Being Czech-Vietnamese: Looking into the dual identity

Hung Ngo Van and Linh Nhi Vu

The Vietnamese community is the third largest ethnic minority group here in Czechia, but how much do Czechs and other foreigners living in the country know about their community and history?

Walking through the streets of Prague, you might notice stores called “Potraviny”, or see many restaurants selling piping hot bowls of pho. And, if you take a look inside these restaurants, you’re brought into the world of the Vietnamese community, right here in Czechia.

If you find yourself in the IP Pavlova area, you might stumble upon a place called Ngo restaurant, run by a family, and one man especially.

27-year-old Hung Ngo Van runs Ngo restaurant with his family. He has been in Czechia for 15 years.

“I came to Czechia after my parents left Vietnam when I was three years old. My dad went first, and then my mom came after him. We lived in Vietnam with our grandparents, with my brother and my sister and then, when I was 13, I joined my parents in Czechia.”

Beside Hung is his girlfriend, 23-year-old Linh Nhi Vu, who helps run the restaurant as well. She manages the social media accounts while studying journalism at Charles University here in Prague.

“Because I was born here, my parents also gave me the Czech name Hana. My parents came here in the late 80’s, so they’ve been living here in Czechia for 40 years now.”

The history of Vietnamese immigrants in Czechia is an interesting one, and perhaps unknown to foreigners. During the communist period, the Czechoslovak government made an agreement with the communist Vietnamese government at the time, that Vietnamese people could come to the country as guest workers. This program was encouraged by the Vietnamese government, as they hoped their citizens would return home with more skills and experience. However, after the fall of communism in 1989, many chose to remain in Czechia. As Hung notes, the early days were not easy for Vietnamese immigrants.

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“My mom told me about the early days when my parents came here. A lot of people [Vietnamese] were selling goods at the border with Germany and Austria, and this was the only choice if you didn’t work at a factory, you just had to go selling. When she came here, my mom had some cousins and family members, but none of them spoke Czech, and they just had to say the numbers to sell, when they had to go to the doctor, they had to move their hands and body to show where the problem was, and that was really difficult. My mom managed to learn a bit more Czech, and she actually helped the other members of the community to understand Czech culture more.”

Linh’s parents also have a similar story from when they first relocated here.

“When my parents first came, they were workers. My father’s first job was working on a farm with cows, and then he switched because in Vietnam he went to school for a Masters in technology, so he got to work in the Skoda factory in Pilsen. My mom came here later than my dad, and they met and married here in Czechia, she was a seamstress, and some years later they switched to selling goods at the border, like a lot of people back then.”

While coming to former Czechoslovakia may have seemed exciting at the time, it was a difficult existence for the new Vietnamese community, as Linh explains.

Illustrative photo: Olga Vasinkevich,  Tatjana Křelinová,  Radio Prague International

“When they came to Czechia, they were in a group of about 10 or 20 people, they were really young. My mom doesn’t talk about those days too much, but I think it was very lonely because they didn’t know the language, and back then the Vietnamese community wasn’t as big as it is now. So I think it was very lonely and hard for them.”

Eager to make a better life for their families here in Czechia, Vietnamese immigrants worked extremely hard, often from early morning to late in the evening. A life that both Hung and Linh can feel was hard on their parents.

“I saw it in their faces that it was not only physically, but also psychologically really difficult. Just picture, you have your wife, you don’t have any friends, you go to your job, they worked like 15 hours a day, and that’s it. When they woke up, they saw the sun, and when they went home, they didn’t see the sun anymore. They didn’t have a choice I think, and that was the case for most Vietnamese families making a new life here at that time.”

With demanding workdays, some Vietnamese parents were not able to be home with their children, and had to hire help to take care of them, Linh says.

Photo: David Konečný,  Czech Radio

“Our parents were really hard working, and some children often didn’t see their parents that much because at the time it was common that parents hired a nanny or a Czech granny to babysit for them. I had a granny as well, but my parents still took me to the markets, and I spent a lot of time with them. But some children were with their granny from Monday-Friday and saw their parents only on the weekends. That was just the reality back then.”

But while it was difficult for children to be away from their parents, Linh describes how the Czech grannies who cared for them, played a pivotal role in helping them integrate into Czech culture.

“The Grannies helped us second generation immigrants to assimilate into Czech society. They helped us learn Czech, they taught us about Czech traditions and how to eat Czech food, so the Czech in us is from the grannies.”

As their children have grown up, and parents have gotten older, Hung hopes that his parents will slow down and take a break from all the hard work, a pattern for them that is difficult to break.

“I hope for them that they can just put it in their mind that life isn’t only about working everyday. You have your family, you have your health, you have yourself to take care of, and working doesn’t give you everything. Not only my parents, but a lot of first generation Vietnamese folks that came here have this in their head, that working is the only choice.”

Illustrative photo: David Konečný,  Czech Radio

What’s interesting about this couple is that they come from two different schools of the Vietnamese community here in Czechia. While Hung was born in Vietnam and then immigrated to Czechia,  Linh was born here, giving her a more immersive Czech experience when growing up. As the couple explains, there are some distinguishing factors between the “old school” and “new school” generation of Vietnamese folks here in Czechia. While Hung went straight to work alongside his family, working in their Potraviny and then opening a restaurant, for Linh’s parents, ensuring she got a good education was fundamental for them, so she could work towards a better, easier life.

“They wanted to get us the best education in Czechia, they were trying for us to have a better future, better opportunities and better lives than they had. Because they lost their freedom when they left Vietnam.”

When it comes to feeling more Vietnamese or more Czech, the couple differs in sentiment. Hung puts it this way:

“I still feel like I am Vietnamese, but I am also a little bit Czech, I speak Czech and I have a Czech girlfriend also. We have two cultures, at home we have Vietnamese culture, you go outside your home and it’s Czech. When I was growing up, I was going to school and I had Czech friends, and learned Czech, and had Czech teachers. But then I came home and my parents, the two people in my whole world, were Vietnamese.”

The term “banana children” was coined in Czechia to describe the children who were born in Czechia to Vietnamese parents, but to Linh, the term is narrow and doesn’t express how she feels about her dual identity.

“We’re actually called banana children, because we’re yellow on the outside and white on the inside. I don’t like that very much, because yes, I’m yellow on the outside, but I’m not just white on the inside, I have Vietnamese in me, and I don’t want to neglect that.”

Today, Linh is proud of her dual identity, and explains how she feels richer for it.

“Maybe before I was a bit embarrassed that I was Vietnamese, because I didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t fully Czech, that I’m not like other people around me. But when I grew up a little, I was really sorry I had this mindset. Because it’s like I have the opportunity to have two cultures, the Czech culture and the Vietnamese culture, and I’m richer than my friends who only have one culture.”

Illustrative photo: David Konečný,  Czech Radio

Today, the Vietnamese community in Czechia stands at 31, 469 residents, making it the third largest ethnic group living in Czechia, behind Slovaks and Ukrainians. When it comes to the next generation of Vietnamese kids growing up in Czechia, Hung is optimistic.

“I think there are a lot of young people like Hana who are employed in banks and in hospitals, there are a lot of Vietnamese doctors coming through, so I think our future here is very bright.”

Linh also echoes the same sentiment.

“I hope for the next generation that they won’t isolate themselves so much, and that they learn Czech and more about Czech culture, find some Czech friends and just assimilate here more. For the next generation of Vietnamese children who will be born here, I wish for them that they will cherish their Vietnamese side, and not only be Czech, but they will stay Czech-Vietnamese, please.”