Global Citizens: Vietnamese in CZ

Multilingualism

“If the Czech idiom ‘You live a new life for every new language you speak’ (Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem) is true then I’m five different people,” writes Ho Thu Huong in the book she co-authored with Nguyen Phan Linh and Pham Anh Duc “Green Passport Goes Around the World.”

“I have had the privilege to live in a multicultural environment since childhood, so I’m used to switching languages as well as my way of thinking and communicating when talking to somebody.”

“Green Passport Goes Around the World” book by Ho Thu Huong, Nguyen Phan Linh and Pham Anh Duc

Huong calls herself a global citizen for several reasons.

Born in Vietnam but growing up in the CR, Huong has lived in Buenos Aires (Argentina), Mexico City (Mexico), Vancouver (Canada) and now Boston (USA). She is fluent in five languages: Vietnamese, Czech, English, Spanish and French.

Spending her childhood in Havířov, a small town in the North East of the CR with a population of 80,000, Huong dreamt of traveling abroad to melting pots such as London, New York or Sydney.

Her dream pushed her to learn about other cultures and participate in various competitions that would allow her to visit other cities. Looking back, Huong realizes how her proactiveness has earned her opportunities to travel the world. 

Global mentality

“Growing up in the CR, I live in two worlds simultaneously. When I’m at home, I speak Vietnamese with my family, eat traditional meals; when I’m at school, I speak Czech, eat Czech lunch, treat people more equally because in Czech, the second person pronouns do not change based on age or status as in Vietnamese. […] Thanks to my interaction with different cultures, I can compare them to each other and choose the best out of each for myself.” 

Huong’s story has inspired many other Vietnamese to step out of their comfort zones, find different ways to experience new things and learn more about the world. The concept of being a global citizen also resonates with modern mothers. 

“I teach my children a global mentality,” says Vuong Thuy-An, the Vietnamese mother whose son Filip Wu was introduced in chapter two. “First, I don’t want them to be influenced by [nationalist ideologies]. Second, I teach them humanism rather than following any religious beliefs.”

Unlike patriotic veteran Dai whose only wish is his children be “authentic Vietnamese,” Thuy-An does not want to preach to her children “blind patriotism,” which she experienced first-hand when marrying her Chinese husband nearly ten years ago. 

“Many Vietnamese just hate Chinese people for no reasons,” says Thuy-An. “When I did a Facebook livestream discussing Chinese traditions during Lunar New Year, there were some mean comments such as, ‘do you even know how Vietnamese celebrate Lunar New Year? Why don’t you talk about it instead of Chinese New Year? So much free time, huh? You China kiss-ass!’” 

Seventy-eight percent of the Vietnamese population hold unfavorable views of China, according to Global Attitudes Survey by Pew Research Center in spring 2014, due to their dreadful history of on-and-off conflicts and most recently, the South China Sea disputes.

Patriotism versus nationalism

Thuy-An also see toxic nationalism in her Chinese mother-in-law who despises the Japanese to the point she feels delighted hearing about natural disasters killing people in Japan.

“The hatred has permeated deeply into their consciousness,” she says as she curls her legs up to fit into her kitchen chair. Thuy-An does not want her children to see borders when they look at another human being. People should be treated equally regardless of their race, nationality, and gender. She teaches this to her children by talking to them for hours about her own experience.

One time, her son Filip came home crying because another student said to him, “you Chinese go back to your country!”

Seeing his tears, Thuy-An was happy.

She told him that she, too, was insulted many times for her height and skin color. She asked him how he felt when he heard the insults and explained to him that if he does not enjoy being insulted for his skin color and nationality, he should never do the same to anyone.

She thinks the experience, though painful, has taught her son a good lesson about human decency and respect. 

Thuy-An’s approach to child-rearing is more open-minded because of her personality and background.

She is confident and sociable. Unlike the majority of the Vietnamese community, Thuy-An did not come to the CR to make a living, but to study at Faculty of Technology of Tomas Bata University in Zlín when she was 19. At the time, she already spoke Czech, Chinese and English besides her mother tongue. She chose to study in the CR because of she could afford it (free tuition) and she wanted to see the world.

Back when she was still in Vietnam, Thuy-An had already made friends with random foreigners on the streets of Hanoi, asked them about their cultures and brought them home to introduce them to hers. Her knowledge and experience have contributed to her worldview and set her apart from her fellow immigrants.   

Life outside of stereotypes

Thuy-An’s neighbor and best friend Trang Soukupová is also raising her children to be global citizens. Trang is a divorced single mother with two daughters aged two and four, each of whom has a different father, but both fathers are Czech. 

