One of my more cultural days in Prague opened my eyes to a culture far, far away from Prague. It came at Sapa, the largest Vietnamese community in central Europe. This day led to deep conversations about this minority culture, its conflicts with Czech culture, and how this divide impacts young Vietnamese Czechs.
Who brought you there? Numi, a local-Czech Vietnamese girl who immigrated to the Czech Republic when she was four. Mariah, one of my three suitemates, and I met Numi on our second night in Prague, because she was working at our hostel. We started casually talking about where we were from, what we do etc. “We go to a small school you’ve probably never heard of called Richmond,” Mariah said. Turns out Numi knew a thing or two Richmond, since she is studying abroad there this spring. I still can’t over how incredible it is that Mariah and I met Numi so early in our stay in Prague. We were so lucky to meet Numi, who helped us out with anything and everything we needed in Prague, and we are stoked our friendship will continue in Richmond next semester.
Why did you go? Numi had to try on a bridesmaid dress for her friend’s wedding, so we went with her.
No really, why did you go? Um…
Ok, well, how was the trip? It was so much fun. Although we were still technically in Prague, I felt like I was in a different country when I stepped off the bus. We met with Numi’s friend Oli, whose wedding Numi needed a dress for, at a coffee shop before heading to the dress store. After an incredible, thick Vietnamese coffee, I was ready to run a marathon, write a book, and wrestle a horse. Instead, we went to go try on dresses.
Believe it or not, I’m not a guy who gets stoked about dresses. This time, however, was different. For one, we were looking at traditional Vietnamese outfits, which I found more interesting than a standard dress. More importantly, though, is that I also got to dress up.
Next up was the feast. We went to a restaurant, and Numi and Oli ordered everything for us. I’m not exactly a food connoisseur, so I was a tad nervous about what was coming our way. Five minutes after ordering, some waiters brought us way too much food for four people. There was duck, which I ate for the first time, pork, rice, salad, and tea. And all of it was great.
After our meal, we were all stuffed. So, naturally, Numi told Mariah and me that we needed to try a Vietnamese dumpling. And we did. And we loved it. And we entered a nice food coma on our bus ride back.
I loved the coffee, I loved dressing up, and I loved the food. But my favorite part of the day was learning about the Vietnamese community, and its relationship with traditional Czech culture. The Vietnamese make up the third largest group of immigrants in the Czech Republic, yet I sensed a divide with mainstream Czech society. I asked Numi about this separation and, believe it or not, the divide is deeper than I imagined.
The Vietnamese flocked to then-Czechoslovakia in the 1960s with help from the Soviet Union. Many left after the fall of communism, yet a sizeable group stayed in the new Czech Republic. Naturally, the Vietnamese maintained much of their cultural norms, but these differences made integration difficult. In some ways, integration wasn’t one of their original goals anyway. For example, Vietnamese parents often push their children to marry someone who is Vietnamese. If a Vietnamese person is dating a Czech, they often need to hide the relationship from either their parents or the Vietnamese community, Numi said. As a whole, the older Vietnamese generation tends to stick together, making it hard for Czechs to get to know them well, she said.
The Czechs don’t seem to be the most welcoming either. Numi told us Czechs don’t typically visit Sapa, and I saw only a few Czech couples that Sunday afternoon. According to Numi, Czechs are scarred of Sapa because it’s, well, different then what they are used to. Oh yea, and then there are the fabricated rumors that Sapa is a dangerous place. Then, of course, there’s the whole bigots-throwing-cigarettes-at-my-friends thing. I asked Numi about xenophobia in the Czech Republic, and she said she had had faced bigots throughout her life, too. She stressed, however, that most Czech people are more than accepting of her differences. As is the case in any culture, it just takes a few bigots to cause problems.
People like Numi – local Czechs with Vietnamese heritage – are stuck in the middle of this divide. According to Numi, she is part of the initial second-generation Vietnamese community that is trying to fully assimilate with new, communist-free Czech culture while uniting these two distinctly different groups. And it’s not easy. First there’s the issue of upsetting your parents by swaying from traditional norms. “We are very different from of our parents,” Numi said. Then there’s dealing with the xenophobia, which could either be obvious, like the football game experience, or more hidden, like getting passed over for jobs for ethnic Czechs. All college students are nervous about getting a job out of school, but Numi has extra angst because she doesn’t know if her race will play a factor. To be honest, no one really knows how much of a factor race will be for this new group of second-generation Vietnamese people.
Trang, one of Numi’s friends who is also part of this linking generation, gave a Ted Talk (Sick, I know) on this topic. Growing up, Trang only had the chance to see her parents on weekends, because they worked so much during the week. She had a Czech nanny, which is not uncommon amongst Vietnamese families. She had a Czech childhood, consisting of watching Czech movies, eating dumplings, etc., which she greatly enjoyed. As she got older, though, her parents began to tell her she was too European. Too European? What does that even mean? If she wasn’t European enough how could she assimilate into Czech culture? At the same time, should Trang have to discard her family’s history to appease Czechs? People like Trang and Numi face the difficult task of balancing the two cultures. No matter how well they balance both cultures, some people will always be upset. Trang, however, views this divide more favorably. She is grateful for the chance to live in two very different cultures, so she can choose the most beautiful aspects of each, she said.
Trang closes her talk discussing the label “banana kid”. This label is used for people who are yellow on the outside (Asian) and white on the inside (European). “Many people do not agree to identify themselves as a fruit but others have no problem with this,” Trang said. Trang chose not to identify as a banana. “I perceive myself as a banana shake, which can be added by all kinds of flavors,” she said.
This post, by no means, is meant to be a slight toward either the Czech or Vietnamese cultures; it’s not like America is doing so well in the whole race-relations thing right now. In fact, my hope is that these sorts of experiences and discussions will allow me to develop deeper, more thoughtful feelings on American race issues, which are only going to get more heated in years to come. Observing two different cultures coexist will allow me to develop more thoughtful opinions on the problems back home.
I did not expect to have so many thoughts on Vietnamese culture before I came to Prague. Yet these topics, questions and realizations of the unexpected are what have made this adventure so worthwhile and enriching. My experiences with the Vietnamese culture in the Czech Republic have forced me to think deeper on race relations in the Czech Republic, in America, and in the world at large.
Selfie of the week: Because I am an egotistical millennial, here is the selfie of the week: