Somewhere beyond Berlin and Hanoi

The series “Vietdeutsche(s) Leben” (Viet German Life) aims to provide insight into the diversity of Viet German life realities. In this context, Birgitt Röttger-Rössler has already reported in an article of April 24, 2021 on the anthology “Ist Zuhause dort, wo die Sternfrüchte süß sind? “(2020), published by Vlab, a non-profit organization that promotes German-Vietnamese encounters and cultural exchange. The reader contains several biographical accounts by young Viet German authors. These highly readable essays, which provide insight into the multi-layered challenges faced by the children of Vietnamese immigrants, are complemented by other life story narratives that have been published on Vlab’s website in German as well as in Vietnamese translation. Following on the report on the anthology and as part of the sub-project work of A01, we are now publishing some of these texts here in English translation as a repost, in order to give them an even broader international readership.

Revisiting German-Vietnamese Realities in Historical Perspective

2020 was an outstanding year in every respect. Despite current events turning the world upside-down, it was also the anniversary of a number of historic events that changed the world and people’s lives: 30 years of German reunification, 45 years of diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic of Germany (former West Germany) and Vietnam, 40 years of the contract worker agreement between the GDR (former East Germany) and Vietnam.

These events have put flows of migration in motion that continue up until today, even though the form of migration may be changing over time and generations. This article embeds the history of Vietnamese-German migration in a very personal account of the biography of Ngân, showing that the year of 1990 was a year of change not only for Germans but also for Vietnamese residing in Germany. 

My name is Ngân, I was born in January 1990 as a child of two Vietnamese contract workers. My father came to Czechoslovakia in 1982 to work in a paint factory in the industrial town Pardubice. In 1986 my mother arrived in the same city, she was employed by a textile factory. My father had integrated relatively fast: he learned the Czech language and became an important aid for his coworkers and bosses. He also helped other Vietnamese to settle in the foreign environment. In the end of the 1980s my parents met and fell in love. When my mother got pregnant with me, trouble started. Contract workers were not allowed to get pregnant during their stay. Thanks to the amicable support of a Czech doctor, my mother was not forced to terminate the pregnancy but allowed to stay in Pardubice. In the meantime, the peaceful revolution had changed the political conditions in Eastern Europe. The conditions for the contract workers changed step by step, the right to remain was implemented in a stricter manner. Finally, my family left the new Czech Republic to escape deportation. It was a very difficult situation for my parents. They got used to life in Europe. During those times, Germany offered somewhat better conditions for migration, so they tried their luck and, after a lot of detours, reached the home for asylum seekers at Rheinstrasse 61 in Falkensee near Berlin.

Thi Thuy Ngan Nguyen during her childhood © private

At the time of what would be called the German reunification, around 60.000 contract workers lived in East Germany. They came from other countries of Socialist Brotherhood, mostly from Angola, Mozambique, and Vietnam. The concept of contract workers was supposed to be a triple win in its conception, not only in Germany, but in other Socialist receiving countries as well: The sending countries would be able to educate their workers and have less people to feed in times of war and hardship. Upon returning to their home countries, the workers would be able to return with acquired skills and expertise and, while they were away, send much needed industrial goods and some financial aid. Since many East-Germans moved to West Germany the GDR like other Eastern European countries was struggling with a lack of laborers it needed to implement the economic 5-years plan an agreement between the GDR and Vietnam was soon signed. Vietnamese workers stood to gain from the wish to improve their own and their family’s economic situation since economic opportunities in Vietnam were still limited and hunger and poverty wide-spread at that time. Also traveling abroad was perceived as adventurous and prestigious, as not everyone was allowed to participate. Some female contract workers also report that it was a chance for them to see something new and at the same time escape conventional family roles that would have demanded early marriage from them.

Looking back, many contract workers glorify their time in the GDR and do not mention the hard regulations they had to comply with. For example, contract workers were entitled to a living space of 5m² only and women, if they got pregnant while contracted, were forced to choose between deportation or abortion. Additionally, racism ranging from ridicule by co-workers to actual violence and the rise of the Nazi skinhead scene, was a huge problem. 

