There are about 140,000 Vietnamese in Germany. In Berlin, there’s a large shopping center, Dong Xuan, and a Halong Hotel. In Munich, there’s a hip restaurant, Jack Glockenbach, in a gay neighborhood. In Hanover, there’s a temple with a pagoda and ornate gate. In Dresden, there’s a Buddhist cemetery that refrains from displaying the swastika. In Leipzig, where I’m living, just about every East Asian restaurant is run by Vietnamese, although it may be named Peking Palast, Hong Kong, Shanghai or China White.
Vietnamese aren’t just in cities. Last week, I took a train to Wurzen, population 16,327. Near Jacobsplatz, one of its two main squares, I counted four Vietnamese businesses: three discount clothing stores and a nail salon. Though the last wasn’t open, I could tell it was Vietnamese-owned thanks to a little Buddha in its window. On Karl Marx Street, there’s a huge restaurant, Goldene Krone. As I stood outside perusing the menu, a large group of middle-aged German ladies filed out, all smiling after their happy meals. “Kính chào!“ one chirped. Once in Leipzig, a black bicyclist also greeted me in this formal manner.
Germany is already a very mixed society. In my graduate seminar class at the University of Leipzig, half of the students were born in Russia, Ukraine, CzechRepublic, Brazil or Qatar. One is Turkish and can speak and write the language. At a Wurzen flea market, most of the merchants were foreign. I saw Middle Easterners, Eastern Europeans, a turbaned Sikh and other South Asians. They were selling handbags, clothing, household goods and Christmas ornaments. A plastic Santa Claus bounced one basketball while twirling another.
A German woman seemed embarrassed since no one was buying her roast chicken. You should go home, lady! You don’t belong here! Oh wait, the lady’s family have probably been toiling within a ten-mile radius since the Stone Age, or since a tiktaalik first thought it over long and hard before deciding, “Screw it! I’m emigrating onto dry land!” He did at that exact spot right there by the MuldeRiver, next to the döner takeout. Her family have probably gone to the same church, St. Marien, since 1114 A.D. Nine hundred years ain’t nothing. Fingering my Euros, I contemplated buying half a chicken to make this stoic and forlorn native daughter feel slightly better, but decided against it. I still had miles to walk that day.
Suddenly I spotted a familiar, German face. In Leipzig, I had bought sausages, liverwurst and minced rabbit from Jürgen, and there he was, in his truck. The first two times he talked to me, Jürgen even tried to speak Vietnamese, and he knew quite a few phrases too. None was intelligible, however. Selling quality stuff, Jürgen has a loyal clientele.
In West Germany, Turkish laborers were brought in. In the East, 60,000 Vietnamese were signed up on five-year contracts to work in factories. In Leipzig, I met such a Vietnamese. Now middle-aged, Quan owns a small restaurant and beer store.
“When the Berlin Wall fell, we lost both our job and our housing. The German government offered our people nearly three years’ worth of wages to go home. With that kind of money, you could be set up for life if you bought land or started a business, but many of us decided to stay. We had never experienced Capitalism. We wanted to see what it was like.”
Like many other Vietnamese, Quan turned to selling cigarettes. “We didn’t even know it was illegal. You have to understand, everything was chaotic back then. Even the Germans didn’t know what was going on. One day, you’re living under Communism. The next day, it’s Capitalism. There were Czechs selling cigarettes outside the train station, so we bought from them to resell. All of that gang stuff came later. Hearing about the easy money, many Vietnamese who had gone home then tried to return to Germany. It wasn’t easy. They had to go to Russia first, then cross several borders. Sometimes, people had to walk backward in the snow to throw off the cops.”
An enterprising peddler of black market cigarettes could make up to $300 a day. In mid-1994, 23-year-old Le Duy Bao showed up in Berlin, having arrived by way of Prague and Moscow. A career criminal, he made his living stealing motorbikes in his native Vinh, in central Vietnam. In Germany, Bao soon formed a gang called Ngoc Thien, Benevolent Pearl, and within a year they managed to control 70% of the cigarette black market in Berlin. Bao’s crew raked in USD 500,000 a month. Convicted of ordering eight murders in 1996, Bao is now serving a life sentence in Tegel Prison. During the turf war among Vietnamese cigarette gangs in Berlin, more than 40 Vietnamese were murdered.
Though Vietnamese cigarette gangs in Germany no longer generate such frightful headlines, they’re still active. All over Europe, you can buy Jin Ling, an industrial chemical and asbestos-laced cigarette that burns so ardently, even when not puffed, it has caused several house fires. A pack of 19 costs but 3 Euros, however, half of the legal stuff. Though with a Chinese name, it’s actually made in Kaliningrad, that Russian city on the Baltic Sea. Multinational in scope, this lucrative trade involves criminal gangs from more than a dozen countries. In this racket, Vietnamese are but foot soldiers.
