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Migration and Vietnamese identity
By Nguyen Khac Giang
Wednesday,  Jan 29, 2020,14:18 (GMT+7)

Migration and Vietnamese identity

By Nguyen Khac Giang

The village gate will remind a Vietnamese of their homeland wherever he or shre is, at home or abroad - PHOTO: LA ANH

It is that Vietnamese identity which helps us Vietnamese still show deep compassion for our compatriots when they are down and out on foreign soil.

Some of the staff working for the supermarket near where I live in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, are Vietnamese. Most of them are students doing overtime jobs to earn extra money to pay for the local expensive cost of living. A few are older people who seek opportunities for permanent residence. A middle-age woman at the food stall once gave me a big smile as she tried to use sign language to ask me if she could be of help. When knowing I am a Vietnamese, she took a great sigh of relief. She said she had been in New Zealand for several years but her English was not fluent. She added that she was more sympathized by foreigners in the country than by natives.

At another time, I met a young student who was a helper. She told me once she tried to help an old shopper with taking an item on a shelf. However, much to her consternation, the old man not only flatly rejected her offer but also yelled at her. “Go back to where you are!” he shouted. Encountering such an act of discrimination for the first time, she cried uncontrollably for a while and stopped shedding tears only after being heartily consoled by her colleagues. But she said she had been able to assume better self-control ever since. If faced with such an embarrassment, she’d better seek help from her manager.

Of course, people living overseas cannot often rely on others the way the above young student did. Vietnamese the world over, especially those who have to toil long and hard to eke out a living have made tremendous effort to surmount formidable challenges on foreign soil. They all have miseries which can be told to nobody, worries which nobody can share and distress which must be concealed before high expectations in the homeland. Whoever at home always wants to have a relative who lives overseas because, to many of them, that status is synonymous with a wealthy and easy life.

Decent houses with elegant decor and luxury cars owned by a loved one in a foreign country are tangible and convincing assets. Yet very few would ever bother to ask what that same loved one has to do to possess them in exchange. To the 39 Vietnamese found dead in the refrigerator truck in Britain last November, it was their own lives.

The conical hat, ao ba ba (a traditional southern Vietnamese piece of garment), banh tet (cylindrical glutinous rice cake) are some most memorable signatures of the southern culture - PHOTO: LY MINH PHU

Illegal workers without a work permit and personal papers are those Vietnamese suffering the most overseas. Leading an illegal life, they also have to succumb to their employers’ exploitation. If they do not do illegal jobs, such as selling smuggled cigarettes or growing cannabis, they would end up working in a nail salon or a restaurant whose salaries are so meager. They have no shelter to seek even when being treated with violence.

Even for those who stay legally in a foreign country, their life is not always simple. I have met some Vietnamese who had once gained relatively high social statuses back in Vietnam—university lecturers, business department managers and successful business people—and had left all at the home country to resettle in a foreign nation. Each has his or her own way. Therefore, it’s tough to say who is better than who. Life in Western economies is peaceful, where the environment and living conditions are perfect. Yet, in return, it is really tough to have a position equivalent to that in Vietnam, or simply work in the right profession. Vietnamese communities in New Zealand often make a joke by saying that to remain and live in this country, one can have only two options as far as the occupation is concerned. Be a manicurist if you’re a woman and a painter if a man, they would say. If a Vietnamese who settles in New Zealand as per the decision of his or her spouse, he or she would often have to sacrifice a career.

But jobs are only a small fraction of the whole story. The greater part which is much arduous is the integration process into a new people and a new culture. Immigrants have to do away with their own lifestyles, habits and the living space in their homeland to adopt new ones in their host countries. For those who grow up in a foreign country when a child, it’s way easier. However, those who resettle overseas as adults will find it a formidable challenge. Many of them have got stuck between the two worlds—they get lost in the new world while being addressed by a strange title in “the world at home”: Viet kieu (overseas Vietnamese).

Migration is a human instinct. Our ancestors stepped out of the vast plateaus of Africa to venture new places in Europe, Asia, Americas and then the remote Australian continent. This journey, which once lasted for tens of thousands of years, needs only a few dozen of hours in flight now.

To some certain extent, the making of Vietnam as a people and a nation as she is today is closely associated with migration. Vietnamese moved from the Red River Delta in the north to the south during a long and eventful path to form today’s Vietnam.

As the country becomes more prosperous, that journey continues with Vietnamese going overseas to many destinations to study, earn a living or realize their lifelong dreams. Vietnam has in recent years made to the top of countries with the highest number of international students in the United States, Australia or Britain. Some of them have notched up extraordinary success, such as Prof. Ngo Bao Chau or pianist Dang Thai Son. However, many have ended up coming home empty-handed or accepting the underworld in the new country.

In-country Vietnamese feel proud when a compatriot becomes outstanding overseas and ashamed if their country people do something bad. Logically speaking, it is absurd. Most Vietnamese who have settled overseas are no longer Vietnamese when it comes to legality. The suspect in a case where pins were inserted into strawberries at supermarkets in Australia, which caused an unprecedented food crisis there in 2018, was of Vietnamese origin. But she did not have Vietnamese nationality and is in fact an Australian citizen. However, Netizens back in Vietnam still consider “Vietnamese orgin” something relevant to their honor. If some Vietnamese who have no longer lived in Vietnam for more than 20 years and if they want to relinquish their nationalities or even if they cannot speak Vietnamese fluently, they still belong to that fateful identity without being able to escape from it. They are still “Vietnamese,” anyway.

Such an identity prompts us Vietnamese to show deep compassion for our compatriots who are down and out in foreign soil. Love it or hate it, it’s a “community” of 100 million people. It has created a strong tie of a common root, which links to not only mountains and rivers, but also people living in the homeland. Much has been talked about a “post-racial world” where national border is wiped out and people are no longer judged by their passports. Nonetheless, in reality, “national identity” has continued to be one of the core values of modern life over the past decades. The tragedy for nationless peoples, such as the Palestinians or the Kurds, indicates that in the end we must have a final place to cling to in this precarious world.

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