Vietnamese in Poland

From Socialist Fraternity to the Global Capitalism Era

by Grażyna Szymańska-Matusiewicz (Author)
©2019 Monographs 250 Pages


The world order that emerged after the Second World War resulted in the formation of rather unexpected connections between Poland and Vietnam, two middle-sized countries located on opposite sides of the globe. The mobility induced by "socialist fraternity" student exchange programs resulted in the emergence of the largest non-European migrant community in Poland already after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Basing on multi-sited anthropological fieldwork conducted in Poland, Vietnam, and the Internet, the author provides nuanced picture of Vietnamese migrant community, focusing on evolution of resources transferred by the migrants during particular periods of history. The main question posed in the book is the durability of Cold War era patterns of human mobility in the current era of "global capitalism".

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Acknowledgments
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Vietnamese Migration to Poland and Transfer of Resources
  • Migration as a Process Located in a Geopolitical Context
  • Mobility of Vietnamese to Poland Inside the World-Empire and the World-Economy
  • The Transfer of Resources and the Convertibility of Different Forms of Capital
  • Researching the Mobility of Vietnamese to Poland: Historical Sensitivity and Multi-Sited Ethnography
  • Incorporating the Global: Historically Sensitive Ethnographic Fieldwork
  • Providing Confidentiality: Ethical Dilemmas in Investigating Dense Social Networks
  • 1. Socialist Mobilities: Vietnamese in Poland in the Communist Era
  • Introduction
  • Beginnings: Vietnamese Students in Poland in the 1950s
  • Mr. Hải: Successful Career of a Vietnamese Socialist Professional
  • Mrs. Lê Tân: Rebellion and Escape
  • Peak Years: Vietnamese Students in Poland in the War Years (Late 1960s–Early 1970s)
  • Introduction: Vietnamese Graduates from the “War Era” as a Core of the Community
  • Mr. Thọ: Career in Line with State Policy
  • Mr. Mừng: “Poland Forever in Our Hearts”
  • Mr. Chương: Transmitting the Bond with Poland to the Next Generation
  • Subordination to Quyết Định – Between Ba Săn Sáng and Freedom of Choice
  • Graduates from Poland as a Community: Official and Informal Forms of Social Organization
  • Decline of Existing Pattern and New Possibilities: Vietnamese Students in Poland in 1976–1989
  • Mr. Luật and Mr. Phóng: Direct and Indirect Return to Vietnam
  • Mr. Hưng and Mr. Sáng: Activists Among the Polish-Vietnamese Community
  • Vietnamese Students from the Cold War Era and Transfer of Resources
  • 2. From Education to Entrepreneurship: Mobilities in the Last Years of the Cold War Era
  • Martial Arts Practitioners from the Late 1970s: The First Vietnamese Economic Niche in Poland
  • Martial Arts Schools as an Example of Institutional Transnationalism
  • From Education to Entrepreneurship: PhD Students and Apprentices from the Late 1980s
  • Tuyết Hòang – A Voice of the Transformation-era Generation
  • Two Forms of Socio-cultural Capital and the Origins of Vietnamese Petty Trade in Poland
  • Successful Transnational Businesspeople: Mai Anh and Mr. Tưọng
  • The Bitterness of University Lecturers Turned Tradeswomen: Mrs. Lan, Mrs. Khai, Mrs. Triệu
  • A Silenced Story: Mrs. Khai
  • Shame and Family Troubles: Mrs. Lan and Đạo
  • Migration and Family Breakdown: Family of Mrs. Triệu and Mr. Duy
  • Vietnamese Academics Inside the Polish-Vietnamese Community
  • Vietnamese Academics in Poland: Facilitators of Educational and Scientific Exchange
  • Vietnamese with Scholarly Backgrounds and the Transnational Dimension of Vietnamese Associations in Poland
  • 3. “Big Fish” and Petty Traders: Economic Migrants from the Global Capitalism Era
  • Introduction
  • The “Big Fish”: Successful Vietnamese Entrepreneurs in the Transnational Network
  • Polish-Vietnamese Investors in Vietnam
  • Tan-Viet: The Transnational Business Activity of a Poland-based Company
  • Vietnamese “Big Fish” Operating in Poland
  • Struggle for Survival in an Enclave Economy: Vietnamese “Working People” in Poland
  • The Durability of Migration Networks and Elusiveness of the Cultural Impact of Migration: The Case of Đông Lâm Village
  • Strategies of “Getting There”: Migration Channels and Trends in Vietnamese Mobility to Poland
  • Inside the Ethnic Enclave: Selective and Adaptive Role of Migration Networks
  • Poland Seen from Inside the Ethnic Enclave: Perceptions of the Country of Residence
  • Vietnam in the Narratives of Working Vietnamese
  • “Working Vietnamese”: Looking for Opportunities in the Global Capitalism Era
  • 4. Return of the Youth in the Global Capitalism Era: 1.5-generation Migrants and International Students
  • Two Distinct Categories: Vietnamese Brought Up in Poland and International Students
  • 1.5-generation Migrants – General Introduction to the Concept
  • 1.5-generation Returnees: Identity Dilemmas and Transmitting of Cultural Flows
  • Personal Motivations of Returnees and State Policy
  • Child Returnees: Searching for the Use of Cultural Capital Gained in Poland
  • People Who Returned on Their Own as Adults
  • Second Migration and “Floating Global Citizens”
  • 1.5-generation Returnee Businesspeople: Challenges and Successes
  • International Students
  • Attempts to Cultivate “Traditional Cooperation”
  • Poland as a Gateway to the Schengen Area
  • Relations Between International Students and the Migrant Community: Possibilities Offered by the Ethnic Economy
  • Summary: Youth Returnees and Cultural Flows from Poland to Vietnam
  • 5. Vietnamese Organizations in Poland: Transnational Ties, Agency, and Implementation of Sending-State Policy
  • Sources of Vietnamese Political Transnationalism
  • Social Activity and Political Engagement: Skating on Thin Ice
  • The World of Vietnamese Organizations in Poland
  • Relations Between Particular Social Circles and the Role of the Vietnamese Embassy
  • Opposition Circles
  • “Official” Vietnamese Organizations and Their Political Entanglement
  • Sending-State Strategies and Forms of Transnational Political Connections
  • Dimensions of Political Entanglement: Charity, Culture, and International Relations
  • The Activity of Official Associations Inside the Political System of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
  • Pluralism and Unification: The Case of Two Vietnamese Pagodas
  • Entanglement and Agency: The Case of Anti-Chinese Demonstrations in Warsaw
  • Integration? Participation in the Polish Political System
  • Summary: Various Dimensions of Transnational Politics
  • Summary
  • Geopolitical Transformations and Fluctuations of Resource Transfer
  • The Prologue: The Final Demise of ‘Wild Capitalism’?
  • Contribution to Society: An Ever-changing Imperative
  • List of Tables
  • Bibliography


