When Yen-Nhi Phamová was almost six-month-old, she was sent to a Czech nanny, or “bà Tây” (literal Vietnamese translation: Western grandmother). She would stay with the nanny from Monday to Friday and only go home to her Vietnamese parents on the weekend. This routine continued until Yen-Nhi was a few years old.
It is estimated that 80-95 percent of Vietnamese families hire Czech nannies for their children, while only one to two percent of the Czechs use private caregivers, according to an article “Paid Caregiving in the Gendered Life Course” by Adéla Souralová. Some Vietnamese children are sent for a few months, some years. Award-winning blogger Vietnamese-Czech, Do Thu Trang, explains the importance of these women in the personal development of the Vietnamese-Czech children in her blog “Our Czech grandmothers:”
Our parents agreed with them on babysitting, tutoring, picking up after school or solving the necessary school affairs. They are often professional women, retired grandmothers, or housewives who have taken us Vietnamese in and raised us as their own children. Sometimes for a short period, sometimes for several years. Sometimes for a small financial reward, sometimes just for pleasure. They taught us Czech, cooked Czech food and explained to us the world around.Do Thu Trang, asijatka.cz
The care and guidance of the bà Tây shape the childhood of most second-generation Vietnamese and develop their mindset.
Yen-Nhi, now a 23-year-old business graduate, doesn’t remember much about her Czech nanny but recalls leaving her. “I did not know who my parents were,” Yen-Nhi says. When she moved permanently back home to live with her parents, she only spoke Czech. “One day, they dropped by and introduced themselves to me. It was really strange. After, they declared their ‘ownership’ over me and took me home; they only spoke Vietnamese to me.”
Bach-Yen, on the other hand, does not recall her daughter struggling to adjust to her “new” home. “Yen-Nhi was very intelligent,” says Bach-Yen. “She looked up Vietnamese words in a dictionary and wrote them down. She even wrote poems in Vietnamese.”
Since she no longer employed a Czech nanny, Bach-Yen spent more time with Yen-Nhi, teaching her family values and traditions. Yen-Nhi now speaks fluent Vietnamese, Czech and English, so does her older brother, who moved from Vietnam to the CR to reunite with his family at the age of eight.
Graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Anglo-American University in Prague, Yen-Nhi and her brother opened their own finance consulting company in the Vietnamese market SAPA. Their achievements have brought the parents great joy and pride. But what makes Bach-Yen most proud is her children’s strong connection to their Vietnamese roots, especially in the case of Yen-Nhi. The time she invested in her daughter paid off.
According to Adéla Souralová in her extensive studies on the subject, Vietnamese immigrants hire Czech nannies for their children for several reasons. The first is obvious: the parents are busy. Not only do they have to work hard to settle the loans that enabled them to relocate to the CR in the first place, but in many cases, they also have to send money back to Vietnam to support their extended families. Second, Vietnamese parents want to bring a grandmother figure into their family, simulate a normal lifestyle of a Vietnamese household and help their children learn the Czech language as quickly as possible.
First-generation Vietnamese are well aware of their biggest shortcoming: the language barrier, so they make sure their children speak fluent Czech. Linguistic competence is key to social acceptance and integration. Furthermore, first-generation Vietnamese hire others to take care of their babies because they are used to the dual-earner household model where both partners work to provide for the family. Souralová explains that in Vietnam, wages are low, maternity leave is only a few months and there is a wide range of nursery schools as well as complex kinship networks to help take care of babies as early as a few months old. Women staying home for too long after birth to look after their children can be judged as lazy, incapable or dependent on her husband’s money for survival. Vietnamese women are, therefore, not used to the housewife life.
On April 3, 2019, a Vietnamese mother of two complained on Facebook community group of the Vietnamese non-profit Lam Cha Me CZ (Parenting in the CR) that staying home for three years taking care of the children has made her suffer financially and psychologically. For fear of the stigma towards “bad mothers,” the woman shared her story under the fake Facebook account “Thy Thang,” asking other Vietnamese mothers for help. She explains that her husband is the sole breadwinner of the family, earning 30,000 Czech crowns each month, a third of which is used to cover the living expense of two adults and two children: a new-born and a two-year-old. But since she gave birth to the second child, the family had struggled to keep everything under budget, causing the couple to argue regularly.
