There are an estimated 150,000 ethnic Vietnamese living in Germany. It’s one of the largest overseas Vietnamese hubs in the world. However, an increasingly smaller share of that number is fluent in Vietnamese, as generations further integrate into German society and adopt the native language as their own.
In our efforts to better understand the Vietnamese diaspora, we traveled to Germany to meet with Hanh Nguyen-Schwanke, the founder of the bilingual Vietnamese and German book publisher, HORAMI. Hanh shared with us her thoughts about the importance of preserving the Vietnamese language among emigrants, what she thinks about Vietnam today, and what she’s keen to see happen with the next generation of Vietnamese-Germans.
Why did you start HORAMI? Why are you targeting such a specific niche with your books?
I studied accountancy and ended up opening a publishing company. I didn’t plan on it. When I became pregnant, I developed an interest in books but I couldn’t find any children’s books that were relevant to Vietnamese families living in Germany. It was four years ago that I started the publishing company, and we have three books published now.
We’re currently working on one more and a few other new projects. The new book will be finished next year in time for the Vietnamese New Year. It’s not another typical picture book. This one will be more geared towards Vietnamese parents as a bilingual children’s heath guide in both Vietnamese and German.
How integrated has the Vietnamese community become here?
The Vietnamese community and its immigrants don’t cause a lot of problems. There’s an annual conference called the Vietnamese-Invisible community. It’s quite relevant because the fact is the Vietnamese really are pretty much invisible immigrants in Germany.
The first Vietnamese came as boat people or as migrant workers. Many came to Germany with the sole intention of focusing on work and earning money for their families back in Vietnam, or who had traveled with them to Germany. All of their efforts were focused on that. Many didn’t even have much time for family. It mostly just came down to making money.
As the first generation became more integrated into German society, the next generation is now focused more on community engagement. In the last five to ten years, Vietnamese culture has become more recognized. Culturally, migrant Vietnamese were taught to have few opinions. A decade ago, there were few Vietnamese in respected fields like medicine, engineering or politics. But today, it’s changing.
How can Vietnamese living overseas stay connected with their native country?
I think it has a lot to do with language. When overseas Vietnamese don’t speak the language, they don’t feel connected. Understanding and immersing oneself in food can also play an important role. These thoughts are what led me to the idea of developing a line of books.
Vietnamese culture can be an important part of the home. Vietnamese traditions begin there. I hope the next generation of overseas Vietnamese are able to naturally accept and embrace those traditions, rather than being forced to. It should be an inherent desire for all Vietnamese abroad to want to visit, enjoy and experience their own country.
At the same time, I’m hoping to develop a book about the Vietnamese presence in Berlin. In fact, there’s one about the Japanese in Berlin already. There needs to be more discussion of Vietnamese culture in Germany. For now, it remains a nice idea, as it will be challenging to roll out.
What are your first memories of revisiting Vietnam?
It changed a lot since I left. For me, Vietnam still felt like home. But on the other hand, it also felt strange and foreign. I suppose it had a lot to do with my childhood memories.
I remember looking for places where I’d eaten during my childhood. I also became interested in how my family managed their day-to-day lives. I remember being curious about what people ate, where they had breakfast and what people did after work.
Would you ever consider moving to Vietnam?
When I was a student, I thought a lot about it. I ended up spending two months working in Vietnam for SASCO, a Vietnamese airport operations company. It wasn’t for me. I needed more work experience in Germany first, and with that experience I could come back to Vietnam and do more.
It was also more difficult working within the context of a Vietnamese company as a woman. As a young, professional woman, I felt like I wasn’t taken seriously at times. I decided to return to Germany to finish my studies first, later starting my career at KPMG. My time to return to Vietnam will come.
Who else from the Vietnamese community in Germany should we speak to?
Dr. Ta Thi Minh Tam, a psychiatrist at the Charité for Vietnamese Community in Germany. I admire her for her work and for her contribution to the Vietnamese community here in Germany.