Twenty-eight-year-old Trang calls herself a “modern woman”; she single-handedly takes care of two little girls while balancing a few jobs and non-profit projects. Since their divorce three years ago, Trang and her ex-husband, who is 28 years older than her, are still on good terms. He loves the children, even though the second one is not his.

However, because of his busy work schedule, he can only drop by a few times to put the children to sleep and take them to school the next morning. 

Trang Soukupová and her two daughters

The price of being a “modern woman” is not cheap. For her lifestyle and marriage decisions, Trang has received a great deal of criticism from close family members and random Vietnamese alike. She just ignores it. 

“Why do I need to react to people who don’t want to understand me and want to harm me?” she says. “Whoever understands me will sympathize with my problems. In the end, who else can live your life for you?” 

As the Vice-President of Lam Cha Me CZ, Trang supports President Thuy-An in organizing extra-curricular classes, field trips and cultural events for Vietnamese families in the CR so her daughters are well exposed to both Vietnamese and Czech cultures. They both speak fluent both languages fluently, thanks to their mother speaking to them in Vietnamese while the father speaks Czech. 

“My greatest success is having two nice daughters, doing what I enjoy, and surrounding myself with friends who give me energy and inspiration to live,” writes Trang on her Facebook wall. “One of the most significant impacts comes from An. Simply put, I would like to quote ‘It doesn’t matter how long we live, it’s how we live that counts.’”   

Raising a global citizen: empathy, languages and experiences

Thuy-An’s fiction “Hanh”

Empathy

The quote “It doesn’t matter how long we live, it’s how we live that counts” is from Thuy-An’s fiction “Hanh” which touches upon many serious topics from child molestation, domestic violence, to mental illnesses and restrictive traditional gender roles.

Thuy-An even spends time discussing some of these issues with her children and encourages other parents to do the same. She does this by giving simple examples and asking for their opinions, or by explaining and encouraging them to think critically.

Languages

Empathy is key to being a global citizen, but to be a successful one, a person needs to master his or her language skill. That’s why from the day Filip was born, his mother has spoken to him in all four languages that she knows: Vietnamese, English, Czech and Chinese. 

“I don’t know which language he will adapt to first,” says Thuy-An, pointing at the flower vase on the kitchen table. “For example, I will teach him this is flower, hua, hoa and květina.”

Vuong Thuy An, her son Filip and her daughter Sisi

Filip started talking around two and a half, but he was confused as to which language to use, so sometimes in a sentence, he would speak all four languages.

According to Zuzana Terry in her research on bilingual families in the CR, this is called code-mixing, a common problem. Bilinguals or in Filip’s case, polyglots, become better at code-switching (changing languages) after getting enough practice.

Nine-year-old Filip now speaks Vietnamese to his mother, Chinese to his father and grandparents, Czech at school and English in daily life. Regarding Chinese, Thuy-An makes sure that her son’s linguistic level does not stop at speaking, so she makes him practice reading and writing Chinese character on the weekend. If she has time, she creates games for Filip to make learning more interesting.

Experiences

Besides learning languages, Filip also attends a number of extra-curricular activities such as football, swimming, and martial arts because his mother wants him to experience as much as he can during his childhood.  

“He has to try something out to see if it fits him or not,” says An, taking an example of Filip practicing piano for three years before telling her he wanted to quit.

“I respect his decision,” she says. “I will only guide [the children] until a certain age. When they reach 18, I will kick them out of the house and go traveling. I will be their advisor, but they have to decide for themselves which major to study, who to marry, etc. because I have taught this to them since young age.” 

Thuy-An wants to provide her children all the resources they need in order to “fly” and explore the world without borders. All the language lessons, extra classes, sport events and long talks about social issues are meant to help them adapt more easily into any culture.

She teaches them to keep in mind that their every move will contribute to the image of Asian people in the world; therefore, they have to live up to the expectation.

Perception of “root” (gốc)

Nguyen Phan Linh, the other co-author of the book “Green Passport Goes Around the World” born in Vietnam, has lived five years in New Zealand, three years in the CR and is now in Singapore. Linh says he carries with him Vietnamese characteristics and values wherever he goes.

“It can be said that I am a global citizen with a Vietnamese appearance,” Linh writes. “A few friends of mine joke that I am a ‘banana.’ But at the end of the day, your identity is however you perceive it. You are who you think you are.”

