Vietnamese diasporas and cultural transactions in Eastern Europe – University of Copenhagen

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20 November 2017

Vietnamese diasporas and cultural transactions in Eastern Europe

Project member, Marina Marouda (University of Sussex), investigates Vietnamese traders in Chinese commodities operating in Eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine. Recently she was invited to talk about her research in a colloquium organised by the Vietnamese community in Warsaw.

Marina reports: 

While in Eastern Europe doing fieldwork on the social and entrepreneurial lives of overseas Vietnamese, I had the opportunity to talk about my research as an invited speaker at a seminar organised by the Vietnamese diaspora in Warsaw, Poland.

There is a flourishing Vietnamese community in Poland, the largest concentration is in Warsaw, where many are engaged in wholesale and retail trade and catering businesses. This is one of the most organised communities I have come across in Eastern Europe, with an array of civic associations active in promoting cultural and community matters, and this ‘scientific seminar’ was one of these instances.   

The seminar was held at a purposely built cultural centre in Raszyn (or ‘Russia’ in English), a Warsaw suburb that many Vietnamese families call home, and it was organised by a number of diasporic associations active in promoting cultural and educational matters, including the Văn Lang Culture Centre, the Vietnamese Culture Centre in Raszyn, the Lê Quý Đôn Vietnamese scientists’ club, and the Fund for Vietnamese Integration in Poland.

Speakers given books by Vietnamese authours

The seminar theme was “Vietnamese culture and the integration of the Vietnamese in Poland”, and I was one of three speakers invited to talk about their research. The other two speakers, Dr Grażyna Szymańska, from the Institute of Sociology Warsaw University and Ewa Grabowska, a psychology graduate who is currently doing a PhD in Anthropology at Warsaw University, have both done extensive research on ethnic Vietnamese in Poland. The event was attended by leading Vietnamese community figures, including writers and scientists who have studied and carved out careers in Polish universities as well as eminent business folk.

Taking part in this event provided an opportunity to engage in conversation with both Polish and Vietnamese scholars and audiences. This was an enriching and edifying experience, not least because it allowed an insight into the terms in which Polish and diasporic Vietnamese engage in conversation as well as into some of the issues that are important to them.  

Speakers and event organisers

The topic that dominated discussions and were vigorously debated was the issue so-called ‘integration’.  Ewa Grabowska’s presentation was concerned with ‘Vietnamese family values’, especially with regards to disparities between generations, and the extent to which such values facilitate the adjustment of ethnic Vietnamese into Polish social life. In her presentation "Vietnamese in the eyes of Poles", Grażyna Szymańska shared results from her research on the changing attitudes of Polish publics towards diasporic Vietnamese, pointing to significant shifts from ‘negative’ to ‘positive’ stereotypical views in recent years.

Perceptions regarding Vietnamese culture proved to be a red banner to diasporic Vietnamese audiences, many of them scholars from Polish universities, who keenly debated the issue. That is perhaps not surprising considering the impact such views have reportedly had on the livelihoods of diasporic Vietnamese in recent years. As Grażyna noted ‘negative stereotypes’ contributed to a number of Vietnamese restaurants going bankrupt in 2005.

Sandwiched between the two presentations, my talk had little to do with questions about ethnic identities and integration into perceived national cultures, which, in a twist of times, are gaining currency across Europe. Drawing on previous research in Viet Nam as well as on my current project on Vietnamese trade diasporas in Eastern Europe, I was keen to convey my interest in the transnational dimensions of the cultural and economic activities of overseas Vietnamese, and how these activities facilitate global connections.

Cross-boundary movements and international orientations can be traced in an array of activities diasporic Vietnamese in Poland engage in, including forming business partnerships with Chinese and Turkish entrepreneurs to establish large-scale wholesale markets that attract international customers, investing in business ventures in Poland and elsewhere in the EU, and seeing to their children’s education in foreign languages (English, German, Chinese) as well as in universities around the world.

No surprises then that event organisers arranged to broadcast the event in a number of media, including online newspapers and commercial websites in Poland and Europe as well as in national TV channels in Viet Nam.