The Nonstop Minimarkets: Vietnamese in CZ

Bán Pốt: Selling groceries

There is at least one grocery store (potraviny) on every street in Prague, and its owner is most likely Vietnamese. It is estimated that one in three mini-markets in the CR is run by the Vietnamese, adding up to the total number of around 3,000 potraviny across the country. The Vietnamese are famous for working from early morning to late evening without holidays. They spare little time for their children and leave them in the care of nannies and schools.   

The “Association of groceries in the Czech Republic” (Hiệp Hội Potraviny Cz) is the name of the biggest Facebook group used by the Vietnamese community. The Vietnamese joke that the second Czech word they learn after “Ahoj” (Hello) is “Potraviny,” which they call “pốt” for short. But running a 24/7 business is no joke. It may look simple, but it requires hard work. In many cases, the job can be toxic to one’s health and relationships. 

A minimarket (Potraviny) or pốt as called by the Vietnamese

“It’s exhausting to run a pốt,” says 60-year-old Nguyen Khanh-Hoa, who once owned a potraviny before retiring. “You wake up at three or four in the morning to fetch fresh greens from the wholesalers. Deliver them to your store. Arrange the goods. Put price tags on them. Clean the place [….] Our store close early, usually around 21:00, but many other shops open overnight.” 

Besides the demanding labor, another concern of Khanh-Hoa is the lack of time and attention she has for her 15-year-old daughter who was born in the CR and now goes to high school here. She says many Vietnamese shopkeepers sacrifice quality family time for financial gains and give their children little care and guidance which affects their personal development and self-image. There are second-generation Vietnamese who answer “I am Czech” when somebody asks where they are from. They have no awareness of their origin she says in disappointment. They resent their parents and their roots. There are exceptions, of course. Eighteen-year-old Nguyen Linh-Chi, for example, is  highly conscious of her bloodline and its significance. 

It was already 10 p.m. and Linh-Chi’s parents had not come home from the shop yet. This was ten years ago but Linh-Chi remembers it well. She and her brother planned to stay up to wait for their parents but were falling asleep. “We tried our best to stay awake,” Linh-Chi says. “I tried to drink a lot of water and told my brother to slap me, but he had already fallen asleep. I continued to wait without him.” She was drifting into sleep when she heard the doors click. 

“Hello! (Ahoj)” her parents said as they walked in. “Hello,” she replied. No one said anything further. The family was tired, so they simply said, “Good night (Dobrou noc)!” and went to bed. 

“I really wished they had more time for me,” says Linh-Chi, fidgeting her fingers while looking away, but then laughs it off. She says she’s used to being on her own and taking care of herself. Her parents, similar to most first-generation Vietnamese, only need a limited Czech vocabulary to speak to the locals and sell them goods. Due to their busy work schedule, they spend little time expanding their Czech knowledge. Linh-Chi remembers writing sick leave letters for herself in elementary school. The teacher could easily see that she had faked her parents’ handwriting because the excuse sounded childish, though honest. Linh-Chi eventually learned how to write proper sick leave letters by imitating those of her classmates. She says all other second-generation Vietnamese she knows shared the same experience. Their family situation pushed them to be independent and self-sufficient from an early age. 

It would be unfair, however, to say that Linh-Chi’s parents never spend time with her because they did during her first five years. This period, though brief, played an important role in shaping Linh-Chi’s understanding and perception of her cultural identity. In the early 2000s, her parents sold clothes at the Prague Market (Pražská tržnice) in Praha 7. This place was Prague’s central slaughterhouse before becoming a market. Today at the gate still stand two cow statues, earning the market its nickname “Cow Market” (Chợ Bò) by the Vietnamese. At the beginning of the twentieth-first century, there were up to 500 stalls run by the Vietnamese in “Cow Market.” Hundreds of Europeans, especially the Czechs and the Danes, arrived at the market in buses every day to buy goods. Business went well so Linh-Chi’s parents used to close their shop around 6 p.m. and their family had the whole evening together. Her mother brought textbooks from Vietnam and taught her to read and write in Vietnamese. “I used to hate my parents for making me stay up until 10 p.m. to learn Vietnamese,” Linh-Chi says. “But now, I’m extremely grateful.”  

Born and raised in the Czech Republic, Linh-Chi has only visited her father’s hometown in Vietnam three times but feels deeply connected to her cultural heritage. “I’m a hundred percent Vietnamese,” she states. “Vietnamese is my mother tongue. There’s no reason for me to identify as a Czech. I may have a Czech education, but that’s just the environment I grew up in. My blood is Vietnamese.”

