THEY came to Slovakia as young girls and Vietnamese women living in Slovakia often find themselves torn between global culture and traditional values. Changing their names, raising kids in a family where two cultures clash and finding work present all sorts of unique challenges. For these émigrés the question remains whether Slovakia can ever really feel like home.
Phung Thi Thu Quyen, 31, was to start a typical career for a Vietnamese woman living in Slovakia. She was running an Asian restaurant with her husband in Sereď. Both were working 13 hours a day, but one autumn day she could not find her son in a park nearby where he played. Though they soon found him safe at a friend’s house, she was frightened and the experience made her rethink what she wanted from life.
“During my childhood, all I remember about my parents was seeing them working,“ Phung said. “Is this the way I want to live my life too?”
Fed up with last minute dinners at 22:00 each night, she longed for traditional Vietnamese family dinners with her kids. She quit the bistro and found a job with a standard eight- hour work day.
Phung’s parents started out in Slovakia earning their living in the textile business. Later they opened a night grocery market. Phung recalled hearing comments about how well-off the family was.
“No one seemed to notice we were working twice as hard as them,” she said. “Vietnamese are hard-working, right, but sadly it’s often at the expense of the kids.”
Phung was 13 years old when she came to Slovakia with her parents and sister.
“You go to school, look and feel different than others,” she said. Then you come home and spend time with your parents who lived most of their life in Vietnam. They are two different worlds, but you really don’t belong to any of them.”
When it comes to the culture of work within the Vietnamese community, Phung was not alone in her experience.
Working fingers to the bone
“Fear of an uncertain future can be the reason why Vietnamese people work their fingers to the bone,” said Huong Gašparovská from the Union of Vietnam Women. “Life’s hard in Vietnam. When the chance arrives you have to embrace the opportunity and make savings for bad times.”
Vietnamese immigrants made their way to then Czechoslovakia as part of a programme between fellow communist governments. After the Velvet Revolution they were the first to lose their jobs, but also among the first to take advantage of the new free market possibilities. As any number of consumer goods were lacking, they started their own businesses.
According to Gašparovská, there are between 5,000 and 6,000 Vietnamese currently living in Slovakia. Gašparovská, who is married to a Slovak man, finds the generational shifts Phung alludes to as common. Unlike their parents, second generation Vietnamese in Slovakia are influenced by European culture and no longer believe life is just about work.
Gašparovská, 42, came to Slovakia in 1989 as a part of a student exchange between socialist countries. For many Slovaks she became Helena, for others Hanka.
“Many people are afraid they might offend their Vietnamese friend by mutilating their name with bad pronunciation. So they rather give up trying,” she said.
Though she speaks perfect Slovak, Gašparovská understands how much of barrier language can be.
This is becoming less of a problem as Vietnamese kids are raised from birth in Slovakia.
“Kids speak Slovak from an early age - in kindergarten, or smaller kids with their Slovak babysitter,” said Ľubica Daneková, director of Odborárska primary school and kindergarten in Bratislava.
Two years ago the school began cooperating with the Union of Vietnam Women, offering Vietnamese language courses for youngsters and Slovak for parents. As language becomes less of a barrier, there are other problems, however.
“The second generation of young educated Vietnamese has a problem finding jobs and many of them leave the country,” Gašparovská said.
Trang Pham Thi Thu, 29, was part of this trend of reverse immigration.
“In Slovakia there is a lack of possibilities for Asian minorities, and definitely when we talk about some higher positions,” she said.
With a PhD degree from the UK, she left Slovakia three years ago to get to know her roots, but admits her departure was influenced by being tired of constantly feeling like a foreigner in a country where she had lived for years.
“No matter how I tried, no matter how well I spoke Slovak, I always felt like a stranger,” Trang said. “My parents are well educated people. My father has a PhD in economics, but some people treat them with disrespect, because it takes them a long time to explain what they want.”
Trang came to Slovakia with her family when she was seven years old and thinks of Slovakia as her home.
Women in Vietnam
Vietnam is the world’s 13th most populous nation with more than 91.5 million inhabitants. According to legend, the Vietnamese people are descendants of the dragon and the female angel. This contradiction is present in many aspects of their culture, especially the position of women.
“Vietnamese women are still submissive to men’s authority,” Gašparovská said.
On the other hand, among Vietnamese heroes are female freedom fighters, the Trung sisters, traditionally pictured riding an elephant. Women also played a significant role during the Vietnam War as village patrol guards, intelligence agents, propagandists and military recruiters. How is this duality possible?
“Vietnamese value their freedom above all. They fight for their freedom at all costs. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female,” Gašparovská said.
Even amid all the trials and tribulations, Phung believes her children will have better opportunities in Slovakia than in her native Vietnam. While finding a job was not easy, she eventually found work coordinating Vietnamese employees for the Korean company Samsung. She has also adopted a European-influenced attitude toward raising her children.
“They have to choose their own direction, and I help them to follow it,” Phung said. “I keep something from Vietnamese culture and something from the Slovak one. It makes me balanced.”
The articles included in the “Reporting on Diversity” supplement were created by authors enrolled in the “Reporting on Diversity” programme organised by The Slovak Spectator in cooperation with the Journalism Department at Comenius University and with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava. The programme seeks to train young journalists and journalism students for covering ethnicity, gender, race and religious issues, as well as other phenomena related to various communities and the challenges they face in Slovakia. The articles were prepared in line with strict journalistic ethical and reporting standards.
28. Oct 2013 at 0:00 | Sandra Tordová