Finding My Vietnam in Berlin
by My-Linh Kunst
The first time I met a Vietnamese here in Berlin, my hair actually stood on end.
He was the waiter at our local sushi restaurant. His jarring northern accent was reminiscent to that of the communist soldiers I met in the North on my first trip back to Vietnam in 1995, after twenty years in exile. On that trip, I visited the northern and the central regions for the first time, previously off-limits to southern Vietnamese due to the civil war. The communist North had won that war in 1975. My family, like many of the other hundred of thousands from the democratic South, fled from communist rule and became war refugees. We were called the “boat people”. Most Vietnamese in the US fall in this category.
Berlin Vietnamese, on the other hand, are divided into three distinct groups. Group One consists of Northern Vietnamese who came through communist East Germany as guest workers or students. They settled in East Berlin (Lichtenberg, Marzahn). Group Two are refugees from the South who, like me, came after the end of the Vietnam war settling in West Berlin. Group Three are the “newcomers”—migrants mostly from the central region who came here in search of a better life (in the last twenty years).
When I meet a Vietnamese here, their accent tells me which of the three groups they belong to. I can guess their home region, their family history, their immigration story, and their political leaning. Group One, with the northern accent, right or wrong, my presumption is that their families must have been good communist party members in order to be sent abroad to study or work in East Germany. Group Two, with the southern accent, are more like me, refugees who escaped Communism. My view of Group Three with the heavy central accent is biased by my work with victims of smuggling and human trafficking. I assume some/most of them are undocumented migrants who paid exorbitant sums to be smuggled to Europe. The groups rarely mix.
The northern accent of the waiter triggered a visceral reaction in me—running like a film in my head, I saw scenes from the war, I heard the voices of the communist soldiers who won the war, I relived my escape, hiding under the boat’s floorboards with the sound of the soldiers’ boots searching the boat pounding above my head.
I have since accepted that I will meet Vietnamese in Berlin whose story very much differs from mine, but I still cannot hear that jarring northern Vietnamese accent without some misgiving.
My strong sense of identity as a Vietnamese-American did not include this accent since most Vietnamese in the US are war refugees from the South—like me. By contrast, the Vietnamese diaspora in Berlin is fractured into the three groups with different ideology, background and values, yet we are viewed as one community, judged through the same lens. In the US, my sense of identity was clear. Here, I am not as sure.
My memory of growing up, living and working in the US is not marred by racist comments or questions about my ethnicity, which seems improbable in the current discourse. Perhaps it was the places where I lived or the communities in which I was a part, I was just another American who came from somewhere else. I found it natural to balance my Vietnamese core values (regarding family, duty, tradition), with American beliefs and behaviors (eg. agency, confidence, independence). This is what it means to me to be Vietnamese-American.
Here in Berlin, unless I was born to a Vietnamese parent and an American parent, there is no understanding for this hyphen-identity. Here in Berlin, I am only identified by my original ethnicity. If I say “I’m American”, I will undoubtedly get the follow-up question from Germans “ …but where are you really from?”
Where am I really from? Normally, I would answer without hesitation “Virginia”. But I have learned that speaking to a German, I would need to say “I’m originally from Vietnam.” to satisfy the question.
When I met three Vietnamese-American women here in Berlin, we immediately bonded over our common journey (refugees to the US, hard-working self-made parents, good schools, good career, married to non-Vietnamese, and living abroad). We called ourselves the “Viet Joy Luck Club” and met for Vietnamese meals every month. These women filled a missing piece I did not know I lacked. They were my people, they became my local family. Berlin finally felt like home to me.
Now that two of them have left Berlin, I find myself missing that piece again. Unlike in the US where I did not have the need to find my Vietnam because it was there in my Vietnamese family and friends, I now have to actively seek out Vietnamese connections: I visit the Vietnamese buddhist temple for new year’s; I work with local NGOs helping Vietnamese migrants; I tutor online students from Vietnam; and I eat a lot of Pho. But I find that without my people, the feeling of “home” is still elusive.
I am a Vietnamese-born, French-educated American who has lived in Europe for half my life. So, where do I come from, really? I feel like I am from everywhere and nowhere. I feel like I am on the borders of all these groups and not quite belonging to any. Diversity and Inclusion? It’s a complex issue, even within myself.
My-Linh Kunst, AWC Berlin president (2015-2018), arrived in the US as a war refugee in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War. She learned English at twelve-years-old and speaks four other languages. She has lived in seven countries, came to Europe twenty-seven years ago, and landed in Berlin in 2008. She and her German husband Matthias have two sons, who are raised tricultural and trilingual (though Vietnamese is not one of their languages).