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.     

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.