It is obvious that the rootlessness fear, though common, is not universal among all Vietnamese immigrants. Only people who believe in the concept of “root” fear losing it. For people who consider themselves global citizens, “root” is a social construct, not a fact because humans have migrated since ancient times and drawn borders as they went.

One world. One people.

People’s perception of “root” also varies based on their educational, economic and professional background.

Dai, for example, served in the army when he was in Vietnam. He was trained to fight for his country. That is his “root.”

Linh, on the other hand, has traveled to different countries and made friends with people from different people since young age. His “root” is in all the places he has lived.

As the world experiences yet another resurgence of nationalism, we can all learn from Thuy-An’s lesson to her son when he was bullied in school “do unto others as you would have done to you.” If a person wants acceptance and respect from others, he/she has to show the same first.

There might be less violence and hatred if people open their minds and forget the borders.

Czechs, Slovaks, Vietnamese, or Chinese are not people from different nations. They are one people of the world.     

More Than Just Race: Vietnamese in CZ

“A state within a state,” “the biggest national ghetto,” and “Little Hanoi” are some among many names Czech media have given SAPA, the Vietnamese wholesale market in Libuš near the outskirts of Prague. Some labels are less culturally sensitive than others, but all stereotypes have some truth in them. 

The 350,000 square meter market is owned exclusively by a few powerful reputable Vietnamese businessmen. SAPA belongs to the Vietnamese for the Vietnamese. It provides a number of services such as banking, translation, insurance, tourism, dentistry to Vietnamese immigrants to make their lives easier in the CR and to speed up the integration process. Paradoxically, the more services SAPA offers to the Vietnamese immigrants, the more it isolates these people from the rest of the Czech society. Realizing their own shortcomings and limitations, the first-generation Vietnamese encourage their Czech-born children to step out of the “comfort market zone” and try out other professions.  

Wishing to show different faces of the second-generation Vietnamese in the CR, Viet Up started a project called “Humans of Bananas” on their Facebook page, interviewing Vietnamese Czechs from a variety of industries. A prominent example is Jackie Tran, owner of Cafefin situated at Jiřího z Poděbrad square, one of the most sought-out cafes in the city. His parents, who run the famous Vietnamese bistro chain “Pho Vietnam Tuan & Lan,” had already opened three restaurants in Prague when Jackie opened his cafe. He oversees the visual design of all branches. Cafefin’s interior design combines modern architecture with traditional Vietnamese furniture from the 80s. Jackie takes pride in his craft, whether it’s photography, graphic design, programming or making coffee. The cafe’s Instagram account @cafefinvpraze has 21,700 followers with each photo attracts around 1,000 likes. His products translate his appreciation of his cultural heritage. 

Another Vietnamese cafe in Prague with a similar design concept is AntHill situated near Namesti Miru owned by six Vietnamese-Czechs with a goal to create a safe space for second-generation Vietnamese to relax and escape the world of pressure and expectations from the previous generation. Almost every day, cultural or social events take place at AntHill.  

Other “banana children” take advantage of their education, experience and language skills to help integrate other Vietnamese to the Czech society. Tran Van Sang, founder of integration center Sangu.eu, teaches his fellow Vietnamese the Czech language, and educates them about Czech laws, policies, culture and history. Now, he is running for a seat in the European parliament. 

Having been in the CR since he was ten years old, like many of his “banana” generation, Sang was the family’s translator, accompanying his father to governmental offices to do paperwork. After graduating from college, Sang worked for over five organizations in Prague focusing on translation, interpretation and consultancy, during which time he saw a number of problems his countrymen encounter during their arrival in the CR, such as the language barrier, a lack of knowledge of basic immigration laws, and unreliable sources of information. He started his project “Sangu.eu” in 2015 to provide solutions to these issues. Since then, he has become a bridge between the Czechs and the Vietnamese. 

Campaigning his way into the European Parliament, Sangu wrote a long post in the Facebook community group “Potraviny Union” which has 43,000 members, all Vietnamese. He began with his father’s story of coming to the CR in 1969 on a labor exchange program, leaving behind everything in hope of building a better future for his children. He compares this with the current situation where hundreds of thousands of Czechs are leaving their country for better paid jobs elsewhere in the world, indicating that the next generation of Vietnamese Czechs might not stay with their parents but travel abroad for better opportunities just as their parents once did.  

“We, Czech and Vietnamese alike, all care about the future of the CR,” Sang writes. The post gained 1,500 likes and hundreds of comments in a few hours. “The EU parliament is the basis of the EU; therefore, having a representative in the EU parliament will be an advantage for the [Vietnamese] community as well as the CR. […] In this race, you don’t need to support me financially, but I would love some spiritual support from the community!” 

