Second generation Vietnamese want to open the culture

The younger community is bilingual and does more than work in shops

The Vietnamese community has been part of Czech Republic since 1990s. Now the second generation is growing up and change is underway. We sat down with Nguyen Manh Tung at his office on Wenceslas Square to find out where the community was, where it is now and where it is headed.

Originating from Krnov, a small town near Ostrava, Tung, who also goes by the first name Michal, is one of the Vietnamese born here. “I studied at Czech schools and spent a lot of time on Vietnamese markets,” he said.

From a young age his Vietnamese heritage intrigued him. “I had very strict parents. For instance, we were forbidden to speak Czech at home. That turned out very helpful because I was able to discover my culture in its native language.”

Speaking both Czech and Vietnamese fluently, he found a job as a translator for Vietnamese workers in Czech factories who couldn’t speak Czech. “The company I was translating for was sending me all around the Czech Republic, so I’ve got to see Vietnamese communities all around the country,” he said.

Despite the fact many Vietnamese, like Tung’s parents, came here in search of a better future for them and their children, the alien culture and isolation were tough to handle. “When our parents came here, they had to work very hard to provide education, food, and living in general. It often meant they didn’t have time for the children. At home you would be taken care of by grandparents or other family members, but, the second generation of Vietnamese didn’t have that option,” he said. Tung admits that much of his own childhood was spent with his parents in their shop.

The financial crisis in 2009 proved especially hard on the community. Vietnamese workers were the first to get laid off by employers.

“I started to question why these people, including my parents, who came here from Vietnam, leaving them in debt many times, were the first on the streets,” he said. Like many at the time, Tung set off for Prague’s Sapa market to try to help the community.

Originally a slaughterhouse in Písnice–Libušská in Prague 4, Sapa was bought by Vietnamese entrepreneurs who built a food depot there. The name refers to a mountainous region in Vietnam bordering with China that was a renowned trading area between the two countries.

After 1989, Vietnamese started importing goods from Vietnam, China and other parts of Asia. It was one of the first suppliers for big discount websites such as Slevomat. And as people came to explore the market itself, it gradually turned into cultural center.

Nowadays visitors go there for shopping and the experience alike. Sapa organizes food festivals, Christmas parties and celebrations of traditional Vietnamese festivities such as Children’s Day and Lunar New Year, which are the most important holidays in Vietnam.

Recently guided tours became available around Sapa. Tung’s friend Mai Ngoc Minh started the project Sapa Trip to help Sapa with promotion in media and on the social networks. VietUp, a medium connecting young Vietnamese and their projects, and Viet Food Friends (a project run by Mai Huong, Thuy Duong, Mai Vu), an application introducing Vietnamese cuisine are just few examples of the new initiatives.

“There are myriad organizations promoting Vietnamese culture, and the number keeps growing with the younger generation,” he said.

Prague 4’s Town Hall also shown a great interest in letting public know that Sapa is not some kind of ghetto. “It is a place that keeps the traditional atmosphere of Vietnam for the Vietnamese community here,” he said.

Despite the visible interest of public, the Vietnamese community is still not recognized as an official minority by Czech government. “We are not confirmed, but we are invited to join the national minority. It means we can be present during the Senate hearings but there is no deeper level,” he said.

Vietnamese have yet to obtain seat in Czech Senate or Parliament. The laxness of government is not the only thing Vietnamese community has to face. Even though Czech society is becoming more open some stigma stays. Still today there is a common generalization that all Vietnamese living in the Czech Republic either own a shop or at least know all the others who own shops. “Since there are about 60,000 of us here, the chances are that you know someone who knows someone. But, we don’t really have a round table to meet at, so to speak,” Tung said with a laugh.

The issue turns especially raw for those who decide to take a different path and become successful. There are people working as doctors, lawyers and even butchers. In 2015 blogger Do Thu Trang was a first non-Czech name to win the Czech journalism prize Novinářská Křepelka. But, for the media she is just Vietnamese. “It's mainly because Asian culture is exotic and people like to read about it,” Tung said.

One reason the Czech public is intrigued by the Vietnamese neighbors is the feeling of seclusion between the two groups. While it may seem natural due to cultural differences, Tung says that the older generation is happy about the level of connection happening between younger generations of Czech and Vietnamese.

“The community was never closed on purpose. The older people were just afraid mainly due to the language barrier. It came from the both sides. Since most of the younger people can speak Czech and English, we are starting to breach that gap,” he said.

The openness is supported by accessible travel options. Lot of young people from the Vietnam community travel to Vietnam to discover their heritage. “I have been to Vietnam three times. And it calls me there all the time. But, when I visited 10 years ago you could see the reason why Vietnamese fled to Czech Republic. In Vietnam there were unbelievable jumps between socio-economic classes. They didn't have a middle class. People were either very poor or very rich,” he said.

Today, Vietnam is a booming country, attracting many young Czechs with its rich culture, some of which can be experienced in Prague 4.

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