The post received more than 250 comments from other Vietnamese women, most were sympathetic and supportive. Many women took the opportunity to share their own stories of financial struggle and depression after giving birth. Most people advised “Thy Thang” to go work for a Vietnamese restaurant or nail salon to earn extra cash, so that she can afford a Czech nanny for her children. Others recommended that she take advantage of her maternal leave to babysit children for other mothers for money. “Women have to be financially independent, so no one can look down on us,” a woman commented. “Thy Thang’s” story shows that young Vietnamese women prefer working to babysitting, so they allocate the latter to old Czech women.
Souralová describes the job of a Czech nanny in her studies as time-consuming, demanding, paid and fulfilling. The last characteristic is most important: These nannies choose to look after children because it brings them joy. Through her interviews, Souralová finds that the nannies often have to look after the child all day or all week for a monthly salary of 6,000 to 10,000 CZK (230-380 EUR) which translates to less than 20 CZK per hour. But most Czech “grandmothers” don’t care about the payment. If the women are retired, they have the social benefits covering their basic expenses; their main concern is the loneliness, the passivity and the meaningless life of old age. Caring for a child regardless of its ethnicity brings them a sense of fulfillment.
Second-generation Vietnamese immigrants
Thanks to the Czech “grandmothers”, the Vietnamese children grow up, speak Czech and understand the culture of their host country, which helps them integrate better when attending Czech schools.
The impact of the Czech environment on the second-generation Vietnamese can be seen in a survey done in 2017 by Alex Tran from Charles University with 120 Vietnamese-Czechs from 15 to 25 years of age. The survey shows that 86 percent of the participants have had a Czech nanny look after them. Although 84 percent say they are fluent in both Vietnamese and Czech, 70 percent speak only Czech on a daily basis because their Czech is better than their Vietnamese, and half of the participants cannot write Vietnamese at all. Most of them have more Czech friends than Vietnamese ones. Sixty-seven percent identify with the Czech culture and have conflicts with their parents because their differences in cultural and social values.
Nevertheless, the survey also indicates that the Vietnamese-Czechs identify more with their cultural heritage as they grow older; 62 percent say they identify with the Czech culture in childhood, but only 53 percent do now in adulthood.
Hoang Minh Tuan, for example, considers Czech his first language, but as he has grown older, he has come to appreciate his origin and developed an urge to learn Vietnamese. He now tells his Vietnamese Czech friends to call him by his Vietnamese name Tuan, instead of his Czech name Martin. He says his father picked “Martin” because it was a popular name during the 90s and easy to pronounce.
Growing up in Cheb, a town that is only five kilometers away from the Czech-German border where ten percent of the population is Vietnamese, Tuan had many friends who are also second-generation Vietnamese. They would hang out in the park after school, using pieces of wood as swords or guns to play pretend while screaming at each other in Czech. He only speaks broken Vietnamese at home, having simple conversations with his parents who have gotten used to his strong Czech accent and loanwords.
After graduating from University of Economics in Prague with a degree in Economics and Management and working for IBM as its external supplier, Tuan sets himself a goal to improve his Vietnamese.
“My vision is to secure my family,” says Tuan with a big smile. His eyes wide open, brimming with confidence. “I want to make them financially secured by introducing them the concept of passive income so that even if they stop working, they will still have money.”
“I want to learn Vietnamese as a mission, a higher purpose. If I speak Vietnamese more fluently, I will teach them things I know: success theories, sales skills, negotiation, my knowledge from books and classes. They are over 50. They haven’t had the opportunities that I have to learn about these things. They have done the same thing for 30 years. It’s my duty to teach them and make their lives better.”
Although Tuan thinks his parents are not the best investors, they are his inspirations for hard-working entrepreneurs, which is how they earn the respect of the local Czechs in Cheb. “They work 365 days a year,” Tuan says, switches from speaking English to Vietnamese and imitate his parents’ words. “Mưa, bão, tuyết rơi, chẳng sao hết! (Rain, Storm, Snow: No problem!)”
Martin is grateful for his parents sacrifice that enabled him to attend a top university and work for a top global IT company, which is why he plans to travel to Vietnam next month to rediscover his cultural roots, so that he can connect with his parents on a deeper level in the future. There many other second-generation Vietnamese similar to Martin with rusty Vietnamese and vague understanding of its culture, but they know their origin. At one point in their life, when they are mature and ready, they naturally feel the need to reconnect.