Support he received. Only a few days after Sangu’s announcement to lobby into the European parliament, 500 Vietnamese stores across the CR have volunteered to put up banners advocating for him.   

While Sang use his platform to share positive sides of the Vietnamese community to the Czech society, some Vietnamese Czechs use their platform to discuss the “dark side” of the Vietnamese culture. Ha Thanh Špetlíkova, a Vietnamese-Czech actress and entrepreneur, has always been the “black sheep” of her generation. When most were attending grammar school following their parents’ wishes, Ha Thanh was the one who signed up for fashion design at Secondary School of Applied Arts. Her parents hoped for a long time that after secondary school, she would choose a more serious major. But she continued to go against the current and pursued stage design at DAMU, a decision that attracted considerable criticism at the time. 

“It is a shame that our [Vietnamese] community is still very small; we all have common friends, so people develop a bourgeois mindset,” said Ha Thanh in an interview with iDnes in 2018. “It’s a world in which everyone compares and competes in hypocritical issues like what kind of car you use, or which brand your clothes are from.”

The noise died down in 2012 once Ha Thanh earned a small role as a nurse in the TV series on TV Nova “Surgery Clinic in the Rose Garden” only to gain momentum again when “Miss Hanoi,” the drama in which she plays the lead character, was released six years later.   

When the trailer of “Miss Hanoi” with Vietnamese subtitles was released on Facebook in 2018, it attracted thousands of views within hours. It was the first time a Vietnamese woman played a main character in a Czech movie. Ha Thanh herself took part in editing the script, providing the director Zdenek Viktora with insights into life of the Vietnamese minority in the CR: racial tension, financial struggle, generational conflicts, social hierarchy, corruption, criminal networks, etc. Movie screenings with Vietnamese subtitles exclusively for Vietnamese audiences were organized in Prague, Brno and Ostrava, making this the first time Vietnamese people could go to the theater in the CR and watch movies in their mother tongue. The support was overwhelming. People celebrated as they saw their representation on screen, especially that of a strong courageous female role model.

“This movie reflects reality,” said Trinh Tan, President of the Vietnamese Union in Ostrava Northern Moravia, at the movie screening at Luna Cinema in Ostrava on Sept. 23, 2018. “In many cases, [Vietnamese] parents are often worried for their children, but the children grow up building their own career. This is a classic example. [The lead character] changed her private life to enter a different profession, not doing business [like her parents], but integrating into the Czech society to be a police officer. This is a tough job, but she has fought for justice and righteousness!”

“I hope that over time, there will be more Vietnamese actors,” Ha Thanh says. “Most importantly, I hope they don’t have to always play the role of marijuana growers or shopkeepers.”

Ha Thanh has almost always been given roles designed specifically for Asian actresses such as the quiet shy nurse in the TV series “Surgery Clinic in the Rose Garden” (2012) or a no-name receptionist at a casino in Poupata (2011). Her interviews also revolve around her ethnicity to such a degree that in an interview with iDnes in 2018 about her movie “Miss Hanoi,” Ha Thanh had to stop the journalist from asking further about her Vietnamese background to ask if they were going to talk about the movie.  

Luu Anh Nhat, member of the non-profit Viet Up, expresses the same frustration. She thinks there is still a long way to go until the Vietnamese Czechs are recognized for their talents and abilities and not just their exoticness. Anh-Nhat mentions the case of Do Thu Trang, who was listed in “Forbes 30 under 30” in 2017 for her blog Asijat.ka which discusses both Vietnamese and Czech cultures from a viewpoint of a person who grew up both worlds. Trang’s achievement was a great opportunity for the Czech population to learn more about the young generation of Vietnamese in the CR. In her interviews, Trang shares her take on Vietnamese culture, religion, lifestyle, language, but Anh-Nhat thinks that journalists treat Trang unfairly by focusing solely on her race. Anh-Nhat’s argument is based on the fact that Trang has a diverse career in public relations, copy writing and IT besides writing blogs about the Vietnam. She used to be a Happy Manager at IBM, one of the world’s top IT company. Now she works in the Communication Department of Spaceti, the world’s number one property technology start-up. “It’s so boring, and she has so much more to offer than ‘I’m Vietnamese.’” Anh-Nhat exclaims. “She’s actually very talented and well-grounded and has great wisdom for her age. They should have asked her about that!” 

