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Home And Away | part one | part two |
The Far East

Prague's Vietnamese community assimilates, bristles at being labeled stall owners who sell second-rate goods

Vietnamese student Phuong, standing, shares tea with friends Dai, left, and Hong at the Dong Do restaurant.
By S. Adam Cardais
For The Prague Post
(September 9, 2004)


A year and a half after graduating from university, 24-year-old Le Son left Hanoi, Vietnam, and his job as an engineer with an Australian construction company to travel to Prague to take care of his sick mother. The year was 1996. He's still here.

Like many Vietnamese who left Vietnam for former Eastern bloc countries, Le's (it's customary in Vietnam for a person's family name to precede the first name) parents came to the Czech Republic looking for opportunities they couldn't find in their native country.

"My mother opened a clothing shop here [in 1992] because my family was so poor," said Le, whose smooth, rich complexion belies his age of 32. "We didn't have enough money for college. My sister and I went to college at the same time, so it cost a lot of money. You couldn't make much money in Vietnam."

And like many Vietnamese, once Le got to the Czech Republic he stayed, becoming another member of one of the oldest and well-established communities of immigrants living, working and studying here.

Yet many if not most Vietnamese here, Le included, do not see the Czech Republic as home, and although they've been successful here, the connection to Vietnam and their identity as Vietnamese citizens remains strong.


The community

The Vietnamese are the third-largest group of immigrants in the country, behind Ukrainians and Slovaks. Data from the Czech Statistical Office put the number of Vietnamese at 31,501, although it's believed that the real figure is closer to 50,000 or 60,000.

The first wave of immigrants came, primarily as students, in the 1960s and '70s and stayed, establishing one the oldest communities of foreigners in the country. A new group of immigrants looking for work followed after 1989, said Marcel Winter, chairman of the Czech-Vietnamese Society.
Many Vietnamese people, from children to the elderly, study martial arts at this gym in the Pisnice neighborhood.

"I think that they are the best established in Czech society compared to other minorities," Winter said. "They feel good in the Czech Republic. In other countries, they did not assimilate as well."

The Vietnamese work in many different fields, but the majority are small business owners like Le.

"The Vietnamese are still primarily small business owners -- because it's a good business. It's how they pay for their children to go to school. That's what keeps their children in school," said Marie Rihova, project manager at the International Organization for Migration Prague (IOM).

It's common for Vietnamese to work 12 or 13 hours a day, seven days a week, to support both themselves in the Czech Republic and members of their families still in Vietnam. This work ethic becomes a cycle whereby the old work to support the young followed by the young working to support the old, Rihova said.

Le's experience followed this pattern, he said. His parents worked to support him and his sister while they attended university but then he had to work to support his mother when she got sick (his father had returned to Vietnam), locking him into the cycle and keeping him in Prague.

"While my mother was sick, we spent a lot of money, and we ran out. We had to borrow money from people. We became working machines to pay back our debt. Everything was about money," Le said. "But I have to say that from 1996 to 1998, the life in Vietnam would not have been much better, so we decided to stay here," he added.

Le said he eventually paid his way out of debt and then expanded his parents' business. Financially, he did well during the 1990s and the current decade. But, he said, whatever success he's had has come at a cost.
VIETNAMESE LABOR

In 2002, 20,081 Vietnamese held business licenses, comprising one-third of the total number of foreigners with such licenses, according to the Czech Statistical Office

For most Vietnamese, living and working as immigrants here is temporary. Many see it as necessary to support themselves and their family, but they want to return home one day because although many have been here for years, they feel like foreigners. Very few Vietnamese seek Czech citizenship

There are no statistics on exactly how many Vietnamese speak Czech, but everyone interviewed for this story spoke fluent to near-fluent Czech

"The Vietnamese, they're willing to sacrifice everything for the money, to save money. Because of how hard things were in Vietnam, all they want to do is save money. I don't have any time. We work all week," he said, adding that his work has alienated him from the community at large.


The odd man out

The Vietnamese have the reputation among many Czechs as being stall owners who have dubious business practices and sell second-rate goods, said Luu Duc Nguyen, a student at the University of Economics in Prague who collaborated with the IOM on the Vietnamese section of a Web site designed to help foreigners feel more comfortable in the country.

It appears this stereotype is slowly beginning to change, Rihova said, because the younger generation of Vietnamese speak fluent Czech and have integrated themselves into society by going to Czech schools, where they often excel.

But it remains true that many Vietnamese do not feel welcome here, and they stay within their own community and dream of returning home one day, Luu said.

Vu Hong, 33, received a scholarship to study mining in Ostrava in 1989, just before the revolution. He received both his five-year degree and Ph.D. from Czech universities and is now a researcher at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague.
Vu Hong, in the laboratory at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague, has been here for 15 years.

Vu said he loves Prague and the Czech Republic and has made many lifelong friends here -- he meets every Friday the 13th with the Czechs he studied with in Ostrava. But even after 15 years, he said he feels Czechs are too closed off to the foreigners around them.

"Czech people, they love traveling, seeing different places. But then they keep a distance from people of other cultures here. How come?" he said, adding that Czechs are becoming more open.

Vu also said he sees hypocrisy in the Vietnamese's reputation as disreputable stall owners. "I don't know what percentage of Czechs go to the Vietnamese markets. But it's a contradiction here. They buy the products and then they blame it on us. How come? You can't have it both ways."

Le said that he often doesn't feel welcome here -- "like a stranger" -- and that he dreams of going home.

"I had my childhood in Vietnam. I have a lot of friends and family there," he said. "I think that's my place. We're always going to be Asian. Here, we're always going to be the odd man out."

This is the first in a three-part series on minority groups in Prague.
In the next issue we highlight the Ukrainian community.


S. Adam Cardais can be reached at news@praguepost.com


Reader's Comments:
[07/04/2007] : As a Vietnamese Australian, who spent 5 years in Cambodia then another couple in a refugee camp in Thailand to escape a war torn country. Having lived most of my life in Australia unawares as to the overseas contingency of Vietnamese worldwide. It defies my belief as to why there are so many North Vietnamese living overseas. Why invade another land killing so many innocent people destroying so many families to then leave it. It doesn't make sense, in the article it states these people dream of going back to Vietnam. I say go! At least they can, unlike the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese scattered across the globe who are still too scared to even visit!
South Vietnamese exiled from the motherland
NOT Vietnam




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