Grażyna Szymańska-Matusiewicz, Vietnamese in Poland: From Socialist Fraternity to the Global Capitalism Era (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2019)

This recent monograph by the foremost scholar on Vietnamese immigrants in Poland is part of the series “Migration-Ethnicity-Nation: Studies in Culture, Society and Politics” edited by Dorota Praszałowicz (Jagiellonian University, Krakow) and published by Peter Lang. It reflects a broader scholarship about the Vietnamese immigrants in eastern European countries. Click here for a post about this scholarship from four years ago. And click here and here for short articles about Vietnamese in Poland; both carry some terrific photographs.

Having read two or three articles by Dr. Szymańska-Matusiewicz before, I read this book with great interest and found it the deepest study on the subject. Scholars of the Vietnamese diaspora will need to read it. Scholars in related fields should read it too. The following interview was conducted over Messenger.

Tuan Hoang: Before reading your book, I didn’t realize that there had not been Vietnamese workers in Poland: a different situation than the relationship between Vietnam and the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. Was there any attempt to establish a labor relationship between the two countries?

Grażyna Szymańska-Matusiewicz: As of what I know, there were no significant efforts to establish such kind of relationship. There were some apprenticeship programs (on a limited scale) in the 1980s. However, there were more aimed at providing actual professional training for the Vietnamese apprentices (similar to Czechoslovakia in the 1970s) than at making use of Vietnamese labor force. I assume that it was due to the fact that Poland under socialist rule did not experience a lack of labor force. If there were any shortages of the labor force, it was in the agricultural sector, as the farmers eagerly moved to industrializing cities to take up jobs in factories. However, contrary to other Soviet Bloc countries, agriculture, in general, was not collectivized; the land remained in private hands. So, there was no real need for importing the foreign labor force, as it was not in demand in the industrial sector and could not easily be used in the agricultural sector.

Hoang: Among the Vietnamese, was the educational trajectory with Poland the same as those with the other countries? What goals did they hope to achieve from studies in Poland? And were those goals similar to students in the USSR, East Germany, Czechoslovakia?

Szymańska-Matusiewicz: Each of the Soviet Bloc countries delivered educational services that were supposed, firstly, to fulfill the needs of the developing Vietnamese state. They were supposed to be useful. Secondly, each country offered training in the disciplines in which it was specialized. In case of Poland, these disciplines were shipbuilding, which could not be offered by, let’s say, Czechoslovakia for obvious geographical reasons. On the other hand, Poland, a country with access to the Baltic Sea, had large shipyards in the communist era. There were also mining since Poland had a large coal mining industry in Silesia, and related engineering disciplines. General STEM disciplines like physics and math were also offered. However, particularly in the case of the latter, Poland was perceived as a “second category” destination, as Soviet Union was unanimously seen as the place offering the best quality education, plus better career possibilities after return to Vietnam.

Hoang: Taking the cue from the concept “socialist mobilities,” you show the growth of the educational programs that sent students from Vietnam to Poland. The first students arrived to Poland in 1955, two months after the opening of the DRV’s embassy in Warsaw. It was a small group of 23 young adults, all of whom had been carefully vetted from families with close ties to the communist revolution. They were also under strict control of the party and the embassy. Then came the peak years in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, which saw the highest numbers of students. There were, for example, about 300 Vietnamese in the 1968 cohort. The last period, 1976-1989–which overlapped with national reunification, the last phases of the Cold War, and the beginning of Đổi Mới [Renovation]–saw a decline in the old patterns as well as the opening of new ones. Well, a major finding from the first chapter is the strong emotional bonds that the Vietnamese experienced among themselves, and bonds between themselves and Poles. As you detail in a number of case studies, there were many reasons for these bonds. Generally speaking, how do the existence of these bonds, which have lasted over several decades, fit into the concept “socialist mobilities”?

Szymańska-Matusiewicz: I think that Susan Bayly provides a good answer to this question in her work on socialist mobilities. She stresses the importance of the affective component in the imaginaries of “socialist friendship”. It seems that in Vietnam, the postulate of “socialist fraternity” was treated–at least by the members of socialist intelligentsia which were taking part in the transnational circulation within the Soviet Bloc–very solemnly and seriously. I would say that in Poland it was not really the case. Due to multiple factors, this part of communist rhetorics was very alien to Poles who in large part perceived communism as an ideology forcibly imposed on them and other Eastern European countries by the Soviet Union. Therefore, the category of “fraternity” was seen as an empty slogan, in the best case.

The categories of nostalgia, heartfelt sentiment, and gratitude were constantly reappearing throughout my study of graduates of Polish schools. Some of them invoked the fact that studying in Poland in a way saved them from participation in the war, at the same time enabling them to fulfill their responsibilities toward the state. The fact that the bonds between the former students were eagerly maintained has probably also a lot of common with the activity of Hội Hữu Nghị Việt Nam – Ba Lan [Vietnam-Poland Friendship Society] one of the goals of the “friendship society” was to maintain the fraternal bonds. As I described in the book, the actions of HHNVN-BL were not particularly effective in terms of fostering bonds among Poland and Vietnam, largely due to the lack of interest from the Polish side.

Hoang: Moving to the realm of economic mobilities, it is fascinating to learn about the initial shift from education to entrepreneurship among the Vietnamese in Poland. A common strategy among immigrants in the Vietnamese diaspora has been opening a restaurant. In this case, however, the students played upon Polish cultural perception of Asians as the “other” and availed themselves as teachers of martial arts to Poles. Moreover, you discuss this entrepreneurship as transnational. Please explain the transnational aspects of their involvement in martial arts schools and, more generally, their shift towards economic entrepreneurship.

