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.  

Discussions about Love and Marriage: Vietnamese in CZ

Scrutiny

“If your child dates a white guy, you [as a Vietnamese parent] know the society is gonna say something, so you put that pressure of the society on your child” says Vietnamese Czech Anh-Nhat. “My friend has just started dating an American guy. She knows if her parents know, she’ll be yelled at at home. So sometimes, if the relationship is not serious, people just don’t tell their parents. They know they are gonna be judged.”  

Research has shown that relationship issues are among the most common disputes between first- and second- generation Vietnamese, especially regarding their choice of partners. When a Vietnamese marry someone, he/she is married to the other’s family. It is, therefore, vital that one’s parents approve of his/her partner. An ideal couple should come from the same class, same city or at least region/country, share the same cultural, religious, educational and economic background and match each other’s zodiac signs, according to studies done on religions in South Vietnam by the US Department of the Navy in 1967. 

When a Vietnamese marry someone, he/she is married to the other’s family.

For example, Yen Nhi, a Vietnamese-Czech girl who was sent to Czech nannies when she was six-month-old, was not allowed to have a boyfriend until her twenty-second birthday. In the traditional Vietnamese culture, a woman’s value depends on her virginity. Therefore, it is not encouraged for a Vietnamese girl to have relationships when she is still in school. After leaving school, she has around five years to find a partner and start a family before she becomes a “leftover woman” (gái ế): old and unwanted. Dating often begins after two families have approved of the couple’s relationship and concludes in a marriage. That is why many first-generation Vietnamese show concern over who their children are seeing.

Marrying Westerners

A Vietnamese woman marrying a Westerner used to be seen as shameful and unpatriotic as described in the classic novel “The Industry of Marrying Europeans” (Kỹ Nghệ Lấy Tây) written by famous Vietnamese writer Vu Trong Phung under the French colonial rule.

Tuoi Tre News reported that between 2008 and 2010 there are 300,000 marriages between Vietnamese women and foreigners for economic reasons. These women marry foreigners for their husbands’ citizenships, so they can stay in their husband’s country, work and send money home. They prepare themselves for a modern and comfortable life, but not for the cultural shock or the language barrier. The brokers do not bother themselves with educating their women, either. Their job is to find a man who needs a wife and a woman who needs money and unite them under one roof. Unsurprisingly, international marriages between people who have little understanding of each other’s culture and can barely communicate have many problems. 

Vietnam is known for its export of brides. Channel NewsAsia’s Tung Ngo went to a village where many of its daughters have married foreign men to find out why.

“Many of those with foreign husbands have low educational levels, so they usually have to depend on their husband,” said Dang The Hung, deputy chairman of the State Committee for Overseas Vietnamese Affairs in the same article, published in 2013.

“Some of them have been mistreated by their husbands or their husbands’ families. […] Besides, many marriages were conducted like ‘commercial exchanges’ between foreigners and poor women who wanted to marry foreigners for financial purposes.”

What the deputy chairman says is true, but contributes to the narrative that only unattractive poor uneducated Vietnamese women marry foreigners. The stigma grows as the media covers cases of domestic violence, cultural conflicts and divorces between the above-mentioned Vietnamese wives and their foreign husbands.

When asked if she would mind her daughter dating a Westerner, Bach-Yen struggles to give a yes or no answer. “I know my children listen to me,” she says. “To be honest, every Vietnamese is afraid of losing his root (mất gốc). When they say they let their children decide for themselves, they are defending themselves. I teach my children that good trees produce good fruits. Look at the parents to choose your life partner. I don’t care what nationality that person is, where he or she comes from, Hanoi or Nam Dinh (cities in Vietnam) because you know I am from Hanoi. To me, it doesn’t matter.”

Anh-Nhat says this is a classic Vietnamese parents’ answer. Vietnamese parents say they are open-minded and support mixed marriages in general. However, if the mixed marriage takes place in their family, they have a hard time accepting it. According to the Czech Statistical Office in 2015, only 3 percent of Vietnamese households were mixed. 

“They think if you marry a non-Vietnamese, your children would lose even more cultural identity,” Anh-Nhat explains. “In Cheb, many Vietnamese men married Czech women and most of them got divorced. The parents are afraid that if we marry non-Vietnamese people, we’ll also get divorced.”

