Lasting Divide

In Berlin's Vietnamese Community, Bridging the North-South Gap

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“It is more about living alongside one another,” Ms. Luong said, referring to the two communities in Berlin. “After all, they were all victims of political decisions.”
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s former wall still exists in the minds of many people, including two Vietnamese communities who have backgrounds in communist North Vietnam and the former non-communist South.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • South Vietnamese refugees came to West Germany when communist North Vietnam violently conquered the South.
    • Communist Vietnamese came to the Eastern part of Germany as labor immigrants.
    • 25 years after the Wall fell, the two groups hardly mingle, burdened by violence and the killings of the past.
  • Audio

    Audio

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An invisible wall still exists in Germany, an unknown relict of the country’s east and west separation. Oddly enough, this imaginary line divides people with roots in the former South Vietnam and the communist North.

Diem Tran, a 23-year old student of Culture and Technology at the Technical University Berlin, only has Vietnamese friends who have their origins in South Vietnam. Her father came to Germany in the 1970s after the Vietnam War had ended. Together with about one million other South Vietnamese people, he fled raids by communist North Vietnamese, who eventually took over the whole country and turned it into a socialist state. South Vietnamese people were imprisoned, tortured, raped and executed during the communist revolution.

Ms. Tran’s father was lucky and got picked up by a German-sponsored ship. He and some 2,000 other Vietnamese, who became known as “boat people,” ended up in West Berlin almost 40 years ago.

“After all, we were all victims of political decisions.”

Thanh Thùy Luong, Born in unified communist Vietnam.

South Vietnamese in exile designed their own flag, a yellow rectangle with three horizontal red lines, a symbol of freedom and independence. At some Vietnamese events in Berlin, the flag is still shown. To people of North Vietnam, the flag is a sign of treason. They adhere to the country’s official flag, a red rectangle with a yellow star.

“Everyone still has their own flag in mind,” said Ms. Diem Tran, who wants to leave the old conflict behind but at the same time is silent about it, just as most other Vietnamese. The division between the two Vietnamese communities is hardly discussed, and only few Vietnamese actively engage to bridge the gap.

Ms. Tran is the mentor of a group of teenagers at a Buddhist parish, the Linh-Thuu-Pagode. Huong Giang, 17, takes Vietnamese language classes at the pagoda. When Ms. Giang speaks, her classmates can tell by her accent that she has her roots in North Vietnam. The accents of the North and South are as different as people’s voices from New York and Texas.

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The Dong Xuan market in Berlin. Source: Kitty Kleist-Heinrich

 

Her parents came to East Germany in the 1980s and settled in East Berlin. During the communist era, the country brought in about 70,000 Vietnamese workers from the befriended socialist state to fill vacancies in East Germany’s industries. Currently, about 20,000 people with a Vietnamese background live in Berlin but how many belong to the community of former “boat people” and how many to the labor immigrants is not known.

Only a few months ago, Ms. Giang became aware of the divide between the two Vietnamese communities.

When she was asked at the pagoda, if she wanted to go to an exhibition where a South Vietnamese flag was expected to hang, she instinctively refused. Conversely, at a party in her East Berlin neighborhood, where all her friends come from families of immigrant North Vietnamese laborers, she pronounced the name of the host with the South Vietnamese accent she had picked up at the pagoda’s language classes.

“Why do you talk like that?” asked a friend. Ms. Giang couldn’t think of an answer and fell silent. “OK, let’s talk about something else,” the friend finally said.

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Dong Xuan market in Berlin with Vietnamese shops and supermarkets. Source: Kitty Kleist-Heinrich

 

Some, however, try to discuss the past. Thanh Thùy Luong, 31, was born in unified communist Vietnam, and came to Germany at the age of 8. Her mother had been a contracted worker in the former East and was re-united with her family in Berlin after the wall came down in Germany. Ms. Luong has a degree in South East Asian Studies, and teaches Vietnamese and about Vietnam at a school in East Berlin, where 20 percent of the students have a Vietnamese background.

At a wholesale store in Berlin, founded by North Vietnamese and known as “Little Hanoi”, Ms. Luong participates in an education fair as a translator. She approaches teenagers and their parents to inform them about the German apprenticeship system. The Vietnamese community is keen on letting their offspring study, which is seen as the most important and effective way to succeed in life.

Both Vietnamese from the North and South visit the wholesale market and the education fair but they don’t mingle.

“It is more about living alongside one another,” Ms. Luong said, referring to the two communities in Berlin and how they interact and behave in the store. “After all, they were all victims of political decisions.”

In Berlin, she does not have friends in the South Vietnamese community. It was at a conference organized by a young German-Vietnamese society, which she attended in 2012, that she learned how much alike the two groups are. Together with some 60 participants, most of them children of former boat people from the South, she discussed the different situations of Vietnamese people in the former East and West Germany and the invisible wall that still separates the two communities.

A group of young Vietnamese tried to create a new flag to represent their generation, one that would not be associated with either of the two groups. But all attempts still incorporated elements from either the South or the North, containing three stripes or a star. And still, it was an attempt to leave the political flags behind and make way for something new, that young Vietnamese people could spend time together, regardless of their lineage.

And some do actually succeed in shaking off the past.

Ms. Nguyen recalled how some former friends had winced when they had heard she was dating a North Vietnamese. Those friendships didn’t last.

Lan Anh Nguyen, a daughter of South Vietnamese, leans on Huy Au, a son of North Vietnamese. They met at university and have plans to get married in three years, after graduation.

“In our generation, South and North no longer play a role,” Ms. Nguyen said, referring more to herself than to her peers. A few moments after her remark, she recalled how some former friends had winced when they had heard she was dating a North Vietnamese. Those friendships didn’t last.

Mr. Au wants to believe that the conflict between the North and South is a thing of the past. Ultimately, he and his girlfriend are living proof of it.

Many Vietnamese of the second generation wish the division truly was history but their stories show that there is still a long way to go. The fall of the Berlin Wall and unification of Germany was a peaceful event, but in Vietnam people died when the North and South united forcefully under a socialist government. This burden still hangs over the two Vietnamese communities in Germany.

Mocking the past and present, Ms. Nguyen calls her boyfriend “Backy-Boy.” In Vietnamese, “Bac” means north and is still used by South Vietnamese as a swear word. But Ms. Nguyen uses it in a loving way.

 

This story first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. It was translated by Gilbert Kreijger. To contact the author: redaktion@tagesspiegel.de

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