journey shared by many Vietnamese immigrants, including Dai via agencies (qua dịch vụ).
During the 1990s, numerous Vietnamese employment agencies emerged and offered services to assist their fellow citizens to relocate to the CR. The agencies claimed to be the bridge between the Czech society and the Vietnamese immigrants, providing information and guidance.
Their services would help the Vietnamese find suitable employment and accommodation, teach them Czech, educate them in Czech laws, prepare them for visa application, and so on. The demand for these services grew, and so did greed.
The services became more and more expensive. People without qualifications were advised to borrow money for such services, in hope of repaying the debt after a few years working in the CR. After that, they were told, they could start sending money home to support their families.
Brouček explains that the agencies’ sole concern was money. The agency workers only focused on how to relocate their clients to the CR. How the immigrants would survive and make a living to repay their massive debt back home was not the agencies’ concern.
2008 Unemployment Spiked as Financial Crisis Hit the CR
In 2008, the global financial crisis hit the Czech Republic, and hundreds of factory workers were laid off within a week.
The first to go were foreigners, including the Vietnamese. They faced a dilemma: they could not stay in the CR because they did not have a job to extend their visas; but they could not go back to Vietnam either, because they were in huge debt.
With no employment agency there to help them, many became illegal immigrants. Some involved themselves in illegal activities to make a living. Some even attempted suicide.
“After the workers arrived here, they became modern slaves” said Marcel Winter, Chairman of the Czech-Vietnamese Society in an interview with Podnikatel in 2009.
“If between January 1, 2007 and February 2008, our embassy in Hanoi issued 9994 business visas to unqualified Vietnamese people, who have no command of Czech, and only 2,500 work visas to qualified Vietnamese people, it proves that there is something wrong here.”
Fake Marriage, Real Wedding
Dai also came to the CR with the help of an agency.
The agency got him a tourist visa to fly to Slovakia, from there he traveled to the CR, and legalized his stay by marrying a Czech woman. The whole “package” cost him $7000 plus another $1000 “gift” for the bride’s family.
“We had a real wedding,” Dai says. “We went to the town hall, to church and celebrated with people. We just don’t live together. But the marriage was real.”
Legalization of human smuggling
Dai was a classic case of human smuggling at the time.
Studies have shown that Vietnamese immigrants were often flown to Russia, Hungary and Slovakia, then crossed the border illegally to the CR in trucks. The price that Dai paid the smugglers was average.
In some cases, it could be as high as $12,000 if the person lacked knowledge or experience in the “business.” Dai borrowed the money from a relative who lived in the border city of Cheb. He and his Czech wife remained married for the next ten years.
During this time, Dai had another unregistered wedding with a Vietnamese woman. “I didn’t want to divorce [the Czech woman],” Dai says. “They would take away my green card. It’s more beneficial to be a local’s son-in-law than a divorced man.”
Risk Everything to Stay in the CR and For What?
For Dai and many other Vietnamese immigrants, leaving Vietnam for the CR was a gamble, but also one that they could cheat. Finding loopholes in the Czech immigration regulations and breaking the laws had become part of their survival instinct.
Go Big or Go Home… But Where’s Home?
Dai was extremely lucky to have arrived before the economic crisis in 2008; he managed to pay off his debt within a few years.
But many were not so fortunate, as in the case of the factory workers mentioned above, proving that the illegal journey to the CR was a gamble that could cost some players their lives.
Even though life in the CR is not the dream that Dai envisioned, he does not regret his decision to leave Vietnam.
Identity Issue Among Vietnamese Czechs
Dai is accustomed to the lifestyle here, yet cannot let go of his roots.
The struggle to integrate into the Czech society without losing one’s cultural heritage is common among 60,000 Vietnamese immigrants in the CR. Each individual approaches the matter in his/her own way, as we shall see in upcoming articles on the topic.
Missing Thieu and friends,
The well, the sugar-apple tree, grandmother
Those days are long gone…gone
But how can I forget
These memories I carry with me forever.Le Quang Dai, Prague, May 7, 2017