Monday, 19 October 2020

A confession of a Vietnamese in the Czech Republic

By Cindy Dam | pdm |
26 March 2010

A few weeks ago, the Czech Supreme Court banned the far-right Workers' Party, citing their activities as threats to democracy. One example the court used was that top members of the neo-Nazi party attributed the problems of the Czech Republic to minorities and ethnic groups such as the Roma, homosexuals and the Vietnamese.

When I first moved to Prague, one of my primary concerns was how to introduce myself to Czechs. Am I Vietnamese? Am I American? Am I Vietnamese American? Am I Asian American? Or am I just Cindyka? Honza suggested “just say you are American.” It wasn’t me who tried to hide my identity by picking a “cooler” other. It was a Czech who thought it was better for me to ignore the “Vietnamese” tag when introducing myself to his countrymen unless asked. Living in America for a long time, I am no stranger to racism and prejudice. After all, American history is written by pioneer white men who took lands from the Native Indians and shoved them into reservations. It wasn’t the same pioneer men but agricultural men with the same color nonetheless who later brought blacks to slave on the same land before forcing them to the back of buses and into segregated quarters. Then the modern industrial capitalist white men siphoned Mexicans off the border to do dirty, menial jobs other white men don’t want to do, while erecting a fence along the border and debating laws as how best to accommodate and evict them from the beautiful country. So you see, by being Vietnamese or Asian in America, I am partly immune to racism and discrimination, especially in California where the non-Hispanic white are the minority. I live in a city of immigrants from South Asia. My family buys grocery and dines in a city populated by Vietnamese. San Francisco is inhabited by everybody from everywhere. I attended an university with almost 50% Asian student body. Asians are visible everywhere in California, yet invisible in America’s racial profiling. Asian Americans are good, model immigrants and citizens. They are known for their hard-working, education-obsessive, non-confronting and non-violent lifestyles. They integrate nicely into the society. Their children excel in school, and if they don’t, they are not likely to form or join gangs. Being a typical Asian in America who is fit, non-confronting, does well in school and lives in a nice neighborhood, you are anything but a problem.

Most of Europe is homogeneous, dominated by the white race except for the multicultural, in the past colonial, United Kingdom and France and the new breed of immigrant countries like Germany and Italy. When I lived in the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, I felt like I was the only Asian, the only colored person beside the Bosnian Roma in the entire city. The only time I saw Asian faces was when I ventured to a barren China town in the suburbs. If it wasn’t for that trip, I would not believe the existence of Asians in Bosnia. Did I feel uneasy? Did I feel lost? Not a chance. I was an amusement to the Bosnians. One journalist friend of a Bosnian girl with whom I was practicing English, upon learning about me, asked for an interview for no other reason than my being there was interesting. My typical Asian face, my race, my story occupied two pages in a woman magazine, Azra. A couple of months later, out of the blue, one TV station called the school where I worked and asked for a TV interview. They carried cameras to film me in the classroom and invited me to come to the TV station for a follow-up segment where they asked about rice and had me demonstrate eating fruit with salt on live TV. Apparently, a teacher had told them about my unusual, Vietnamese habit atypical to all Europeans. Within a short time in Sarajevo, I had two 15 minutes of fame just because of one simple reason: I am Vietnamese and a typical Asian. “The kids find you amusing. They know Japanese and Chinese, but they don’t know anybody from down there, meaning Vietnam,” one Bosnian teacher told me.

I didn’t choose Bosnia; it chose me. I didn’t choose the Czech Republic; one of its citizens chose me. They are same different, different same. Similar to Bosnia, Czech Republic is dominantly white. The big difference, however, is the huge population of Vietnamese working and living on every street corner. After spending almost a year in Bosnia eating just cheese, cheap sausage, pasta and dried bread and speak only English, I was delirious to speak Vietnamese and eat bowls after plates of noodle soup and other delicious Vietnamese dishes in Prague. The liveliest party has its end, and so did my honey moon with the Czech Republic. I began to learn more about the social fabric of the Czech society, of the culture, maybe, not so homogeneously Czech. These fair-skinned Czechs, too, share and compete for resources with their former brothers, the Slovaks, eastern European immigrants, western expats, its own colored people, the Roma and the largest Asian minority, the Vietnamese. Unlike Asians in Sarajevo who live in the suburb where no one sees them, the Vietnamese’s presence here is omnipresent. You can't walk past a couple of street blocks without seeing a potraviny (vegetable/convenient shop) or a textile store run by Vietnamese. A typical street in Prague is filled with a typical potraviny run by typical Vietnamese.