With 1990 big uncertainty arrived. No one could answer questions on what would happen to the contract workers staying in the country. Many left and accepted the paid return journey back to Vietnam, some moved between former receiving countries – from Germany to Czechoslovakia or vice versa, some had made Germany their home and wanted to stay. Legal requirements were unclear and remained so until 1997. Only then a definite regulation was negotiated by German politics. In the meantime, the former Vietnamese contract workers negotiated their daily lives in a grey zone and with the help of self-employment.

Under these circumstances, I spent the first half of my childhood in Falkensee. I still cherish happy memories from our lives in the asylum home – in the beginning it was a normal home for me. Only later I understood that lives were dependent on the toleration by German authorities. My parents tried, as much as they were allowed, to provide a comfortable life for us by taking up smaller jobs. On top of that, we were lucky to have a lot of support by our German friends and neighbors. Because my parents were not allowed to study or take up regular employment, it was impossible for them to build a steady and safe basis for our lives. Instead, they got stuck in the asylum seeker status. At the end of the 1990s, the asylum home in Falkensee was supposed to close and be reallocated to different usage. Hence, all residents were thoroughly screened. Even the fact that I had three younger siblings by now, who were all born in Germany, did not affect the final decision: In 2001 we had to leave Germany – first my father, my two sisters, and myself. Six months later my mother and my brother followed. We were able to live with relatives in Hanoi upon our return.

Some of the remaining contract workers were able to convince their families back in Vietnam to follow them. Many of those had not met in years and communication was still difficult at a time with little internet and no smart phones. Others had met their partners in Germany, both Vietnamese and German, and decided to stay and call Germany a home for their future children. Some were forced to return to Vietnam. Those who were able to stay, brought up their families in Germany, the so-called 1½ generation of Viet-Germans (still born in Vietnam but migrated to Germany at a young age) and the 2nd and 3rd generation of Viet-Germans. Their challenges differ from the ones of their parents’ generation. For some of them there is a constant negotiation process between expectations from their parents and German society. On top of this tension Viet-Germans have to deal with the day-to-day racism and stereotypes from the German white mainstream society. Self-identifying as German, questions like “Where do you really come from?”, “Why do you speak German so well?” are excluding many from a group they are actually belonging to. Yet, these struggles are often unheard as they are covered by the stereotype of “exemplary migrants” which claims Viet-Germans for their success in the education sector and forgets to mention the hardship behind it. The “cigarette mafia” is now the “model minority” but nevertheless still faces the same violent attacks. Also, for the ones who had returned to Vietnam, the German education and experience could not simply be switched off.

The first weeks in Hanoi were very chaotic and adventurous, as I spoke German fluently but hardly spoke my mother tongue Vietnamese. I had to catch up with my language skills really quickly. I did well and soon I was able to continue school. 2009 I began my studies in Finances and Banking in Hanoi. All these years I kept remembering my early childhood in Germany and tried to stay in touch with friends. In my heart, Germany always somehow remained a place where I longed to be. To keep up with German culture, I worked as a tourist guide for German tourists in Hanoi. My wish to return to Germany became stronger and stronger and in 2015 I got the chance to move back as an Au-Pair. I lived with a family in Wetzlar and took care of their children. Quickly I managed to refresh my German skills and prepared for a vocational training in Germany the following year. Suddenly, I saw myself in the same situation as my parents 15 years ago – this time I wanted to do everything right. I decided for a profession with good prospects, so I put a lot of hard work into everything you need to know for geriatric care. I passed my exams and graduated in 2019 as a state-examined geriatric nurse. I live in Berlin, I love my job, and I enjoy my life – I am confident and excited about my future.

Today, there neither is the GDR nor contract workers. But still, there is a arrangement between Germany and Vietnam that is again based on recruiting Vietnamese labor for unpopular jobs with bad working conditions. This time, it is the care industry. The desire to move to Germany is unbroken, historic ties remain strong, and young Vietnamese seek to continue family traditions by pursuing new chances in Germany. But it looks like the German government repeats old mistakes: the German ministry for Economics explicitly says that migration is supposed to be temporary, no long-term residence is allowed and therefore integration and inclusion are not at the top of the list. Instead of listening to stories from former contract workers and taking their experience into account, history looks like it will repeat itself. Should we not use the anniversaries mentioned above to actually rethink politics and try to make migration less discriminatory?