Vietnamese children in Chrastava (Czechoslovakia). 1956. Source: Růžena Tupé Archive
CELIA PÉREZ CARRASCOSA
The Czech Republic has one of the largest Vietnamese communities in Europe, surpassed only by France and Germany. About 60.000 Vietnamese live in this Slavic country. This places them as the third largest group of foreigners in Czech territory, behind Slovaks and Ukrainians.
Most foreigners with temporary or permanent residence in the Czech Republic are Europeans. These include, in addition to Slovaks and Ukrainians, Germans, Poles and Russians.
However, in this Central European country, where it is difficult to find people who are not European, the Vietnamese stand out remarkably. In order to understand the cause of this, we have to look back to the times of the Cold War. A period in which Czechoslovakia and North Vietnam began military, educational and economic cooperation.
In the middle of the 50s, when the Vietnam War had broken out (1955-1975), the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia began providing military assistance to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, known as North Vietnam.
In addition, in 1956 both countries established their first educational agreements. For this reason, the northern village of Chrastava, in Liberec province, welcomed a hundred Vietnamese children for education at primary school.
After finishing primary school, some studied at secondary school and went on to university in Czechoslovakia. Others returned back to Vietnam. This educational programme in Chrastava continued for three more years. It was such an important step in bilateral relations that Hô Chi Minh, the president of North Vietnam, visited this village in 1957.
Later, in 1967, Hanoi and Prague reached agreements so that the Vietnamese could come to study and work. In this way, Czechoslovakia would train its colleagues from the Indochina Peninsula academically and practically to enable them to rebuild their country economically after the war.
David Nguyen, a financial advisor and student of International Development at Mendel University in Brno, is a Czech with Vietnamese roots, since his mother is Czech and his father is Vietnamese. Nguyen tells that his father came to Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, when he was 18, to study agricultural mechanization and then applied his knowledge on a Czechoslovakian farm.
Nguyen highlights that his father, according to Vietnamese law at the time, had two options: to do military service or to go to Czechoslovakia as a worker or student. This is one of the reasons why his father considered the agreements that existed between the two countries to be favourable. In this way, he was able to come to Europe and make a better future for himself in order to help his family in Vietnam financially.
The first generation
As mentioned, the first Vietnamese in Czechoslovakia were students or workers who came to this country for academic and work training. After their training, they were supposed to return to Vietnam, so they were foreigners passing through the country. Many of them stayed here or returned to Czechoslovakia after having been in Vietnam for a while.
Ta Thuy Dung, known as Chili Ta, is a famous cook and singer. She also has a degree in Business Administration from New York University in Prague. She was born in Vietnam, but came to the Czech Republic when she was a child.
Chili Ta’s father was one of the workers who came to Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. The well-known cook recounts that after a few years her father returned to Vietnam, where he married and she was born. Later, in 1995 – when Czechoslovakia had already been dissolved (1993) – Chili Ta and her mother moved to the Czech Republic, as her father had arrived earlier.
Despite having to deal with a different culture and language, Chili Ta says his father adapted easily to Czechoslovak society in the 1980s. For his part, Nguyen stresses that his father earned the respect of Czechoslovaks thanks to his perseverance at work.
Uyen Huu Pham, the Vietnamese representative on the Council Government for National Minorities, says that he also came here in the 1980s. He studied Mathematics and Computer Science at Charles University in Prague and it was not difficult for him to adapt.
Most Vietnamese who came or returned to the Czech Republic after the fall of communism established their own businesses. Many of them opened clothing shops or restaurants. This is the case with Nguyen’s father, who felt it was more profitable to run his own business than to work on a farm or in a factory.
It is worth noting that according to the Czech Ministry of the Interior, 61.131 Vietnamese live in the country. Pham states that it is estimated that this community, including Czechs citizens with Vietnamese origin, is formed of around 70.000 people.
The new Vietnamese generations are practically Czech. Some were born in Vietnam and came to the Czech Republic as children, and others are Czechs of Vietnamese descent.