More positively, the Vietnamese community in Germany can boast of Philipp Rösler. A war orphan from Nha Trang, Rösler was adopted by a German family and became the country’s Minister of Health in 2009, then Minister of Economics and Technology in 2011. Rösler’s ascendance caused Vietnamese worldwide to reflect that had he stayed in Vietnam, Rösler’s abilities would have been wasted. Not only that, he would have been arrested because of his politics. “Totalitarianism thwarts everything,” a commentator bitterly pointed out.
There is also gymnast Marcel Nguyen. Born of a Vietnamese father and German mother, Nguyen won two silver medals for Germany at the London Olympics. When his dad was asked if Nguyen’s “Vietnamese blood” contributed to his success, the old man answered rather amusingly that it made him smaller than your typical German.
In the end, it’s not the extremes that define any community, but your average schmuck, and the Vietnamese in Germany have mostly settled in as law abiding shopkeepers and restaurant owners. Their kids have assimilated well and are outperforming even German classmates. On my way home from work, I’d sometimes stop by a very modest takeout run by Tron, a lady from Hai Hung, about an hour from Hanoi. In Germany for a decade, she speaks the language well enough to banter with her customers. Her food is very good and cheap, and I’ve seen every type buy from her: school kids, college students, skateboard punks, old pensioners…
Once a guy showed up with only 60 cents, but wanted a 1 Euro bag of shrimp chips. Tron sold it anyway. “Sometimes, they just stick their hand in and grab it,” she laughed, “but it doesn’t happen very often. At least they don’t snatch things from your body like they do in Vietnam!” In spite of its wealthy image, Germany has plenty of poor citizens. Every now and then, I’d see an elderly person dig through a trash can for recyclable bottles.
An old woman ordered chicken lo mein, but couldn’t come up with the cash, so she offered to leave two bottles of wine as collateral. Tron said not to worry, just pay her the next time. “She’s a regular customer. She probably misplaced her purse.”
With Vietnamese-run eateries so numerous in Leipzig, the competition among them is fierce. To gain an edge, several sell sushi or even döner kebab. I walked by a takeout that advertised Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Turkish and German specialties. Its Deutsch menu consisted of just knockwurst, bratwurst—both served with French fries or pita bread [!]—pork schnitzel and chicken nuggets.
Tron’s business is just a steel box plopped on a small lot in front of an unpopular supermarket. Down the street is St. Peter. Built in 1882, it’s brand new by European standards. A few blocks away, a 13th century church, Pauline, was blown up by the Communists in 1968 just for the hell of it. Mendelssohn and Bach performed there, and it was also the site for Mendelssohn’s funeral mass. Who cares, sneered the comrades. Citizens who protested the destruction were arrested. The Communists also considered dynamiting the massive, 299-foot-tall Monument to the Battle of Nations because it was a symbol of nationalism instead of internationalism. Since German and Russian troops had fought side by side to defeat Napoleon, however, they let it stand.
In its classical form, Communism is a control freak religion that punishes every unorthodox thought or act. It is sickeningly ironic that many of the most unruly people in Capitalist societies are drawn to unforgiving Communism, for if it was in effect, they would be among the first to be locked up or executed.
Tron and her husband have two little kids in elementary school.
“Do they get teased?” I asked. “Is there any discrimination against them?”
“They never go home and complain about anything?”
“Never! There are only five Vietnamese kids in the entire school. They don’t even play with each other. They play with the German kids. There is never a problem.”
When they’re ten or so, Tron will have them learn Vietnamese also, but she won’t press if they resist. “My kids have been back to Vietnam once, but they didn’t like it very much. They’re German now. At home, they speak to us in German and Vietnamese. If you don’t have close relatives back in Vietnam, as in your parents or siblings, I don’t even see a reason to go back.”
Vietnamese who came to Germany as boat people are rightly considered refugees, but those who arrived from the North, from the winning side in the Vietnam War, are also refugees if they’re escaping Communism. Some, though, are only economic immigrants. In Leipzig, there’s a Vietnamese restaurant called Onkel Ho and, each year, there’s a well-attended gathering to celebrate the founding of the People’s Army of Vietnam. Though rejecting their Communist homeland to live in the Capitalist West, they still cling to the red flag, for many have fought and bled under it. With an opposing political nod, others have named their businesses after places in the South: Mekong, Ben Thanh or Saigon, etc.
Most immigrants and all refugees are forced to leave everything they’ve known because they can no longer tolerate their native land. If the world is swarming with refugees and desperate immigrants, it just means that life has become impossible for so many, in so many places. Count yourself lucky if you’re not among them, but don’t dismiss the distinct possibility.
In 1914, there were 2,416,290 Germans in the Russian Empire. Now, there are only a million in Russia and all of the republics of the former Soviet Union. In 1939, there were 786,000 Germans in Romania. By 2011, there were only 36,884. Though assimilating, establishing deep roots and contributing much to one’s host society, one can be chased out in a bloody flash. One can also be bombed from one’s ancestral homeland. Count yourself lucky if you’re not among them.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.