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Wednesday, October 14, 2015



Connewitz. Not far from here, I talked to a Vietnamese couple who run a small, two table eatery and beer takeout. The man, Quan, has been in Germany for 30 years. Like thousands of other Vietnamese, he came here as a contract laborer, but when the Berlin Wall fell and his job disappeared, he decided to stay behind. Since their contracts had been broken, the now unified German government gave each Vietnamese who agreed to go home a 3,000 Deutsch Mark compensation, or nearly three years' wage. Back in Vietnam, this sum could buy quite a bit of land, build a house or start a business. If not squandered, it could set someone up for life.

Quan was among those who passed up this up to stay behind illegally. He wanted to live outside Communism.

Overnight, East German shops were flooded with new merchandises. Many people also lost their jobs, however, but their unemployment compensation went a long way since their rent and other expenses were still low. Many East Germans indulged in shopping binges.

Being illegal, though, Vietnamese were left out in the cold, and so many turned to the black market to survive.

Czechs and Poles were bringing in cartons of cigarettes, which they sold outside Leipzig's train station. Vietnamese bought these to resell. Soon, they came to dominate this black market.

Hearing about this lucrative business, some Vietnamese who had gone back to Vietnam decided to return to Germany, but now they had to go to Russia, then use buses, trains or their own two feet to pass through, say, Belarus and Poland to reenter Germany. Others infiltrated via the Czech Republic. These borders were well-guarded, remember, and Quan said Vietnamse sometimes had to walk backward in the snow to misdirect the local police. Many other Vietnamese who hadn't been to Germany at all also joined this flood of illegal immigrants.

Vietnamese gangs sprung up to vie for control of this cigarette black market. They killed each other. Scandalizing German society, Vietnamese corpses piled up.

All of that mayhem is over. Vietnamese in the former East Germany now run restaurants, food stalls, nail salons, grocery stores and other businesses. Their kids are assimilated and do well in school.

Though many illegal Vietnamese were deported, more were allowed to stay through amnesty programs. Pointing out that Turks had not been kicked out after their guest labor contracts had expired, German advocates argued that Vietnamese and Angolans should also be granted residency.

Quan said that after costs of living went up in the old East Germany, many of the unemployed had to go elsewhere to find work. Demoralized, many Germans turned to alcohol. People were falling down drunk on sidewalks. Pride prevented many Germans from switching careers later in life.

In Germany, it's impossible to starve, Quan observed, but it's also difficult to get rich since the taxes are so high, and you can't cheat on your taxes.

The older Vietnamese in Leipzig don't really socialize with Germans. "We can't drink as much as they can," Quan explained. Though Quan can't knock down beers with Germans, he sells plenty of pilsner to them. Half of the floor space in his business is taken up by crates of beer. As we chatted, young people were coming in to grab their tall bottles.

Quan's wife, Lieu, showed me her English language menu and said that it had been translated from the German by a young customer, "It took him a lot of time, and he did it for free! He just wanted to help us out. He said, 'You must have an English menu.'"


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About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.