Update Jan 27, 2016:  I’ve reviewed the dissertation for the website Dissertation Reviews.

On New Year’s Eve, I finished reading a terrific dissertation about Vietnamese in the former Czechoslovakia.  The author is Alena Alamgir (Rutgers 2014), and her work is about a bilateral labor program between the DRV and Czechoslovakia from 1967 to 1989 that sent Vietnamese from the European country for training and work in a variety of industries. The field is historical sociology – it won the Theda Skocpol Award from the American Sociological Association last year – and the dissertation utilizes a good deal of documents from the National Czech Archives, including materials from three governmental agencies in the Cold War era.

The Vietnamese market in Prague ~ pc pragueoffthemap.com

It was a fitting end to the year because I must have learned more about Vietnamese in the former communist bloc during 2015 than I did in all the years before.  Theirs is a fascinating history whose pieces are barely assembled at this time.

Besides the dissertation, I got a lot from a number of articles, mostly by social scientists based in Europe but also a few from elsewhere, including Christina Schwenkel at UC Riverside. Among these studies is a recent special issue about Vietnamese in the journal Central and Eastern European Migration Review, guest-edited by Grażyna Szymańska-Matusiewicz, possibly the premiere scholar of Vietnamese in Poland today.  I met her at a conference last year, and she told me a bit about the Polish community.  This special issue puts together a very nice selection of articles, including one about Vietnamese in the U.S. by Hao Phan at Northern Illinois University.  (Though somewhat out of place in an issue about Vietnamese in Europe, this article is one of the better works about Vietnamese Americans that I’ve read in the last few years.)  Of course, there is more of the secondary literature to read and absorb.  But it’s fair to say that I received a nice introduction to the studies of Vietnamese living east of Munich and Venice since the 1950s.

Plenty could be said about studies of the Vietnamese diaspora, and here are merely a few thoughts and impressions I have after reading these studies.  On the macro level, it struck me that there was a convergence of factors, some familiar and some not, that led to the divergence of the Vietnamese diaspora especially during the second half of the twentieth century.  For sure, national division and Cold War alliance played their particular – and peculiar – roles in this divergence.  Already conflicted in outlook about their postcolonial visions, Vietnamese further diverged from geographical division and the competition in nation-building during 1954-1975.  This divergence in turn led to a divergence in the diasporic experiences that is still very much with us today.

A related convergence has to do with economic development and industrialization.  There is a long history about the movement of Vietnamese workers to other countries, including thousands of Vietnamese enlisted or pressured to go to Europe to support France during World War I.  But the second half of the twentieth century saw a broadening of this movement.  This movement was due partially to socialist internationalism: on the one hand, the DRV’s needs for experts and technicians, especially in heavy industries; on the other hand, ideological solidarity and commitment from China and Eastern Europe.  But it was also a result of the convergence of poor economy and high unemployment, especially in the immediate postwar years – and the need for labor from the industrialized countries in the former Eastern European bloc.

It may be a more “traditional” convergence of sorts, and in this case postcolonial economic and social aspiration on the part of the Vietnamese were aligned to the industrial needs of the more economically advanced communist countries.  One could say that Vietnamese both drew themselves and were drawn into the global competition in economic development and industrialization: a contributing factor to diasporic complexities nowadays.

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Vietnamese guest workers return home from the former East Germany, May 31, 1990 ~ pc the website German History in Documents and Images

Also interesting, I think, is the global regionalization of Vietnamese in the diaspora.  Historically, there had been many northerners living in Thailand and southern China, many southerners living in Cambodia, and a smaller number from north, center, and south in France.  This diaspora has expanded greatly since the 1960s.  Today, the majority of Vietnamese living in North America, Western Europe, and Australia came from southern Vietnam: that is, as southern natives, northern emigrés in 1954-1955, or their descendants.  In comparison, Vietnamese of northern origin dominated the diasporic population in Eastern and Central Europe.  I have no idea about the regional origin of Vietnamese who went to Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, and other Asian countries since the 1990s.  (Perhaps 2016 is the year for me to look into these countries.) These cases may be more complex.  In the end, I think it is fascinating to map out the configurations of Vietnamese movements and relocations since at least 1954.  (Digital humanities, anyone?)

I don’t mean to imply that complexities are all macro and not micro.  Not at all.  As shown by Szymańska-Matusiewicz in the CEEMR special issue, there has been a good deal of “internal division” in political orientation among Vietnamese in Poland: some are more inclined towards the official line of the Vietnamese state while others advocate pro-democracy activism.  Moreover, the make-up of the communities in Central and Eastern Europe is hardly uniform.  There is a lot of diversity in terms of class, gender, education, family background, access to power, and, yes, even origin of region. Nonetheless, given evidence from the past, I also think that this diversity is more recent.

Vietnamese restaurants on Aleja Bohaterów Warszawy, Szezecin, Poland ~ pc common.wikimedia.org

Another thought prompted by these studies has to do with education in the diaspora.  Both the Alamgir dissertation and an article by Schwenkel note the roles of Vietnamese group leaders and interpreters in the work programs between Vietnam and, respectively, Czechoslovakia and East Germany.  Not only they were paid more than workers, but their education also allowed access and connections to other opportunities, then and later.

For me, this example of group leaders and interpreters is fascinating because it contributes to our understanding about Vietnamese attitude towards education in the diaspora.  (It applies to Vietnam too, but I’m limiting myself to the diaspora.)   The culturalist argument about Vietnamese attitudes towards education has always struck me as problematic.   Much better it is to historicize these attitudes and explain them through evidence from the historical records.  In this case, the vast majority of Vietnamese workers in the former Czechoslovakia possessed little education.  Yet now Vietnamese in the Czech Republic have made a name for themselves in academic achievements.  How to account for this gap?

I have no answer in the absence of further evidence.  But I also think it is worthwhile to keep in mind the direct experience of the less educated guest workers, who consistently encountered the gap in income, power, and opportunities vis-à-vis group leaders and interpreters in the Czechoslovak, East German, or Soviet factories.  Could this experience contribute to a growing aspiration and belief in educational achievements for their offspring?

The question may be unanswerable until a lot later.  In the meantime, let’s hope that there will be more of these studies published in English in the near future.

January 6, 2016:  This article on NPR interviews a couple of Vietnamese living in Slovakia today.