Paradoxes of unification

Paradoxes of unification: the narratives of Vietnamese migrants in Berlin

Mai Thi Thanh Nga


The Geneva Accords 1954 temporarily separated Viet Nam into two zones at the 17th parallel. A referendum deciding on who would govern the country was planned two years later to be followed by the unification of the Northern and Southern zones. The plan of unification did not materialize until 1975 when the Vietnam War ended with the victory of Northern communist government.

The immigration of a large number of Vietnamese into Germany reflects the existence of a once divided Viet Nam and the two different immigration systems of West and East Germany. Like in the case of Viet Nam, the 1945 Potsdam Accord divided the defeated Germany into various administrative zones under Allies supervision. This temporary separation was then made permanent by the establishment of the Germany Democratic Republic in the western part and the Federal Republic of Germany in the eastern part few years later. The 1989 Revolution officially broke down the East-West demarcation and reunified Germany. However, cultural and social divisions of the 40-year Cold War strongly remain to the present day. Cultural and social aspects don’t necessarily reflect the unification in the political domain. Vietnamese migration came into Germany in this context through two main gateways: one, “boat people” or refugees who arrived to generous welcome by the Federal Republic of Germany; the other, guest workers under the bilateral agreement between the former German Democratic Republic and the government of Viet Nam. To a lesser extent, there are also Vietnamese who have migrated to Germany for study, marriage, family union, tourism and business making up a third group that falls outside of the two other categories.

While the North-South unification opened the new era of unified territory and integrated politics and administration, the displacement and mobility of millions of Vietnamese population, of which about a hundred thousand reside in Germany, indicates the volatility of the unification claim in social and cultural aspects and the complexity of the reconciliation process. The paradox of unification emerges when there is undeniable consciousness of division and unification.

Migration enables this paradox. Through the unification process the Vietnamese state attempted to reinstate the image of a territorially defined home, of shared cultural heritage and shared ideology. Migration, however, opened the possibility of deterritorialization and consequently the contestation of the concept of a territorial defined home. Geographical and ideological divisions remain as a latent conflict among boat people and guest workers. The West-East division followed by the cultural and socio-economic segregation in Germany has continued and sharpened the North-South rift in the Vietnamese diaspora.

In the meantime, migration also offers opportunities for proceeding with the reconciliation. Reconciliation will be sought out by migrants who comprehend the potency of ethnic connections and network. The constraints of language skills, cultural fluency and knowledge of German bureaucratic system demand migrants to reach out for every possible support, particularly support from their countrymen. Furthermore, perhaps, living in a country other than their motherland impels people to forsake the division in seeking emotional support and unification.   

This paradox of unification merits our attention. Thus, this project aims to study on how people overcome the past of war and division, live the present and construct a future. The project focuses on the context of the family and of gender relations. Oral history and participatory observation will be conducted in Berlin which hosts the biggest number of Vietnamese immigrants. Records and field notes will be processed in an analytical framework of three interconnected dimensions: in time, stretching from the past (memory, tradition), through the present (settlement) and to the future (generations, plans); in place, which invokes the geographical origins, including lands passed by on a journey to new home and destination; and in space, where gender, ethnicity, kinship, family and religion interweave.