Identity, art and political activism are closely intertwined. In a majority white society like Germany, People of Colour are constantly faced with the challenge of questioning and crossing boundaries as well as borders.
A group of us, made up of artists, writers, and more wrote an essay “Crossing Borders,” in a collection titled “Is home where the star fruits are sweet? Viet German Life Realities in Transition.” The book is VLAB’s first print publication, in its original German title:“Ist Zuhause da, wo die Sternfrüchte süß sind? Viet-deutsche Lebensrealitäten im Wandel” and in cooperation with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. VLAB Berlin is a social entrepreneur spin-off of Humboldt University Berlin. Emerging from the student initiative Vietnam Stammtisch at the Humboldt University, the team has been actively promoting Vietnamese-German educational and cultural transfer since 2013.
The introduction text of the book says: “The children of the former Vietnamese contract workers and apprentices in the GDR, the “boat people” in West Germany, the students on both sides have grown up. They are entrepreneurs, artists, journalists, founders, doctors, professionals, and many more. Behind the stereotypical image of the academic genius and the model minority lie multi-layered narratives that need to be heard. Stories about the search for identity, about belonging and exclusion, family and society, about the gift and the turmoil of growing up with two cultures. This anthology is a compilation of scholarly contributions and personal essays about the realities of young Viet Germans. It is intended for anyone who is open to new perspectives and willing to listen to the underrepresented voices of our society.”
Between the intersections of visual arts, film and culture, some of my Vietnamese-Chinese-German diasporic friends: Thuy Trang Nguyen, film director; Minh Duc Pham, artist and Dieu Hao Do, film director and I gathered over zoom on a series of conversations sometime in June 2020. We asked one another: Where do our borders and boundaries lie? How and why are we forced or confronted with crossing and redefining borders? Why is border-crossing so indispensable with regard to marginalized realities? — Thị Minh Huyền Nguyễn
Huyen: I was given a recommendation for the Hauptschule (lowest secondary school) in 4th grade and then in Realschule (middle school), I was told that I would never make it to the Gymnasium (academic high school). In 9th grade, then, I was told that I would never make it to university. It makes me think how limited the thinking of my white teachers was that I would not make it further than secondary school or an apprenticeship. Later, I found it very exciting to see my own transformation when I was in the U.S. for the first time, where my host mother told me: “Huyen! Of course you can become a designer, of course you can do everything you dreamed of doing”. It was a narrative that I didn’t know at all. I didn’t know it from my Vietnamese family household nor from school.
Duc: I actually have pretty good memories of my childhood and youth, but especially when I think back to school, one is confronted quite early on with the fact that you don’t belong. One is forced to deal with oneself without even realizing the tools or the reasons for it. I was surrounded by 99% white people only, the other percent were friends of ours who had entered Germany illegally at that time and were accommodated in a refugee home. These are experiences that have to be worked through quite a bit for me afterwards. I am already in the process, but yet I notice, again and again, how long it takes.
Thuy: It all sounds very scary similar – do we all live the same life? I was the only Vietnamese person to come to a new elementary school and the first thing my math teacher does is put me in the Math Olympics. She saw me and thought: “Ah yes. She is a math high-flyer.” That’s complete bullshit. I have no idea about math! Not only do I look physically different than everyone else, but I am treated differently because of that. At the same time, another story was dictated to me that I didn’t know about. My family is a Boatpeople family. To go to East Berlin with this [South Vietnamese, nationalist and anti-communist] background and be described as an unsuspecting child by the teacher as follows: “You Vietnamese are so strong, you defeated the USA with only bamboo sticks. And I was like: “We did what? Where? How?”
Duc: I was constantly told “You are nothing!” and “You can only become something through achievement”. Then one starts to reapply all the stereotypes Thuy had just mentioned. I had piano lessons and practiced to make myself visible. At some point, I could no longer be ignored because I was becoming more and more of a competitor: So I am only because I perform.
Hao: I can share your experiences. My family also came to Germany as boat people, with the special case – which we like to forget in historiography – that they were part of the Chinese minority in Saigon. This all just resonated strongly with me. The fact that our existence here in Germany is tied to conditions, that we [have to] do [more] in a white majority society in order to be seen as equal. So that we are seen as equals, so that we are respected. All this is internalized. In this context I find the concept of un-learning so important. What exactly does it mean for us?
