I noticed him whilst I was hanging around a Bahnhof entrance in Neukölln, waiting to photograph the station disgorge passengers.
Was he Vietnamese, I wondered, and was he selling contraband cigarettes? The illicit trade in smuggled smokes was widely-known as being controlled by Vietnamese gangs, and train stations were a transactional location of choice.
I frequented this station and regularly saw solitary Asian men hanging about, whom I assumed were said sellers, but I had never witnessed a sale.
Would I now?
Nothing happened for awhile. Then, another Asian man came up to my man and exchanged a bag with him before leaving. I loitered. He loitered.
Suddenly, he went up to an aproned Turkish woman who was chatting with someone else, and thrust the bag at her. He then disappeared from sight. The woman scurried to the Döner Imbiss at the station’s entrance and reappeared without the bag to continue her conversation.
I looked around. What triggered their actions?
It was only a good five minutes later that a man in some sort of uniform strolled into the picture.
I was impressed on two counts. One was the effectiveness of the invisible warning system. The second was the good relationship between the Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese as demonstrated by that well-rehearsed game of pass-the-parcel.
The perception of Vietnamese immigrants being linked to crime was something we heard about early in our time in Berlin. To allay my fresh-off-the-boat fears of harassment in Berlin, I had been told not to worry as I would probably be mistaken for Vietnamese and therefore be left alone.
How hard core were Vietnamese gangs supposed to be? So hard core that in Berlin, they lived in the depressed eastern boroughs of Marzahn and Lichtenberg, also home to concentrations of neo-Nazi. Areas we were warned not to visit alone at night.
However, that was just one public perception of this group.
Vietnamese were also respected as hard workers who “gave no trouble”. I also later learned that their children were the highest performing academically among all migrant groups. In fact, they often outperform Germans.
The complexity of how Vietnamese fit within German society today is inextricably linked to the country’s Cold War divisions and the Fall of Wall.
In 2009, Vietnamese made up the largest Asian group in Germany, numbering 85,000. The first wave started arriving in the former east in the 1950s from the communist north.
They came initially as part of DDR socialist bloc development programmes, then later, as Vertragsarbeiter to work in the factories. They were meant to return to Vietnam at the end of their contracts but many didn’t.
The end of the Cold War saw widespread unemployment in the former East Germany. The Vietnamese became victims too. As a result, criminal gangs started flourishing and black market cigarettes from eastern Europe were one of the products that became lucrative.
The inability to get jobs also forced many Vietnamese to start their own businesses and they began dominating sectors. It always struck me that florists and nail salon workers in Berlin were almost always Vietnamese.
(I wonder if the latter have a connection to the Vietnamese refugees in the US who eventually dominated its nail industry thanks to Hitchcock actress Tippi Hedren)
And of course, they ran restaurants, which is where we came into most contact with business owners.
One was Anh, the owner of a take-away. She ended up in Germany as part of the second wave of Vietnamese arrivals that began in the 1970s as a result of the Vietnam War. Like the majority of these ‘boat people’, she came from the south and was ethnic Chinese.
As she fried my regular order of noodles (with added vegetables) we would chat about life in Southeast Asia and our shared Chinese heritage, and each lunar new year, we would exchange heartfelt greetings.
Anh would grow sad whenever she talked about home. But returning there was out of the question because she wanted a better future for her children in Berlin, one of whom was a watchful, glum pre-teen who would do his homework in the cramped eatery.
She had few friends, and especially not among the north Vietnamese. “You know, they’re different and have airs”. The ideological difference between the north and south Vietnamese was holding strong decades after the country united and in this new land, enforced by divisions between the former east and west Germany.
In any case, life in this new land was not easy for these migrants.
Once, whilst I was awaiting my order, a thuggish-looking man walked into the takeaway and headed straight to the back. He was looking to use the toilet.
Anh’s husband happened to be at the take-away. Despite his being a third shorter and way slighter than the stranger, he sharply reprimanded him, first of all, for not asking for permission to use the toilet, and secondly that the toilet was only for private use anyway. The man left without fuss.
Each Silvester, when the city went mad with reams of drink-laden people taking to the roads and fireworks and fire crackers let off at street level, the eatery closed early and boarded itself up. “Stay at home,” warned Anh. “It’s dangerous.”
Then one day, competition appeared.
A trendier, upmarket eatery opened shop down the road from Anh and I wondered if Anh would suffer. Luckily, it ended up catering to a different market segment.
A chain restaurant run by North Vietnamese, one of its owners was a tiny woman of very few words and a kind heart whom we never saw take a day off.
She had memorised our favourite dishes and always made sure we were fortified against the cold with hot lemon grass drinks.
In 2011, I wondered how much perceptions of Vietnamese changed when Vietnam-born Philipp Rösler became Vice-Chancellor of Germany. He was also the country’s first Asian minister in cabinet.
Like celebrity TV star Ranga Yogeshwar, Rösler is both a high achiever, being a surgeon, and has very little that is Asian about him as he was adopted as a baby by Germans. He handles questions about his ethnicity quickly and wittily and impresses by getting the job at hand done.
What Rösler’s high profile in government must mean to German Vietnamese is even more unclear. But chances are that he would be used as a role model of great pride by migrants such as Ahn. ω
Vietnamese migrants continue to struggle with unemployment and assimilation into German society. The non-profit Reistrommel has won accolades for its work with this community and lists among its programmes, language training, a focus on children and youth, and violence and crime and intercultural understanding.