Vietnamese Migration to Poland and Transfer of Resources

This book is dedicated to the phenomenon of mobility of the citizens of a middle-sized South East Asian country – Vietnam – to one of the middle-sized European countries, Poland. At first glance, the very fact of the presence of migrants from Vietnam in Poland – a country with a negative immigration rate, and the lowest rate of foreigners in the overall population among all European Union countries – seems rather unexpected. During some of the international conferences which I attended, presenting my area of research, I often encountered surprised reactions from the side of both migration scholars and Vietnam-studies scholars, who were intrigued by the existence of a Vietnamese community in Poland (and other Central and Eastern European countries). To provide a brief answer to their questions – which could be summarized as: “How come Vietnamese are the largest non-European migrant community in Poland?” – I usually pointed to historical factors, invoking the history of cooperation between Poland and (communist) Vietnam during the Cold War era. However, this answer – although accurate in a broad sense – did not explain the dynamics of the formation of the migrant community. A closer look at the history of the Vietnamese community in Poland indicates that the vast majority of those Vietnamese who traveled to Poland in the Cold War era as educational migrants returned to Vietnam right after finishing their education. The migrant community was still growing after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, when cooperation between the two countries inside the common socialist “world-empire” (Wallerstein 1974) had already ceased to exist. Currently, despite the fact that the two countries maintain no significant connections in geopolitical or economic terms, the Vietnamese community in Poland still remains vigorous and lively. However, as my analysis will indicate, its profile has significantly evolved over time, reflecting the turns in the histories of both countries, Poland and Vietnam.

