In Conversation With Tien Ma: On Race, Culture And Belonging
In our new Minority Report series, we bring you candid conversations on race, culture and belonging with Vietnamese and Asians living and working in other countries. Join our discussion about being Vietnamese in the global workplace.
We ask Tien Ma, Berlin-based Director for Europe with Redhill, a global communications agency, about her upbringing, aspirations and how being a minority influenced her professional development and career path.
In two minds
As a young girl growing up in Germany, Tien’s life unfolded to the soundtrack of family mealtime conversations and the comforting hum of the TV. So far, so normal. Except the conversations were in Vietnamese and the default channel VTV4.
“In my early years I strongly identified as Vietnamese,” Tien tells us on the phone from Berlin where she lives and works today. Navigating teenagehood, with its urge to fit in, is tough. It was tougher still for Tien who often felt the odd one out in her small, racially homogeneous town.
Deciding to banish the self that was different was a desperate and, of course, ineffective solution. “It must have been a weird time for my parents: one day I have my nose happily buried in Vietnamese books, and the next I demand everyone to speak only German to me.”
It was only after the family trip to Vietnam at the age of 12 that Tien started to appreciate the opportunities that came with her bi-lingual upbringing.
Tien set off on that family trip as a sulky teenager who, when asked about her “roots”, was quick to offer a blunt response: “My parents are Vietnamese but I’m a German.” She feels bad about it now, but at that time, Vietnam had little bearing on her life.
Spending time with extended family in Hanoi was a revelation. Despite herself, Tien envied other kids their market trips with grandparents and boisterous multigenerational gatherings at aunties’ and uncles’ over home-cooked meals. It felt like homecoming.
“I was so comfortable in Vietnam that I had the worst post-vacation depression after that trip,” recalls Tien. For the first time she questioned her parents’ decision to emigrate. “I swore I’d finish school and pursue a career in Vietnam.” But life had other plans.
Like many of their fellow countrymen and women, Tien’s parents moved to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in the 1980s as contract workers. The Vietnamese diaspora in Germany is a close-knit community, and growing up Tien had no shortage of Tet festivals and playdates with other Viet Kieu kids.
“You felt safe discussing identity struggles with peers from the same background.” Community spirit followed them into adulthood: Tien, like most of her childhood friends, pursued a white-collar career. “We’ve realized that our background gives us an advantage and many of us are flourishing professionally, being able to give back to our parents who have sacrificed so much for us.”
Among other factors, was your career choice influenced by your cultural background?
Absolutely. Today I work at an international PR firm that was founded in Singapore, where I started my career. In 2018, I was put in charge of the firm’s expansion in the West and returned to Europe.
I chose to be based in Germany because of the high living standards, a well-developed social security system and career opportunities here. I was born, raised and educated in Germany, so I felt I could expect to do reasonably well.
Whereas in Vietnam, success is often linked to the right connections. I might be Vietnamese by descent but I am most certainly not “Vietnamese street-smart” (khôn lỏi). In Vietnam, connections get you jobs. Knowing a good doctor guarantees special treatment. Your relationship with your child’s school teacher matters. And while I doubted I could navigate the Vietnamese system, I still wanted to experience Asian work culture. That’s why I chose Singapore for my first work placement.
On the surface, Berlin is a melting pot of cultures, nationalities and religions. What has your experience living here been like? Have you always felt welcome?
I was born here and learned the language as a native speaker, so maybe that’s why I have always felt welcome in Berlin. (Unlike some of the expats who have encountered discrimination.) Plus Asians, especially the second generation, are seen as “model immigrants”.
If anything, I feel a sense of Asian privilege. That is partly due to the history of Vietnamese contract workers in East Germany, but also because of how the public and the media have portrayed us. Every now and then you see these articles comparing different immigrant groups: the Turks, the Arabs, the Syrians, the Vietnamese. And we’re always portrayed as the hard-working ones, the quiet ones who don’t cause trouble, and most importantly, the ones whose kids excel at school and in their jobs.
What are some of the racial and cultural stereotypes Vietnamese living in Europe have to face on a daily basis?
As mentioned, the Vietnamese enjoy a good image here in Germany. I can’t speak for the whole of Europe but whenever someone asks where my parents are from and I say “Vietnam”, the usual answers are “Oh, Vietnam! I have a lot of Vietnamese friends”, “I love pho” or “I went to Da Nang last year, it was beautiful”.
Of course there are black sheep in any community; those for whom all Asians are Chinese or those who throw racial slurs at you. That doesn’t bother me though. Ironically, it seems that these stereotypes are perpetuated by other minority groups, not the natives.
As a minority, have you ever felt discriminated against when applying for a job or felt that your professional growth was hindered?
I haven’t, actually. Again, I think this is because I was born and raised here and speak the language without an accent. I would even go as far as to say my Asian roots have helped me stand out from the crowd and potentially propelled me to where I am today, working at a Singapore-founded globally active PR agency.
Many young Vietnamese Americans struggle to discuss political and social issues with the older generation, as the past is inevitably brought up. Have you experienced the generational gap?
My family is from the North – my mother is from Hanoi and my dad is from Bac Kan Province. When I was a kid, my maternal grandpa, who was a military doctor during the Vietnam War, would often speak of the past. He never made it about politics, however, just told me about his day-to-day life in the army and how it all ended.
It was the same with my parents who would speak about the war and the post-war struggles, but never infused the narrative with political ideology. I learned the historical background of the war at school. Today, I have very candid conversations with my parents about German politics, although we don’t always see eye to eye.
But politics aside, there are plenty of social issues where the generational gap is quite apparent. The notion that a woman shouldn’t be too assertive or career-oriented doesn't sit well with me. We live in the 21st century, yet gender stereotypes are still deeply ingrained in people’s minds, including my parents’.
I know that even though my education was of utmost priority to them, they were worried about me taking on management roles, traveling all the time, all by myself. Eventually, the question of having kids, settling down and “taking it slow” was raised and even though they now fully trust my life choices, the gentle nudge for me to follow a more conservative lifestyle is there and I feel it.
Nationalism is gathering momentum across the world. How will this shift in public sentiment affect the minority communities in Europe and elsewhere?
Unfortunately, voter support for the far-right nationalist parties is on the rise not only in Germany but in other major European countries like Austria, Switzerland and Denmark. This saddens me.
The far-right parties found a receptive audience in the deeply frustrated voters, many of whom previously voted conservative, amid growing concerns about job insecurity, EU’s role and now COVID-19.
In the early days of the epidemic, Asian communities in Germany became the targets of sometimes violent racist attacks, before eventually reaching other minorities, like Italians and Iranians.
This nationalistic mindset poses a huge danger to society and could potentially hinder international collaboration, a key factor to economic growth. This could mean that millions of expats in Europe can lose their jobs and have to return to their home countries that are not always safe.
I am hoping that we can press the reset button, get exposed to more cultures through traveling, engage with minority groups and open up our minds, because I truly believe that cross-cultural dialogue and international collaboration are the way forward for society.
If Vietnam comes calling, how will you answer? Is relocation in the cards?
Sure! I’m keen to at least give it a shot.