Trang, on the other hand, is not offended when asked about her cultural background because it is the center of her successful blog. “I think [my ethnicity] is part of me,” says Trang, who was born in Vietnam but moved to the CR at the age of five. “I will never ever consider it as an offence. But I will really appreciate next time that the interviews would ask me questions about being a young person and finding some work-life balance, because it’s not always about success, it’s also about how to balance and integrate work into life, and I think being the Happiness Manager at IBM gave me an overview, so I think I have a few things to share with the young generation, so when being asked about my career, I quite enjoy.”

While Trang takes pride in her cultural heritage and builds her career on it, some second-generation Vietnamese would like to be defined solely based on their merits. Many follow their parents’ path and expand it. Others travel back to Vietnam to discover their roots and find ways to contribute. Living in two cultures has made them flexible, adaptive and open-minded. Whatever they do, most of them show high level of integration and confidence.  

Labels at School: Vietnamese in CZ

Multiple names

“Ha…T..h..an..h.…,” the teacher squinted her eyes to look at the letters, struggling to pronounce her new student’s name. Eventually, giving up, Ha Thanh’s kindergarten teacher gave her a new name for convenience: “Hasika.” The name “Hasika” does not have any meaning, while “Ha Thanh” means “green river” in Vietnamese. 

“At that time, I didn’t speak any Czech,” said Ha Thanh Špetlíková, now an actress and entrepreneur, in an interview with Lidovky in 2010. “I saw that the teacher wrote “Hasika” next to my name. I didn’t understand what it meant. In primary school, Hasiku sounds like Jessicu so I answer to both names.” 

Ha Thanh Špetlíková

Having a name in the local language is the first step for any immigrant to integrate into the society of the host country, especially when it helps him/her find jobs or places to stay.

A research by Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education shows that Vietnamese immigrants must apply for twice as many apartment advertisements as Czech people in order to be invited for a view. Czech job seekers are also 180 percent more likely than Asian immigrants to earn an interview when applying for jobs.

A similar experiment done in the United States in 2016 shows that second-generation Irish, German and Polish immigrants with “very ethnic names” earn $50 to $100 less per year than those with “very American names.”

“If you want your child to be more sociable, confident and able to avoid unnecessary troubles, you can choose a Western name for him or her,” says Vuong Thuy-An a Vietnamese mother of two living in Prague, President of the non-profit Lam Cha Me CZ (Parenting in the CR). 

On Easter 2019, Thuy-An organized a trip for several Vietnamese mothers and their children to Budapest. Coming along with the group is a Chinese boy whose name hardly anyone could pronounce or remember.

“People mispronounced [the boy’s] name into funny sounds,” An says. “He didn’t enjoy it and was unhappy whenever his name is called. Sometimes he sighed in reaction to hearing it, but never dared saying anything. Every time this happened, I only wished his parents had given him a Western name to make it easier for others to call him.

Thuy-An herself knows the struggle of naming children in a multicultural environment. Her husband is Chinese. Their nine-year-old son Filip has a beautiful Chinese name 吴蒙捷 (Wu Mengjie), given to him by his grandfather, which means health and strength. Only one problem: the middle name 蒙 (Meng) is translated into “buttocks” (Mông) in Vietnamese. Thuy-An, therefore, for convenience, gave her son a Czech name “Filip,” a name Czech, Vietnamese and Chinese people can all pronounce.  

Vuong Thuy-An and her children

Multiple identities

Psychologist Erik Erikson, known for his theory of identity crisis, says people develop their sense of “self” around the age of puberty. During this period, we ask ourselves questions such as “who am I,” “what is my purpose,” “who do I want to become,” and so on. For children of immigrants, this is extra challenging because they are under the influence of two or more cultures. Sometimes, in order to cope with the identity crisis, they deny one of the two identities. 

“I’m more Dužan than Duc,” says the Vietnamese-Czech movie director Dužan Duong (Vietnamese name: Duong Viet Duc) in an interview with Czech Radio in 2016. “But at home, when I’m with my parents, I’m still Duc. And I will always be Duc at home.” 

Dužan doesn’t speak Vietnamese. In 2014, he made a short docu-fiction film named “Mat Goc” (Rootless) based on his personal experience with identity crisis.

The movie features him and his brother visiting Vietnam for the first time, overwhelmed by the culture shock.

Bullying and Discrimination

While the Vietnamese culture shocked Dužan, the Czech culture shocked Thu Vu when she first set foot in the CR at the age of six. Hiding behind her big leather purse, Thu sobs as she recalls her early experiences in the Czech Republic. It’s been years, but the painful memories still haunt her. 

