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Cold War Coethnics: Nationhood and Belonging among Vietnamese Immigrants and Refugees in Germany

  • Author(s): Su, Phi Hong
  • Advisor(s): Hernández-León, Rubén
  • et al.
Abstract

How do international migrants who have experienced civil war in their homeland interact with one another and negotiate national division in their host land? My dissertation addresses this question through examining a singular case of parallel international migration and regime change. After the 1975 reunification of Vietnam, people unwilling to live in the newly-formed socialist country began to flee. Many resettled in West Berlin, a capitalist enclave entirely encircled by socialist East Germany. In 1980, Vietnamese from a second migration stream began to arrive in East Berlin on labor contracts. Germany reunified a decade later, bringing these two groups of Vietnamese together within a reunified city. This is the only instance in which coethnics who represent opposing sides of the Cold War divide have resettled en masse in the same destination.

My comparative and historically-grounded qualitative inquiry draws on 81 interviews and 14 months of participant-observation in Vietnamese religious and social organizations across Berlin. I first trace the movements of refugees to West Germany and contract workers to East Germany, revealing how Cold War logics differently marked individuals as essentially economic or political migrants despite shared experiences of violence and postwar poverty (Chapter 2). Next, I consider how respondents draw on cultural repertoires to explain why they prefer to socialize with coethnics from the same region of origin (north or south) (Chapter 3). Thereafter, I show how people become exclusively sorted into one of two cultural organizations, representing refugee or contract worker migration streams, through social pressures to adhere to the regional identities and accompanying sociopolitical norms of each organization (Chapter 4). Finally, I examine interactions at the only social institution that contract workers and refugees regularly attend together: a Buddhist pagoda (Chapter 5).

In examining how Vietnamese refugees and contract workers encounter one another in reunified Berlin, I argue that Cold War logics have unsettled categories of shared identity such as ethnicity, nationhood, and religion. While this research draws on a unique case of international migration, its findings reveal processes at play more broadly among migrants from countries with politicized internal divisions, whether along religious, ethnic, or national lines.

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