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The Border Within: Vietnamese Migrants Transforming Ethnic Nationalism in Berlin

The Border Within: Vietnamese Migrants Transforming Ethnic Nationalism in Berlin

by Phi Hong Su


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When the Berlin Wall fell, Germany united in a wave of euphoria and solidarity. Also caught in the current were Vietnamese border crossers who had left their homeland after its reunification in 1975. Unwilling to live under socialism, one group resettled in West Berlin as refugees. In the name of socialist solidarity, a second group arrived in East Berlin as contract workers. The Border Within paints a vivid portrait of these disparate Vietnamese migrants' encounters with each other in the post-socialist city of Berlin. Journalists, scholars, and Vietnamese border crossers themselves consider these groups that left their homes under vastly different conditions to be one people, linked by an unquestionable ethnic nationhood. Phi Hong Su's rigorous ethnography unpacks this intuition. In absorbing prose, Su reveals how these Cold War compatriots enact palpable social boundaries in everyday life. This book uncovers how 20th-century state formation and international migration—together, border crossings—generate enduring migrant classifications. In doing so, border crossings fracture shared ethnic, national, and religious identities in enduring ways.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781503630147
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 02/15/2022
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Phi Hong Su is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at Williams College. Previously, she was a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Division of Social Science at New York University Abu Dhabi.

Table of Contents

Contents and Abstracts

1Border Crossings
chapter abstract

From the mid-twentieth century on, Vietnamese individuals and families have navigated multiple, disruptive border crossings. The first involved borders crossing over people. In 1954, Vietnam divided at the 17th parallel into two competing states of North and South Vietnam. In 1975, a second instance of state formation reunified the two Vietnams. During and after this time, people also crossed over borders. Hundreds of thousands did so in 1954, relocating to the half of Vietnam where they wanted to live. They would do so again after 1975, when thirty thousand arrived in West Germany as refugees, and many more in East Germany as contract workers. The reunification of Germany in 1990 brought these migrant groups together in the city of Berlin. There, the twin phenomena of state formation and international migration powerfully shaped Vietnamese migrants' identities and relationships with one another.

2Making Northerners and Southerners
chapter abstract

After the division of Vietnam in 1954, the governments of the North and the South engaged in nation-making processes that involved rewarding loyalty and punishing disloyalty. The Cold War Vietnamese states constructed internal enemies and heroes through policies and identification documents. State formation in 1954 recast Vietnamese northerners as Northerners and southerners as Southerners. State formation in 1975 hardened this identity for southerners. Just as everyday people experienced the Cold War unevenly, so too would they experience its conclusion asymmetrically.

3Making Refugees and Contract Workers
chapter abstract

Just as the dissolution of North and South Vietnam did not erase the identities of Northerner and Southerner, the dissolution of East and West Germany did not erase the identities of contract worker and refugee. In post–Cold War Berlin, regional identities and migration labels have fused together, with "southerner" being shorthand for refugee and anticommunist and "northerner" for contract worker and communist. The reality, however, looks much messier. Chapters 2 and 3 jointly uncover how the identities produced by border crossings persist even after the conditions that created them have been transformed.

4Ranking the Ethnic Nation
chapter abstract

How do everyday Vietnamese people think and talk about shared ethnonational identity after border crossings? This chapter follows a northern couple, Liên and Hai, as they narrate and lead their arduous lives. They interpret their struggles as the burden of belonging to a corrupt nation-state. In their words as well as their omissions, Vietnamese border crossers such as Liên and Hai envision southerners and former refugees as falling outside the Vietnamese nation-state, even as they talk about southerners and refugees as part of a shared nation. Nationhood is perhaps always hierarchical, but the hierarchy here relates counterintuitively to membership. By belonging, northerners represent a failed state; by forfeiting belonging, southerners embody a developed and free German one.

5Choosing Friends and Picking Sides
chapter abstract

This chapter examines how competing Vietnamese identities inform friendship networks. It follows two women as they straddle the north-south divide: Anh, a southern economic migrant in her sixties, and Hanh, a northern international student in her thirties. This chapter follows their failed attempts to enter both northern and southern spaces. People who do not fit the combinations of southern refugee and northern contract worker nevertheless become funneled into these allegiances. One way that Berlin's "Vietnamese wall" persists, this chapter shows, is through group enforcement of social divisions.

6Buddhist Meditations in Northern and Southern Accents
chapter abstract

In winter 2016, attendees filed into a Buddhist pagoda in western Berlin to celebrate the Lunar New Year. During the communal feast after morning prayers, wistful diasporic songs play in the background, recalling the loss of South Vietnam. Hong, a southern migrant, points out that all of the music is from the south—implying to whom the pagoda belongs. This chapter illustrates how coethnics pull secular hostilities into a religious space that highly values accord. It in turn reveals how different arenas of social life become absorbed into Cold War divisions.

7After Border Crossings
chapter abstract

Decades after the Cold War, the identity labels of northerner and southerner, contract worker and refugee, communist and anticommunist all continue to inform how Vietnamese border crossers in Berlin interact with one another. This study of everyday life returned again and again to how, through their routine words and actions, people keep political boundaries alive. The coethnic protagonists of this book have achieved the division of the homeland, ironically, decades after its reunification and outside its territory. By looking at people caught in the joint processes of state formation and international migration, we repeatedly encounter their profoundly felt sense of ethnic nationhood. Yet, crucially, we are also confronted with how people have left the politics of ethnic nationalism behind.

chapter abstract

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