These generations grow up surrounded by Czech culture and people. Many of them do not speak Vietnamese, but Czech. For this reason, they are called “banana children”. It means that they are yellow on the outside and white on the inside. It is certainly an advantage for them, since they do not need to integrate into society because they are already part of it. Chili Ta and David Nguyen are clear examples of this.
Something very peculiar about these young people is that they are brilliant students. Pham explains his parents are very demanding concerning their children’s studies. “They believe that with a good education, their children will be able to escape from their current position and advance higher up the social ladder”, Pham states. For this reason, several of them now specialize in law, finance or information technology (IT).
On the other hand, many of them are still doing business like their parents, but on a large scale. For example, Pham highlights the big food and sportswear companies, TAMDA FOODS and SPORTISIMO, which are run by Vietnamese.
While this country’s community is thriving in the private sector, there is a notable lack of them in the public sector. The first generation had the barrier of language and new culture. However, their descendants are still not very present in hospitals, schools or police departments. Pham says that in recent years there have been more Vietnamese in public jobs, but not many, and that the exact number is not known. It is one of the necessary steps for complete integration.
The Vietnamese are generally believed to be very well integrated into society. According to Pham and Nguyen, it is due to the Vietnamese being very hard-working, supporting Czech economy and using the social system minimally. However, both of them highlight that there is still a long way to go.
Chili Ta, Pham and Nguyen all agree that the younger Czech generation is also more respectful and inclusive of this minority. Chili Ta and Nguyen point out that some of the older generations still do not treat them as equals. In Pham’s opinion, this situation has greatly improved since the 1990s, when there were physical attacks by extremists.
Czechs open up to Vietnamese culture
Like the new generations of this distinctive ethnic group in the country, the Czechs also want to get to know the culture of this Asian country. Apart from the friendships that are formed between them, Czechs are increasingly visiting Vietnamese sites.
At the end of the 1990s, SAPA was inaugurated in Prague. It is a marketplace where there are shops, restaurants and Vietnamese cultural events. In the beginning, only Vietnamese people came. However, gradually Czechs began to visit this market and were fascinated by the Vietnamese nook of the city. Today, there are also SAPA in the cities of Brno and Ostrava.
Due to SAPA’s success among the Czechs, “the Vietnamese decided to open Vietnamese food restaurants outside this market”, Chili Ta notes. Today, this cuisine is very popular in the Czech Republic. It should be noted that the first restaurants run by the Vietnamese were Chinese, since they did not expect these Slavs to like Vietnamese food, and China is one of the best-known Asian countries.
In addition to this, the Czech Government recognised the Vietnamese in the Council Government for National Minorities in 2013. Since then Pham has been the representative of this community. He explains that, for example, this allows the Vietnamese and their organisations to participate in cultural and educational activities organized by the Ministries of Culture and Education, Youth and Sports. He also stresses that they work to ensure that the rights of minorities are not violated. Apart from that, he highlights that no other country in Europe has taken the same step so far.
Czechia is still a destination
The Velvet Revolution of 1989 marked the end of communism in Czechoslovakia. However, it did not end the arrival of the Vietnamese. Many of these Asians still come to the Czech Republic.
According to Chili Ta, Europe is considered a prestigious continent in Vietnam. For this reason, there is still Vietnamese immigration. In addition, Chili Ta points out that family ties are very strong and that is why there are people who want their uncles or cousins to come to the Czech Republic for family reunification.
For his part, Pham indicates that the Vietnamese government is sending new workers to various countries, especially people from poor regions; therefore the Czech Republic is once again a destination.
Although there are people who still see immigrants instead of citizens, most Czechs characterize the Vietnamese as hard-working people. In addition to this, relations between them are becoming closer and the Vietnamese are getting highly skilled jobs. This is a young, but important, segment of Czech society that is gradually making its way onward and upward.
Esta obra está bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Atribución-NoComercial-SinDerivadas 4.0 Internacional.
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