Basing my analysis on in-depth anthropological fieldwork – involving almost 100 individual interviews conducted in Poland and in Vietnam, field observations, and analysis of activity on the Internet – I aim to provide a nuanced picture of this migrant community, focusing on changes to it over time. As I will indicate in my analysis, despite the huge role that macro-level geopolitical factors played in the history of the Vietnamese community in Poland, its evolution should not be interpreted solely as a consequence of large geopolitical processes, but also as ←15 | 16→an outcome of the active agency of migrants, in accordance with Giddens’ postulate of the importance of both structure and agency in the construction of social reality. The Vietnamese arriving in Poland were able to make use of emerging opportunities, creating a specific kind of economy – based on international trade chains (Williams and Balaz 2005) – which as a result became a source of income for following generations of migrants.

Despite recent developments in the literature dedicated to the global Vietnamese diaspora, which has only barely started to include the communities residing in Central and Eastern Europe in its scope (Schwenkel 2014, 2015; Huewelmeier 2015; Freidingerova 2015; Alamgir 2014; Szymańska-Matusiewicz 2012, 2015a, 2015b), the Polish-Vietnamese community is still poorly described in the literature. This book is the first work in English offering an analysis of this group, reaching from the origins of its formation in the Cold War era to the present. However, the aim of the book is not limited to providing a description of the Vietnamese in Poland – although as such, it has a certain value due to filling some gaps in factual knowledge regarding the global Vietnamese diaspora.

The main question posed in the book is the durability of historical patterns of human mobility, shaped by the geopolitical conditions of the Cold War era, in the current era, and the era of “global capitalism”. The world order that emerged after the Second World War resulted in the formation of rather unexpected connections between Poland and Vietnam, two middle-sized countries located on opposite sides of the globe, and having no previous historical connections. After the year 1989, which marked the fall of communism in Poland, the old order has been replaced with a new geopolitical formation. However, the mobility of people from Vietnam to Poland, which started as a result of alliances inside the “global socialist ecumene” (Bayly 2009), grew in intensity no earlier than in the early 1990s. Through the transition period in Poland, the migration of Vietnamese to Poland has been taking new forms as migrating individuals have started to make use of the emerging opportunities of the era of “wild capitalism” (Upchurch and Martinkovic 2011; Harper 2006; Dascalu 2014). Arrivals of Vietnamese in Poland, accompanied by return movements, have led to the formation of a transnational migrant community, whose members maintain intense contacts of a diverse nature, across borders. Currently, in the era of global capitalism, the Vietnamese with experience of migration to Poland make use of modern communication technologies – such as the digital press and social media – which create channels of cultural flows between the two countries, but also serve as a means of maintaining contact within the global Vietnamese diaspora dispersed around the world.

←16 | 17→

In my book, basing myself on the interesting case of the Vietnamese diaspora in Poland, I aim to answer the question of the role played by the historically shaped channels of international human mobility – which can be interpreted as a legacy of the past – in the era of globalization. In order to provide an in-depth analysis of Vietnamese migration to Poland in relation to geopolitical factors, I conducted historically sensitive multi-sited anthropological fieldwork, in compliance with the postulate of “historicizing the field”, formulated by Fitzgerald (2006). I do also take into account the critique of ethnographic fieldwork formulated by Marcus (1995) who stressed the necessity of including global political factors in the analysis of a locality, as the local reality – a traditional area of interest for anthropologists – is to a large extent the outcome of macro-level processes. In the following part of the introductory chapter, I will situate my book in the context of migration-studies theories. Particular attention will be drawn to the key aspect analyzed in the book: the transfer of resources, resulting from the mobility process. The migration of the Vietnamese to Poland was in its origins a part of the modernization project of the Vietnamese state, aiming to provide high-quality human capital to the emerging communist country. However, over time, the nature of transferred resources has evolved, reflecting macro-level geopolitical changes. In the final part of the chapter, I will provide a description of my methodological approach, based on multi-sited fieldwork. I will also argue for the role of historical sensitivity in studies of the formation and evolution of transnational migrant communities.