“At the time, I couldn’t get used to my new life in the Czech Republic,” Thu says. “Meanwhile, my friends in Vietnam had already forgotten me. I didn’t know who I was, or where I belonged.” 

When Thu went to school, her classmates mocked her for her Asian appearance and accent. After the initial struggle with the language, she slowly became fluent in Czech, and her academic performance spiked. But that only made her situation worse. Thu became a subject of envy. “Some girls provoked me to fight them after school,” she says. “They spread terrible rumors about me. The situation got out of hand, and the police arrived at school to question me. I didn’t want to go to school anymore.” 

Thu was not the only Vietnamese student to suffer from bullying. In the research done by Alex Tran on 120 second-generation Vietnamese, 58 percent of the participants have reportedly experienced racist and/or xenophobic assaults during their time in the CR, 86 percent of which were verbal. These attacks harm their self-esteem and pride, make them question their identity and sometimes, leave deep scars in their hearts.

Ondra Nguyen was another victim of bullying. After two older students beat him up for no apparent reason, his sister came to talk to the teacher. Ondra did not want people to know about the incident, but the injuries were hard to hide. He was ashamed.

“I used to hate being Vietnamese.” says Ondra, now a student at University of Economics in Prague. “When I was young, maybe 12. Something like that. It’s very difficult being Vietnamese in the Czech Republic during those times. I think it wasn’t just my problem, but of many Vietnamese. I heard it from some Vietnamese they hated being Vietnamese in the CR when they were younger.”

In her book “Green Passport Goes Around the World,” (Hộ Chiếu Xanh Đi Quanh Thế Giới), Ho Thu Huong describes in detail how she was verbally and physically assaulted by Czech people during her teenage years in the small city of Havířov.

One time in primary school, Huong and her classmate Veronika went for a walk and passed a playground where four boys, the same age as them, were playing. Veronika knew the boys, so she dropped by to say hi. But before she started her greetings, Huong already heard what she had expected. “I heard ‘China! China!’” Huong writes in her book. “I wanted to walk as fast as I could from those children. But they wouldn’t let us be. They followed us like a tail. As we sat on a swing, the smallest boy hit me in the head with a long stick. Other boys threw rocks at me. I ran home, slammed the door and cried.”  

Growing pain

Huong did not let the racist slurs or violent attacks bring her down. She turned them into motivation instead. “It is always a big challenge to be an immigrant,” Huong writes. “Until the world tears down all prejudice, immigrants everywhere have to fight for themselves.”

Since then, she studied hard to prove her abilities, won numerous academic competitions and gained opportunities to travel abroad for study and work. Now 31, Huong has traveled to 25 countries and is fluent in five languages. In 2016, she co-authored with two other Vietnamese to write “Green Passport Goes Around the World” and told their stories of living, working and traveling around the world.

The book made it to the top 20 most valuable books in Vietnam in the same year. The labels people put on Huong no longer bother her, she says in her book, because she knows who she is. She is a global citizen. She does not belong to a single nation but the world. 

Ondra also found a way to fight for himself and regain confidence. After the assault, he started learning martial arts. A few years later, on his way out of the supermarket Kaufland, Ondra heard a drunkard said something racist about him. “I waited outside for the man to finish his shopping, and then I just beat him up,” Ondra says. “I was stupid. I was young. I wanted to show off to people that I’m Vietnamese but I’m confident.”

Fortunately, Ondra does not fight on the streets anymore. Now he practices boxing and dancing with a personal trainer. “I work out because it’s a lifestyle,” Ondra says. “I’m glad the two guys beat me up that day. That’s how it all started. Everything. My behaviors. My attitudes to life. Who I am today. I’m very proud of it.”

Social labels

No one can avoid being labeled. In his book about stereotypes and prejudice, Charles Stangor, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, asserts that since prehistoric times, for our own safety and livelihood, humans have learned to judge quickly and put people in boxes of friends and enemies.

But social categorization and stereotyping have pros and cons. Social boxes exaggerate the similarities among people in the same social group as well as the differences between social groups. Insults and violence between social groups often deepen the divide and contribute to the stereotypes. Derogatory labels affect people’ sense of identity.

As we have seen, second-generation Vietnamese have various ways to deal with their labels. Some deny the labels. Some reclaim. Others turn them into fuel for success. No one can avoid being labeled, but everyone can choose how to deal with it.  

Czech Grandmothers: Vietnamese in CZ

Bà Tây

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. 

Desperate housewives

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.