‘Society doesn’t allow me to feel Polish.’ Stories from Warsaw’s Vietnamese diaspora

In an early effort to build relations between Poland and Vietnam, a scholarship programme was launched in 1955. The arrival of Vietnamese students and workers continued well after the collapse of communism. However not many people know the fascinating history of Warsaw’s Vietnamese population.

10 July 2020

Ngo Van Tuong moved from Vietnam to Poland in the 1980s as part of a student exchange programme. On graduation, Tuong decided to stay in Poland, adopting a Polish name for himself: Tomek. Back home, Vietnam was recovering from war and experiencing its gruelling “subsidy period” (Thời Bao Cấp), that lasted from 1976 until 1986, during which time the government controlled every aspect of the economy and Vietnamese people relied on coupons and food stamps to get by. In addition to rationing, floods and droughts had plunged the country further into scarcity and hardship.

At the time, Poland was also undergoing political unrest, with mounting protests against the communist regime. However the late socialist period had also brought new economic opportunities. Over his time in Poland, Tuong acquired many professions: from trading to managing a restaurant, to working as a translator. He now helps other immigrants settle in Poland, a predominantly Catholic nation that regards itself as a mono-ethnic country. The Vietnamese community is considered the largest non-European migrant diaspora in Poland. Yet, Poland’s multiculturalism is seldom depicted in the media. For this reason, not many Poles know of the existence of the Vietnamese population.

“I spent all of my adult life in Poland, but I feel foreign,” Tuong told Zula Rabikowska, a photographer who has been documenting the stories of Vietnamese diaspora in Warsaw as part of her series Ba Lan (“Poland” in Vietnamese). “I don’t feel fully Vietnamese, I am constantly reminded that I am not fully Polish either. It’s Polish society that doesn’t allow me to feel Polish here. I spent all of my adult life in Poland, but I feel foreign.”

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Tuong was one of the lucky few whose trip to Poland was fully funded by the government. Unlike the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States, who are often of refugee origin, the Vietnamese communities in Poland formed of student exchanges mutually agreed between the two socialist countries. While it is common knowledge that the Soviet Union was Vietnam’s major economic benefactor in the 80s, the diplomatic relations between Poland, then a Soviet satellite state, and Vietnam are little known.

The Vietnamese embassy opened in Warsaw in 1955, three years after founding an outpost in Moscow. The first group of 20 Vietnamese students came to Poland that same year. The scholarship programme was set up to encourage Vietnamese students to study at Polish universities so they could spread socialism back home. In her book on Vietnamese diaspora in Poland, published by Peter Lang, sociologist and social anthropologist Dr. Grażyna Szymańska-Matusiewicz observes that while students who arrived in the 1950s did return to Vietnam, those who arrived in the second half of the 60s or later, were more likely to stay in Poland where they could earn a better living. It also helped that as the programme continued, the standards of behaviour were relaxed; students had more opportunity to interact with others, found Polish partners, and even established families.

To this day, according to Rabikowska, the Polish government continues to support the government of Vietnam. Besides meeting Tuong, she interviewed and photographed second-generation Vietnamese-Poles to make their stories heard. One such example is Bartek [pictured above], whose parents met in Poland and raised their family in Warsaw. He studied graphic design at the same university and now works as a designer and illustrator. Living through food shortages in communist times, his family stuck to eating Polish food. Now that ingredients are easier to come by, he and his family make traditional Vietnamese food. But he feels more attached to Poland and Polish culture.

“I grew up here and I feel more Polish than Vietnamese, even my Vietnamese family call me ‘Bartek’,” he shares. “When I was nineteen, I went through a phase of going back to Vietnam to search for my ‘roots’. Living between cultures was tough, and it made finding a partner even more difficult. I am now engaged in a Polish girl and it’s more likely to be a wedding filled with Polish, rather than Vietnamese, traditions.” He still feels a lack of acceptance from Polish peers: “Racism in a monoethnic country is normal. People look at me and put me in an Asian ‘box’ or just reduce me to ‘that Vietnamese guy’. Their response is different when they hear that I speak Polish fluently. Integrating in a country which doesn’t like difference and individuality is hard.”