“I always have the feeling that it is two-parts of un-learning: 1) un-learning within a white majority society, but also 2) un-learning at home in the family.” – Huyen
Thuy: I now believe that the goal and desire to be seen in a white-dominated majority society is a fallacy. No matter how much we do, no matter how good we are, no matter how much money we have in our bank account – we are still affected [and reproducing] racism. This plays into the idea of the Model Minority Myth: We have all learned that we are only worthwhile if we perform. This is part of the strategy that our parents taught us. The time when the first generation came here was a very dangerous time when they were denied those opportunities and resources.
Huyen: I always have the feeling that it is two-parts of un-learning: 1) un-learning within a white majority society, but also 2) un-learning at home in the family. My parents came to Germany via the Czech Republic as contract workers. My father also wanted to become an artist or an architect. After the war in Vietnam, all these opportunities did not exist. He then went abroad with a hope, but then he was put into a factory and later fled to Germany. He brought up my brother and me in this sense of: “No, you can’t survive with art or writing. You can’t do that here in Germany. Become a teacher or a doctor, or study law.”
“To what extent should we learn to stand up for our personal freedom?” – Hao
Hao: And indeed, many people in the second generation are doing exactly that. Nevertheless, I believe that our society needs people who decide to take other paths out of conviction. I also simply ask myself the question: To what extent do we distance ourselves to stand up for our personal freedom?
Thuy: What exactly do you mean by our personal freedom?
Hao: We have learned so much from our parents what we are learning. Then there is a white majority social system that oppresses us. These are two oppressive systems we are exposed to. Actually we should be a blank slate. We are just born. There is so much that we have not known for a long time, what is in us. At some point the resistance comes. This is a personal journey for everyone. Then we come to the feeling: “Wow, that’s really us, that’s how we can unfold and shape the world. This is what I mean by personal freedom.
Huyen: How did you work your way out of these structures? What were your strategies?
Thuy: It started with me cutting my hair short without thinking about it too much. In retrospect, that was an act of resistance for me. It was also an act of self-love. Today I use my looks as a strategy. I simply transform the prejudices of others. Taking this perspective helped me a lot at first. I was senselessly sent to this math Olympics, but at least there were free snacks.
Hao: Strategy “free snacks”. (laughs)
Duc: We all might have been at some point where we were very unhappy, and that’s where this [suppression] becomes visible. That’s where our resistance and our growth begins. What the short hair is for you, the long hair was for me. For me, it was just as much of a liberation that this resistance was suddenly already inside us in such a way that we simply lived it, lived it out, experienced it.
“I don’t let other people determine for me what my story is or will be.” – Huyen
Huyen: When I started running, I gained a new awareness of my body, but also of my own decisions. I don’t let other people determine for me what my story is or will be. It gave me a new sense of self-confidence and strength. This came relatively late for me, because my brother, on the other hand, was encouraged to do sports at an early age. That was not given to me from home.
Hao: It reminds me of my privileges. Although my parents raised me in an authoritarian way, I was allowed to do a lot as a boy, for example, that my older sister wasn’t allowed to do: certain hobbies, parties, staying at friends’ houses. I want to emphasize again that humor plays an important role for me in creating distance. Not only for our art, but also in life. When you have humor, you show yourself. I recognized early on, “Okay, I have this vein,”. When I was a little boy, I always insisted on being silly. That was my act of resistance. I’ve kept it to this day. I find it exciting to watch how personal resistance leads us to something greater. At first we stand up for ourselves. Then we stand up for each other.
Duc: I always had the feeling that it’s only me who feels like this: “I’m the only one who doesn’t fit in here yet”. You make this conflict out with just yourself, out of shame. You just mentioned that, Hao. That it only starts with yourself, because you don’t think it could affect others. Only through this resistance do you suddenly find people who experience the same thing and with whom you can then also achieve something together.