Stigma towards divorce

This concern shows the stigma in the Vietnamese community against divorce, especially divorced women. In Vietnamese, the saying goes “women are better than each other thanks to their husbands” (đàn bà hơn nhau ở tấm chồng). Forty percent out of 1,400 people aged 18 across the country said divorce was “wrong” in a study by the Hanoi-based Mekong Development Research Institute published in January 2019. The study also shows that less educated people are less open-minded about divorces.

Despite the hype around rising number of divorces in Vietnamese media, the divorce rate in Vietnam is still among the lowest in the world, according to research by University of California at Irvine sociologists Cheng-Tong Lir Wang and Evan Schofer. In a country with a population of 87 million, there were 88,591 divorces or a divorce rate of 1.7 percent compared to the worldwide average of 5.5. Due to mostly financial and social pressure, many Vietnamese couples would rather remain in unhappy marriages than get divorced.

Lenny Bich Ngoc Pham, whose boyfriend is Czech, says her parents have the same fear. Their biggest concern is the opinion other Vietnamese will have about their daughter being with a Westerner.

“[My parents]’ mentality is that ‘our daughter isn’t that bad-looking, her study is also not that terrible, why can’t she find a decent Vietnamese man with a nice background?’” Lenny says, recalling various occasions when the family argue over her relationship.

“[Czech and Vietnamese] cultures are very different from each other. Family gatherings are very common in the Vietnamese culture. If two families have a meal together but cannot understand each other’s stories or jokes, it will be very uncomfortable. So, there won’t be any family reunion.”

Good Vietnamese wives

“When it comes to relationships, you can feel their expectations,” says Thang Do, a 27-year-old front-end developer whose family constantly pressure him to settle down. “Not only your parents but your aunts and uncles want you to date a Vietnamese girl.”  

Although Thang’s family never explicitly forbids him from having Western partners, they repeatedly stress the benefits of endogamy (the practice of marrying within one’s social group) while making examples of failed marriages between Vietnamese and Czechs. Vietnamese wives are preferred over Western ones because the former are considered more helpful, obedient, kind and caring, while the latter are often deemed too liberal for long-term commitment. 

Thang himself is naturally drawn to other second-generation Vietnamese with whom he shares the same experience and the same languages. Gwendolyn Seidman, professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department at Albright College, says this is normal. We are more likely to be attracted to people whose features or characteristics we find familiar or similar to our own.

Similarly, Lenny sees herself as an independent woman with strong opinions who would fit better with a Czech partner. “I asked my parents if they cared more about their daughter’s happiness or other people’s opinions,” says Lenny, saying that her mother now approves of her partner only on the condition that the man loves and cares about Lenny, but her father never wants to meet him.

Mixed children

“My parents don’t want to have mixed grandchildren who cannot speak Vietnamese. That is the same as losing your descendants to another culture (mất gốc),” Lenny says.  

Lenny’s last point echoes the wish of Le Quang Dai, the Vietnamese poet, to have “authentic Vietnamese” children and not “mất gốc.”

This “mất gốc” fear is prevalent among the Vietnamese immigrants and deeply rooted in their subconsciousness. Thousands of years of invasion, colonization and war have planted a seed of doubt in the Vietnamese mind, causing them to fear foreigners. Patriotism in Vietnam, heightened during wartime and in recent years in response to globalization, also draws a clear distinction between “our people” (người mình) and “their people” (người họ) in terms of values, traditions and religions.

The term “mất gốc,” once used for national traitors, is  now used to criticize anyone who does not fit the idea of a “true” Vietnamese. While first-generation Vietnamese say they are open-minded about mixed marriages, they still hold certain negative prejudices that will take time to change.

The second-generation with a liberal Czech mindset, however, are likely to follow their hearts despite their parents’ comments. 

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. 

Go Big or Go Home: Vietnamese in CZ

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.

Tiệp Khắc kỷ niệm một thời, Hoàng Kim (Blog CNM365)

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.

Stanislav Brouček’s Book “The Visible and Invisible Vietnamese in the Czech Republic”

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. 

Accumulating debt

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