It was the frustration with Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and anti-migrant rhetoric that prompted Rabikowska to begin her photo project. “Since 2015, slogans such as ‘Today’s immigrants are tomorrow’s terrorists’ have surfaced in public places,” says Rabikowska, who was born in Poland, grew up in the UK, and has herself moved around the world, working in France, China, South Africa, India, Palestine, and the Caribbean. Her previous project, Citizens of Nowhere, centred on her own experience as an immigrant in the UK. After completing Citizens of Nowhere, she wanted to invest her time in telling other people’s stories.

Of the new wave of Vietnamese migrants with which Rabikowska spoke, perhaps what is most surprising is their age range. Mrs Hien, photographed on her friend’s balcony, relocated to Poland aged 56. She had no previous connection to Poland; she had certainly not been one of the exchange students returning to the country they spent a part of their youth. She is currently studying an undergraduate degree in Warsaw, whilst working multiple jobs. “I work in a shoe shop and also in a restaurant kitchen and live in university accommodation to save money. Poland is the only country where so many Vietnamese people have been so successful, and I am learning Polish so that I can get a better job.”

In her book Dr. Grażyna Szymańska-Matusiewicz remarks that the younger Vietnamese generations have preferred to study in an English-speaking country after the fall of communism — Poland was “no longer an attractive option”. Mrs Hien’s daughter studies in Germany, while her husband, whose work permit was rejected in Poland, is back in Vietnam.

“In the making of this project, I worked with more than 30 different people,” says Rabikowska. “One story that stood out to me is that of Kim Lee. Kim is the only Vietnamese drag queen in Poland. He is half Korean and half Vietnamese, and has spent his life in Poland. Kim is also an actor and is frequently typecast as a gangster. He told me: ‘You are either depicted as the mafia, or a bazaar trader in a football stadium, which was a big trading hot-spot in the 90s. There is no representation of Vietnamese people as artists or performers.’” Kim, along with a few other participants of Rabikowska’s project featured in the Netflix series 1983, where they took on marginalised roles.

Though this series is focused on Poland, Rabikowska says the seeds of it had been sown from experiencing her own foreignness in the UK. “I decided to return to my ‘home’ country and document how this experience translates for communities who see Poland as a place they call home, but whose identity continues to be depicted as the ‘other’.” When she started the project, there was no other documentary photography work on the subject. She spent a summer in the National State Archive in Warsaw, perusing newspapers, photographs, letters, maps, plans and any other materials that documented the relationship between Vietnam and Poland.

“I photographed archival images, including student ID cards, and graduation certificates and photographs of Vietnamese ministers in Poland. I decided to incorporate archival elements that serve as a testimony of the relationship between the two countries into my own photography, and I hope that in this way I can also question how state histories are preserved. I created a non-chronological narrative where the contemporary experiences of the Vietnamese diaspora are intertwined with the official state version of history. In this way, I am able to challenge the meaning of the process of documenting and question whose voice is preserved.”

Poland is currently home to nearly two million migrant workers, and while an estimated 50,000-80,000 of the Polish population are Vietnamese, others come from elsewhere. “Since 2015 in Poland there has been an increase of new diasporas forming from other countries. Still, the experience of immigration is by no means homogenous,” says Rabikowska.

“What I experienced as a 10-year-old child moving to the UK is not equivalent to that of Vietnamese students moving to Poland in the 80s,” she adds. “Similarly, the experience of the one million Ukrainians who are predominantly white and Christian and who have come to live in Poland is going to be very different from those fleeing wars in Syria and Yemen.” The complexity of migrant experiences is what is motivating her to keep shooting and working with communities to promote visibility and change.

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