“I find it exciting to observe how personal resistance leads us to something greater. At first we stand up for ourselves. Then we stand up for each other. – Hao
Thuy: It is also important to have humor as a strategy. But it’s perfectly okay not to have the energy to be funny or witty. Discrimination and exclusion leaves you thinking you are alone. There is no right or wrong in the way you defend or protect yourself.
Duc: Thank you Thuy for your words! What I would like to add is that I am persistent and remain kind because that is how you can reach people. It’s also perfectly okay if we sometimes withdraw and need a break to be able to continue our daily life afterwards. We should also simply be kinder with ourselves and not overwork ourselves to death.
Huyen: I also try to be generous with myself. We should tell each other that more often. What helps me is writing and meditating. I also always want to remind myself that we are more than just our experiences of discrimination and racism. That we do not speak as individuals representative for a whole nation, but also that we exist in many different forms and experiences. We Vietnamese-German people in the diaspora have many different perspectives.
“The transformation of my anger into energy was the start of my artistic career. – Thuy
Hao: I feel less alone because I know that there are people within the community whom I can talk to and ask questions. We share a space of experience. I see that as a great enrichment. Nevertheless, we are allowed to be different: have different perspectives, be open for each other.
Thuy: I definitely had an aha moment when I dealt with the Asian-German diaspora. I had the feeling of finally being seen, in my existence. And to see others, in their existence! That was absolutely healing for me. I also learned to be able to be angry together. This was a groundbreaking experience for me because I learned that anger is an emotion that does not belong to me. I can only swallow it and put it away. The transformation of my anger into energy was the start of my artistic career. In this context, to return to the topic of unlearning, I realize that internalized racism can also emerge within the community. I have made the experience that we are often strict and hard on each other. Again, we have to understand un-learning as a process.
Huyen: Actually, I felt a very big community feeling when I exchanged myself with African-American friends in the USA. Through them I learned to be gentle. I learned that I can be angry, that I can transform this anger and resentment into activism. My work is not just about Asian-German identities, but about bringing feminist, queer, Black, Muslim identities to the fore. Because I know that we [Asian-Germans] are not free until Black Germans are free.
Hao: I remember that we talked about Safer Space in the preliminary talk.
Thuy: When people come together who have a history and experience of different forms of discrimination, sometimes injuries can come up. Without being consciously expressed or acted upon. There is no safe space, a place where all forms of discrimination are excluded. Rather, there is a safer space, a place that can protect us more from exclusion and injury, but does not completely exclude them.
“I can get advice from people who can understand my perspective much more easily without having to explain it. – Duc
Hao: Community is not like heaven on earth. There are different perspectives which can naturally lead to conflicts. Each one of us develops further. These processes automatically influence the interaction within the community.
Duc: I grew up without community because I had always avoided it. It was only by allowing community life into my life that this was a great enrichment for me. I found it exciting to go to my parents’ events and get to know them anew in their community. At the same time I was so warmly welcomed by the Berlin community. It was a lovely experience for me, which I benefit from to date. I have the feeling that I can find answers or inspiration here. I can get advice from people who understand my perspective much easier. This makes it easier in communication, much more familiar: “I know that and you know that too.”
Huyen: The nice thing about this pioneering work is that once we have crossed the borders of our parents and also the borders of our white teachers of that time, we can open doors. That is my hope that we can also open up opportunities for the next generation of BIPoCs. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Hao: We often talk about the future, about a vision. These processes have started a long time before us. And now we are a part of it. We are allowed to fit into a certain history and can build on it. Take a look at the initiatives that have been created in the last few years [within the community]. I find it very empowering. I learn a lot from it. How much have I already learned from the Black community that we can translate? I wouldn’t think so politically if James Baldwin or Toni Morrison didn’t exist. It shows me how important it is to understand history. That’s why the idea that you are alone is so absurd.
As a teenager I struggled a lot with the fact that I didn’t have any Asian role models – whether in films or stories. For a long time I only had white heroes. That was scary: who and what do you orientate yourself by when you look into the future with a vision?
“That feels very nice. To know you’re part of the flow of history.” – Thuy
Thuy: In my work of storytelling, it actually drives me more into the past. Ocean Vuong talks about preserving and preserving stories. For me, this is an act of resistance and thus also the opening of my vision. Here the circle closes: we continue the stories and the struggle that is already in our bodies. It is empowering to know that people before us have paved the way with much strength and effort so that we can continue to pave the way for others. It feels very beautiful. To know that you are part of the flow of history.