Szymańska-Matusiewicz: As I have described in the book, the first Vietnamese martial arts practitioners appeared in Poland in the late 1970s and operated in the grey zone. In this period of time, under state monopoly on economic activities, it was not possible to open a business such as a restaurant. It changed in the second half of 1980, with the gradual introduction of free-market economy in Poland. Regarding the transnational aspect of martial arts masters’ activity. I describe a case of Vo Quyen school and Mr La Duc Trung. While it is a school operating in Poland and addressed to Polish customers, it is at the same time a part of the official, state-regulated Vietnamese system of martial art associations. For Vo Quyen owner, getting formal recognition from Vietnamese authorities seemed to be of primary importance, even though he has lived and pursued his business in Poland for over three decades.

In general, transnational involvement of Vietnamese entrepreneurs–and, probably even more, of Vietnamese migrant organizations–is a result of connections that the above actors have with the institutions of the Vietnamese state. Of course, martial arts schools and practitioners were a phenomenon on a very limited scale. Vietnamese restaurants appeared in Poland as soon as it became possible under the Polish legal regulations. The first one was opened in the late 1980s; a lot of restaurants emerged soon after the economic transition of 1989.

Hoang: If martial arts schools were an early form of entrepreneurship and restaurants came a bit later, global changes and changes in Vietnam during the 1980s and 1990s led some students in Poland to participation in “transnational trade chains” (p. 80). There were also different categories of people in this participation. A small number grew to be “big fish.” Some were petty traders or working people at bazaars and trade halls. Chapters 2-3 describe and analyze many factors and nuances about this shift to trade and business. (They are possibly the most important chapters in the book.) In your view, what were the most significant factors that led to this shift and forever altered the earlier educational model?

Szymańska-Matusiewicz: The most important factors leading to the transformation of the mobility model were profound geopolitical changes leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc. Already in the 1980s, the educational exchange programs were conducted on a smaller scale than during the war years. On the other hand, other programs, aimed at professional training of already qualified cadres were run, which provided some Vietnamese who studied in Poland in the 1960s or 1970s to return to this country. At the same time, in the Eastern European countries, among them Poland, the informal economic sector was gaining in importance. This included the illicit trans-border trade. The Vietnamese arriving in Poland–many of whom have already some experience with navigating the informal economy sector under the bảo cấp [nationalized economy] times in the 1980s Vietnam–joined this sector.

Hoang: Chapter 4 discusses two more Vietnamese groups: the 1.5 generation migrants and international students. While there are some overlaps, they are actually quite distinct from each other and certainly contribute to the pluralism and complexity of the transnational Vietnamese experience in Poland. May I direct this question to Chapter 5, the last chapter, on transnational Vietnamese organizations. They share some similarities such as nationalistic and anti-Chinese demonstrations. Or, there were (are?) two Buddhist pagodas in suburban Warsaw that seek close ties to Buddhist organizations in Vietnam. Yet here, too, you have found important divergences and differences. The pagodas, for instance, have been independent of each other. Moreover, one has been close to official circles (such as the Vietnamese embassy) while the other pagoda is not at all (even though it isn’t against the Vietnamese state). Such examples demonstrate a degree of pluralism among cultural organizations. In your view, what factors have come together to create this sort of pluralism?

Szymańska-Matusiewicz: The Vietnamese community in Poland is indeed diverse in many aspects, including the political entanglements of particular actors. Despite the fact that the Vietnamese state exerts control over the community quite effectively and initiatives directly challenging the political system in Vietnam have generally played a marginal role in community affairs, the actors from within the community are not completely deprived of agency. Some of them, especially those who spent decades in Poland, has been married to Poles or have lived in Poland since their teenage years, and therefore were exposed to a diverse set of values, attempts to act on their own terms, at the same time avoiding open contestation of the institutions of Vietnamese state. The latter is crucial for the community in which many prominent members are related to the state apparatus of Vietnam, and most of the migrants have families in Vietnam who could face repercussions in case they engage in activism openly contesting the Vietnamese state, as has happened to some anticommunist activists from Poland who have been banned from returning to Vietnam. In many cases we can observe oscillation between subordination and autonomy. 

A good example is the Thien Phuc pagoda – one of the two currently operating Vietnamese pagodas in Poland. On one hand resisted being subordinated to the state-linked Vietnamese migrant organization (Association of Vietnamese Admirers of Buddhism), but on the other hand established their own connection with a Hanoi-based monk affiliated with Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha.   Coming back to your question, I would say that there are multiple factors standing behind the diversity of the Vietnamese community in Poland – some of them generally typical for migrant communities, such as length of the stay in Poland, age on arrival or having a Polish spouse; others are, however, related to the background of particular individuals, including their family background and its relations to the Vietnamese state apparatus.

Hoang: One more question… Can you tell us one or two stories or anecdotes that happened during your research?

Szymańska-Matusiewicz: I have many fond memories of my study conducted in Vietnam. Generally I was very warmly welcomed by the graduates of Polish universities, who studied in then-communist Poland. They were not only willing to share their histories, in which Poland was pictured very favorably, with a large dose of nostalgia, but also invited me to multiple events grouping the former graduates.

During these parties, Polish popular songs from the 1960s and 1970s were played, and I was always asked to perform at least one of the Polish singalongs on the stage; this was an offer I could not refuse despite my obvious lack of talent to singing. During my work with the Vietnamese community in Poland I was not spared from this experience either – strongly encouraged by my Vietnamese friends, I performed one of the singer Mỹ Tâm’s songs during the Vietnam Women’s Day celebration organized in Warsaw.

Dr. Szymańska-Matusiewicz (right) at an event sponsored by Vietnamese alumni of Polish universities