Banana Children

However, Linh-Chi’s strong sense of cultural identity is an aberration among the second-generation Vietnamese growing up in the Czech Republic. Most Vietnamese parents are like hers: too busy to care for their children, let alone educate them in Vietnamese language and culture. Most children become the “Banana children” (Banánové děti) of the Vietnamese community. “Banana children” is what Asian immigrants around the world often called: yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

A “banana child” may exhibit Asian features, but he or she acts and thinks like a white person. Although the term was first used as an insult to a person who had lost his or her roots, the majority of these young Vietnamese don’t take offense. They have dispelled the negative connotation and reclaimed the term.

To show pride in their identity, Viet Up, a non-profit organization for second-generation Vietnamese organize “Banana Festival” (Banán Fest) every year. Vietnamese and Czechs alike come to “Banana Festival” to learn more about each other’s backgrounds and stories to find similarities and celebrate differences.

Invitation to Banana Festival 2017

In her paper “Spaces for Counter-Narratives: The Phenomenology of Reclamation,” Professor Farah Godrej explains that reclaiming ownership of derogatory terms can be empowering, liberating and inspirational. We’ve seen this throughout history with terms such as “bitch,” “queers,” “niggers,” and so on. “Linguistic reclamation is usually a tool for disarm ing the power of a dominant group to control one’s own and others’ views of oneself,” Farah Godrej writes. In this case, reclaiming the term “banana children” helps cultivate a common identity and create solidarity among the second generation of Vietnamese in the CR. By organizing meaningful activities and events such as talk shows about careers with Vietnamese and Czech speakers, the group bridges the Vietnamese minority and the Czech society. Their goal is to slowly change the perception of others towards the “banana children” and bring a new positive meaning to the term. 

Mất gốc: Losing one’s Roots

However, some Vietnamese of the first generation still find it hard to hear “banana children.” Dai, the lover of Vietnamese poetry, thinks it is unacceptable to become white on the inside and to forget one’s roots. To Dai, even if the children speak Vietnamese but enjoy a Czech education, they will develop a Czech mentality. For a person to maintain and promote the traditions and values of any culture, Dai thinks, he or she must be fully immersed in that culture. If they grow up in the CR, they will never understand Vietnamese traditions or feel a sense of nationalism. He calls this losing one’s roots (mất gốc).

The Vietnamese dictionary writes: “Mất gốc means losing one’s connection with his/her ancestors, origin and foundation. Example: mất gốc men depend on the United States for livelihood.” As the dictionary example indicates, the term gained its popularity in the Vietnam War (1955-1975). North Vietnam would call South Vietnam “mất gốc” for supporting the United States invasion. Thirty years after the war, the term, once used for people who commit treason, is used to call those who have forgotten where they come from.  

The legend of the Vietnamese origin: Lac Long Quan and Au Co

Dai becomes passionate when expressing his love for his homeland. He tells the old legend of the Vietnamese origin: A hundred people were born out of a giant egg, the product of the love between king Lac Long Quan and fairy Au Co. These people built a kingdom and expanded it into what is now Vietnam. “We are brothers and sisters born out of the same parents,” he concludes. “We share. We unite. We defeat enemies. That’s our root.”

Dai sent his children back to Vietnam ten years ago, before they started elementary school. They have lived with his parents-in-law since. Dai says his children adapted quickly to their new life where they are loved and cared for by a tight kinship network instead of being alone and bullied for looking different. Getting over the initial pain of family separation, Dai is proud to see his children grow up as “authentic Vietnamese” who not only speak Vietnamese and practice its tradition but are soaked in patriotism. “Authentic Vietnamese” always have their homeland in mind and do their best to contribute to its well-being and prosperity. Patriotism, Dai explains, is a spiritual connection between a person and his/her country which can only be felt when one is raised in it.    

What it means to be a Vietnamese

Linh-Chi’s viewpoint is slightly different from Dai because she is a citizen of two countries who enjoys a liberal European education that does not encourage hypernationalism. Furthermore, she thinks one’s identity depends on the person, not the environment. To reach this level of Vietnamese language competence and cultural understanding, Linh-Chi mostly learns on her own because her parents don’t have time for her. The inclination to discover one’s roots, she says, will come naturally as the person grows older as in her case. Linh-Chi listens to Vietnamese news daily and shares her opinions regarding social issues in Vietnam on Facebook. Born and raised in the CR but she thinks she cares and knows more about Vietnam than many “authentic Vietnamese” themselves. This is how she shows her love and respect for her origin. 

4 thoughts on “The Nonstop Minimarkets: Vietnamese in CZ

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    1. Wow! Thank you so much for the comment. I really appreciate it! I submitted a longform article (this and the previous article you’ve read are just chapters of it) as my bachelor’s thesis for my Journalism degree. The Dean told me to get it published, but after re-reading I thought it wasn’t that good or groundbreaking. So thank you for your encouragement, I will try sending it to newspapers!!

      Liked by 1 person

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