Migration as a Process Located in a Geopolitical Context

In the field of migration studies, the importance of historically formed patterns of human mobility has not always been sufficiently taken into consideration. For example, economic theories of migration treated the movement of people primarily as a result of income disparities between particular countries (an idea prevalent in neoclassical theories of migration), or as an outcome of the deprivation experienced by an individual, who occupied a relatively low position in comparison to other members of his/her group of reference, which was exemplified in the theory of relative deprivation. In both cases, migration was interpreted as an outcome of a rational decision of individuals, aiming to maximize their individual benefits, and taken out of the social and historical context. Unlike these approaches, in the theory of cumulative causation authored by Douglas Massey (Massey 1990; Massey et al. 1993), migration has been conceptualized as a processual phenomenon. The emphasis has been placed on the importance of particular stages of the formation of migrant community. This approach enables ←17 | 18→one to conceptualize migration as a result of past historical circumstances. Thus, Massey’s approach provides a means of overcoming the presentism of economic theories, particularly those based on the homo oeconomicus model of a rational individual.

However, although the theory of cumulative causation took into consideration the aspect of changes of environment which shaped the process of formation of a migrant community, it commonly limited its scope to the changes that were caused by the very process of migration. As a consequence, attention was paid to how selective the process of migration was. According to the model proposed by the theory of cumulative causation, the first stage of migration was dominated by the “migration pioneers”, who were typically men of a productive age, originating from the middle strata of society, brave enough to look for new opportunities in a strange social environment, and pave the way for the further inflow of immigrants. In the next stage, the migration process was much less selective: the availability of social networks made the decision to migrate much easier, in some cases contributing to the emergence of a “culture of migration”. The crucial point formulated by Massey is that due to the formation of a specific set of social habits and values resulting from the formation of a migrant community, the economic factors that may have played a central role in the early stage of mobility commonly lose in importance, and migration in the further stages might be undertaken despite being “irrational” from the economic point of view.

The approach taken by Massey provides a valuable perspective, enabling an analysis of the processual character of the formation of migrant communities. At first glance, it seems to be quite an accurate model to explain the emergence of a Vietnamese community in Poland. The first arrivals of the Vietnamese who came to Poland in the Cold War era were also highly selective, involving a very limited group of individuals, who were designated to study in Poland on the basis of a good educational outcome and their proper social and family background. The next wave of migrants, consisting of people who arrived in Poland after 1989, attracted by the possibilities offered by the emerging capitalist economy, was much less selective, involving people from diverse backgrounds. As Halik and Nowicka (2002) and Halik (2006) point out, the first-wave migrants, the “pioneers”, played the role of “network weavers”, facilitating the arrivals of the next cohorts of migrants and serving as a source of information and economic assistance to them.

However, a closer examination of the case of the Vietnamese community in Poland proves that this model does not adequately explain its formation and evolution. In the case of the Polish-Vietnamese community, the process of its evolution is closely connected with the particular stages of the history of both ←18 | 19→countries and the connections between them. As will be indicated later in the book, the very presence of “migration pioneers” was a result of a political alliance between countries belonging to one of the camps during the Cold War, while the formation of a broader community was a result of the geopolitical reconfiguration that took place after the fall of communism. Thus, the principles behind the mobility process have evolved over time, complicating the picture. In order to provide a more adequate model describing the dynamics of the formation of this migrant community, I will discuss the macro-level concept of a world system. The world system approach has been argued to form an adequate frame regarding the ethnographic analysis of local phenomena by Marcus (1995), who argued that anthropologists too often tend to limit their scope of analysis to spatially restricted phenomena, losing from their sight the global economic and political factors which impact the strategies adapted by the researched individuals. In accordance with their critique, I place my research inside the macro-level context, which enables me to interpret individual experiences in the light of broader processes.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
migration post-socialism socialism diaspora
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 248 pp., 5 tables

Biographical notes

Grażyna Szymańska-Matusiewicz (Author)

Grażyna Szymańska-Matusiewicz is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Sociology of University of Warsaw. Her academic interests concentrate on the Vietnamese community in Poland and global Vietnamese diaspora. The results of her research have been published in acknowledged international journals and numerous Polish venues.


Title: Vietnamese in Poland
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