And suddenly, I feel Mexican. I don’t think I have ever tried this hard to be cool and vain. When I don’t say that I am American, then I have to string whatever American attributes to my identity. The “I am Vietnamese” is usually correct and sufficient to the simple question of who I am, but the more “correct” reply often is: “I was born in Vietnam and moved to the US,” which later changes to “I was born in Vietnam but I used to lived in California,” which later changes to “I was from Vietnam, but I lived near San Francisco.” Holly cow! If this goes on, it will be “…I lived in San Francisco.”

"America" might not be as cool, if not at all, to western Europeans given the all-time-high anti-American mentality, but it certainly is a 'cool' factor for eastern Europeans, at least cooler than "Vietnam" for the Czechs. California is definitely cooler in comparison to say Oklahoma and a dozen more nobody-knows states. And San Francisco brings the coolness factor up 10 notches. Sometimes it annoys me, but I am determined to milk my American association for what it’s worth. Am I lame? Do I overreact? I think not. I would like to get rid of the long introduction, but in this homogeneous, xenophobic Czech Republic where typical Czechs have a low opinion of eastern Europeans, Roma and the Vietnamese while holding positive view of western Europe, North America and Australia, I then, have no other choice but to be lame.

What’s wrong with being Vietnamese? The answer to that is exactly the same in response to “What’s wrong with being Mexican?” There is nothing wrong with being Vietnamese or Mexican. The problem arises only when there are too many of them in the host country. It is then that the social fabric gets a bit more complicated. They are no longer Vietnamese or Mexican; they are problematic immigrants. One group classifies another based on its typical features and activities: the dirty, lazy Roma, or the yellow-skinned, black-haired, vegetable/cloth-selling, tax-invading Vietnamese. Classification precedes stereotypes. Stereotypes breed prejudice. Prejudice lays the foundation for racism. Racism leads to discrimination. But how can I blame the Czechs for profiling when the Vietnamese do the same profiling among each other. Every Vietnamese I have met in the Czech Republic asked me the following questions.

-What do you sell?
-I don’t sell.
-So you work in the factory?
-No, I don’t work in a factory.
-So what do you do here? (Looking at me with disbelief) Vietnamese here either sell or work in factories.

The Vietnamese here are not at all integrated into the Czech society. The older generation speaks little or no Czech, same as the younger workers who either just arrive for a few years or work in a typical Vietnamese business whose interaction with Czechs is limited to basic greetings and the prices of their products. A typical Vietnamese could care less about the Czech culture, same as a typical Czech could care less about them. When Vietnamese make the Czech news, it’s often about their illegal activities: staying here illegally, working without a visa, selling fake goods or growing marijuana. This reinforces the typical Vietnamese image in the mind of typical Czechs. The only exception is one rare, famous Vietnamese female photographer whose portrait shots feature the Czech president, politicians and world-known football goalie, Petr Cech. Unlike Vietnamese in America or in other Western countries who consider the new country their permanent home, the Vietnamese settle for a temporary life in the Czech Republic, on rented time and rented property. Once they make enough money, they will return to Vietnam.

It is fun to be multicultural, but it is a headache when these multiple cultures clash. I don’t know if it’s me--Vietnamese, Asian, Buddhist--or Jung’s personality type which naturally makes me the awfully quiet, yielding type of person which puts me right into the Asian stereotype slot. But when I have to go for what I want or feel indignant, I rely on the cultural attributes of the Americans. I become over-selling, arrogant, demanding and rational. Recently I was in a negotiation training provided by the company, as the only Asian among all the Czechs, the only Vietnamese. Do I need to remind you how self-conscious I felt? It was like being black in the Deep South or being Mexican in a conservative white neighborhood. Our British trainer happened to have some positive experience with the Vietnamese in Prague, thus kept bringing up Vietnamese grocery shop owners to reference the cultural differences in bargaining styles.

There was a moment I wished I were Japanese, Korean, Chinese or any other Asian ethnic group but Vietnamese. Well, there is no going back, American I am. I switched from my natural introversion to be this extrovert who had to give her opinion on every single point the trainer presented. I tried to be this super intelligent person with my super obscure English words and super stories. I flashed my 500W radiant smile to these serious-looking Czechs. There must be at least one person in the room who was put off by my showy behavior. But who cares? I didn’t know if those Czechs around me were typical or not. I didn’t know their opinions of the Vietnamese. The only way to break this prejudice cycle is to have a reasonable amount of untypical Czechs interact with a reasonable amount of untypical Vietnamese.

I don’t sell groceries, made-in-china clothing and fake bags in a shop. I don’t work in a factory. I don’t plant marijuana. I don’t smuggle illegal workers into this country. I don’t sit in a work camp like an animal waiting to be shipped home with EUR 500 from the Czech government. I don’t stay here illegally. I am not uninterested in the Czechs. I don’t avoid their eye contact. I speak fluent English.

I am not a typical Vietnamese.

Cindy Dam has been living in Prague for three years, and is currently working as a consultant. She's very interested in different cultures, and tries to stick her nose in many things to do with Czechs and their society.