Huyen: Yes, not only part of Vietnamese history, but actually part of German history.
When I think about it now, [Hao] that you say James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, that we have learned so much from the Black community, then in 2020 it is time that the Asian-German community shows solidarity with the Black German community. The Asian-German community is not doing enough.
Regarding our own education with anti-Black racism. So that I go to a New Year’s party and have to explain why my ex-boyfriend is Black, or why I have Black friends*, or why do I share Black people on social media at all? And being laughed at is very characteristic of my parents’ generation, as well as our community, or my generation, where even Vietnamese girlfriends don’t intervene and say something. It is also all a [long] learning process.
Thuy: What do you do when you are tired of learning? It is also really exhausting. How do you get yourselves fit again?
Hao: The good thing our parents taught us: good food. So we are back to self care and self love. Crossing boundaries also means setting boundaries, perceiving one’s own needs. I find that extremely important. Saying no should be a healthy part of you.
Duc: Somehow all I can think of is sleep, just retreat.
Hao: With the traumas we have experienced, I think the point of therapy and professional help is definitely important to mention. In a country like Germany it is possible. It can be financed, health insurance companies pay for that. There are people who are trained for this.
Thuy: I also made the experience that there are not enough sensitized and critical therapists. I don’t know about you, but in my family they just laugh when I want therapy. For them it is considered physical weakness or lack of willpower.
Huyen: We have to admit that we are all war children and post-war children. In fact, there is a stigmatization of mental health in our parent generation because they did not have these privileges and it was not given to them.
Thuy: Thank you for your interjection.
Hao: Thank you very much for the interview. It was very valuable.
Duc: Thank you again for the chance to talk to you about such topics. Especially now during the pandemic I wasn’t able to do much activist work and therefore I am even more grateful that you pulled me along.
Thuy: Yes also from me again. Thanks for the invitation. Absolutely.
Huyen: Thank you all for the great conversation. Our survival alone is activist work in a white majority society. We do not have to do more than what we do every day.
Thuy Trang Nguyen (*1993 Berlin) is a Vietnamese German filmmaker. She has been studying Directing at the International Film School Cologne since 2017. Her films challenge viewing habits by telling stories about the empowerment of queer BIPOC’s and the conservation of cultural heritage. Since 2012 she has been working as an assistant director, dialogue coach, diversity reader, caster and editor for fictional and documentary feature films. In 2010 she was a founding member of the non-profit organization BERLIN ASIAN FILMNETWORK (BAFNET).
Thi Minh Huyen Nguyen (*1992 Speyer, Rhineland-Palatinate) is a freelance author and researches Vietnamese identity in the global diaspora. In 2011 she founded her blog “Gold to Green”. With a B.A. in Media and Communication Science from the University of Mannheim, she spent a total of 5 years in the USA, most recently in the sports and marketing industry in New York City. As a co-founder of WAYV RUN KOLLEKTIV, she’s empowering BIPOC/LGBTQI* communities inside and outside of running. When Huyen is not writing or running, she volunteers for anti-racism projects like “IchbinkeinVirus.org” and advocates for intersectional feminism with projects like BIWOC* Rising.
Minh Duc Pham (*1991 Bad Schlema, Saxony) is a Vietnamese German artist. He graduated in exhibition design and scenography at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe and studied performance and design theory at the Universität der Künste Berlin. Pham’s artistic practice follows an urgent creative will for structural change and self-determined social mobility. Pham is currently a one-year scholarship holder of the Kunststiftung Baden-Württemberg for Visual Arts.
Dieu Hao Do (*1986 Stadthagen, Lower Saxony) is a Chinese German author and director. His films explore new perspectives on historical memory of the American War in Vietnam. His studies of directing at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF led him to think, speak and act critically against racism. With the aim of empowering new BIPOC voices for storytelling, he leads film workshops and is involved as a mentor. He is an active member of the BERLIN ASIAN FILM NETWORK (BAFNET).