The British Vietnamese Experience With Julia Thanh
At Vietcetera, we know that there’s more defining the new Vietnam than just what we can find in our Saigon backyard.
On a recent trip overseas, we had the chance to meet with Julia Thanh, a British-Vietnamese native of London. Over the last few months, Julia’s photographic work has helped uncover and explore the British Vietnamese experience in London. Starting with an photographic exhibition at Oxford House in London on July 7th, the project aims to raise the profile of the British-Vietnamese community by focusing on second generation Vietnamese as they negotiate dual values and cultures in a cosmopolitan, global city like London.
We had the chance to meet with Julia to learn and share about her project and her experience as an overseas Vietnamese.
What kickstarted the inspiration for your project?
My inspiration behind Vietnamese Londoners was two-fold; firstly, I wanted the younger British Vietnamese generation in London to have role models who they could relate to. Secondly, I knew I wanted to showcase the British-Vietnamese experience in some way, but it wasn’t until I lived in Senegal, that I became more aware of my ‘Vietnamese-ness’. For the first time in my life, I was suddenly the evident ‘other’; this made me appreciate the beauty of living in a super diverse city like London. During my time in Senegal, I subconsciously became more interested in my culture. The more I shared about my Vietnamese heritage to colleagues and friends, the prouder I became. After returning back to London, I knew I wanted to explore the British Vietnamese experience in a personable way; this is where the photography element came into play!
Julia spent a living and working in Senegal. There, Julia met a small community of Vietnamese traders living in Dakar and also stumbled across a Vietnamese restaurant in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. She later learned that it was a product of the French war in Vietnam in the 50s, when France recruited soldiers from their colonial empire – including countries in West Africa. A few West African soldiers would return to their homes with Vietnamese wives.
What can overseas Vietnamese people do to forge greater connections with the homeland?
In my opinion, the best and most useful way Vietnamese people can forge connections with the homeland is by sharing knowledge with one another. Whether that is through informal meet ups to festivals or cultural conferences. When you live in a city like London, it’s easy to disconnect yourself from countries like Vietnam because sometimes you believe that it’s different and foreign. While that may be the case, I believe there’s richness in being able to learn more about Vietnamese culture through communication and sharing knowledge.
How is Vietnamese culture perceived in the greater British community?
In all honesty, I’m not quite sure. As the Vietnamese community is relatively small compared to other Asian minority groups, I’m not sure the general public know much about Vietnamese culture beyond the cuisine. With that said, this was also one of the reasons why I started this project; to showcase Vietnamese culture through the diverse range of people that I photographed and interviewed.
What are your first memories of visiting and experiencing Vietnam as an overseas Vietnamese?
The first time I went I was 13 years old. I went with my Mum and it was an extremely profound experience because it was the first time she went back to Vietnam since leaving in 1986. I remember months before we went to Vietnam, she constantly kept reminding me how different Vietnam was to the UK; from not being able to drink the tap water, to the weather, to the different customs. I’m really grateful she gave me that insight because when I first arrived, it made me appreciate the vibrancy and warmth of the people and country so much more. My Mum is originally from Nha Trang so having the opportunity to visit the beach on a daily basis was a treat. Although waking up at 5am to swim with the locals… Not so much… Since then, I have been to Vietnam four times. My most recent trip was last December and it was awesome. Experiencing Vietnam as a ‘Viet Kieu’ feels special in its own right because it’s almost as if you’re able to practice all of the traditions and practices your family have given you – like conversing in Vietnamese for extended periods of time.
What’s next after this project?
I would love to continue this project across the UK and feature other prominent British Vietnamese communities in Manchester and Birmingham. I have hopes to travel across the Vietnamese diaspora and photograph Viet Kieu from not so obvious cities like for example, Oslo in Norway.
Thank you for sharing your insights! Now onto a couple fun questions…
For the other British-Vietnamese and overseas Vietnamese living in London, what would you recommend as your favourite Vietnamese restaurants in London?
I would say CoBa in King’s Cross is the Vietnamese restaurant I take my friends who have yet to try the cuisine because it has right balance of serving traditional food but with a modern twist. My other favourite Vietnamese restaurant is called Le Tran Cafe in Bermondsey which recently opened this year. This restaurant has delicious home cooked meals with charming Vietnamese hospitality to match! One last thing! May I add that my friends who get to eat my Mum’s food enjoy it so much so that, suddenly soon after they became Vietnamese food critics…
Would you ever consider moving to Vietnam or work there for an extended part of your career?
If you had asked me this question a few years ago, my answer would have been a flat out no. However, as time has gone, I have taken up an interest in moving to Vietnam. My only concern I have would be my employment prospects. Other than that, I would love to work and live in Vietnam for an extended period. I often think about whether or not my ‘future’ children will get the opportunity to learn Vietnamese so the prospect of living in Vietnam is on my mind. But hey…who knows?