The Border Within
Vietnamese Migrants Transforming Ethnic Nationalism in Berlin
Phi Hong Su



Border Crossings

BEFORE TÀI LEARNED HOW TO CRAWL, he had already crossed and been crossed by international borders.* Tài was born in northern Vietnam in 1954, shortly before Việt Minh revolutionary forces defeated the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Throughout the summer, several countries met in Geneva to coordinate French withdrawal from present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and resolve lingering matters related to the First Indochina War. The Geneva Agreements were the reason for the first border crossing of Tài’s life, designating a provisional military line at the 17th parallel. This border swiftly came to signify two competing Cold War states: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, or North Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, or South Vietnam).1 (See Map 1.1.)

As the borders of the state to which they belonged changed, Tài’s parents seized on an opening provided by the Geneva Agreements to traverse that border. The accords provided for a three-hundred-day period of free movement during which “any civilians residing in a district controlled by one party who wish to go and live in the zone assigned to the other party shall be permitted and helped to do so.”2 Tài, his parents, and siblings would form part of an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Catholics who headed southward. After having been border-crossed by state formation, Tài and his family in turn crossed a border that would become international.

Map 1.1 Map of Divided Vietnam. Source: Frieda Luna Schlör. Original shapefile from ArcGIS.

The war between the two Vietnams again gripped Tài in 1975, producing the third border crossing of his life. On April 30, Northern forces breached the presidential palace in Saigon, capital of South Vietnam. President Dương Văn Minh surrendered unconditionally. The victors reunified the two countries under the one-party Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) and renamed the city of Saigon in honor of North Vietnamese leader Hồ Chí Minh.

Mirroring the border crossings they experienced in 1954, Tài’s family responded to the reunification of Vietnam by attempting perilous escapes at sea. The first of Tài’s siblings to flee Vietnam by boat was rescued by the West German ship Cap Anamur in 1980. Two years later, more of his siblings escaped as “boat refugees.” In 1985, at age thirty-one, Tài sought his own escape. He drifted on the sea for a month before transitioning to a camp in Thailand, where he waited three years to be resettled.

Tài eventually relocated to a country that, like his homeland, had been border-crossed by the Cold War. In autumn 1989, he arrived in West Berlin, an exclave belonging to democratic West Germany but completely encircled by socialist East Germany. (See Map 1.2.)

Map 1.2 Map of Divided Berlin. Source: Frieda Luna Schlör. Original shape-file from ESRI/ArcGIS’s Geoportal Berlin/Verlauf der Berliner Mauer, 1989 and Geoportal Berlin/Ortsteile von Berlin.

As did other “contingent refugees” (Kontingentflüchtlinge), Tài received generous social assistance from his host country. He enrolled in language classes for nine months and soon secured a job with a company that, when we met in 2016, he had been working in for nearly thirty years. Grateful for having been granted a new lease on life, Tài “see[s] [Germany] as [his] second homeland now” (Chú coi đây là quê hương thứ hai rồi).

Like Tài, Trinh also repeatedly crossed and was crossed by international borders. Born in North Vietnam in 1969, she grew up in a destitute postwar environment. She would not flee her homeland as Tài’s family had, but she also did not inherit the social and economic benefits that flowed to the children of Communist Party officials. The offspring of households that “had merit with the revolution” (có công với cách mạng) received opportunities to go abroad beginning in 1980, when Vietnam formalized bilateral agreements with socialist states such as the Soviet Union and Bulgaria. To mitigate labor shortages in Eastern Bloc industries such as construction and textiles, Vietnam would soon send abroad contract workers from nonelite backgrounds as well. Trinh knew that having one family member working abroad would elevate the financial situation of the entire household. She therefore left home in 1989 at age twenty to begin factory work in Czechoslovakia.

Tài and Trinh arrived in their respective host countries just in time to be swept up in another momentous instance of state formation augured by the fall of the Berlin Wall. For nearly thirty years, the wall encircled West Berlin, preventing Easterners from escaping into the West. As political objects, borders “do not have a life independent of the political life of the countries of which they are the outer bark.”3 Hence, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc would call into question the configuration of existing borders.

Facing uncertainty about their dissolving host states, contract workers in the Eastern Bloc responded by repatriating to Vietnam, trying to convert their statuses from temporary worker to immigrant, or crossing borders in flux to resettle elsewhere in Western Europe. Trinh chose the third path, paying a guide to help her clandestinely enter reunified Germany in 1991. She filed for asylum in Frankfurt, where she took integration classes while awaiting the decision on her case. Her asylum claim rejected, Trinh would later legalize through right-to-stay legislation (Bleiberecht). By the time I met her in 2016, she had long gained fluency in German, established a business in eastern Berlin, and had conferred German citizenship on her children.

This book is about how Tài, Trinh, and other Vietnamese migrants in Berlin navigate the twin phenomena of state formation and international migration—together, border crossings. These border crossings powerfully shape Vietnamese migrants’ social identities and their relationships with one another. The protagonists of this book arrived in West, East, or reunified Germany under an array of legal labels: contingent refugee, contract worker, international student, tourist, undocumented migrant. I consider all of these, including refugees, as types of migrants.4 But as we will explore in the next two chapters, migrant labels fail to capture the diverse motivations and opportunities with which people cross international borders. Some people directly experience state violence but ultimately leave as contract workers; others do not face persecution but arrive abroad as refugees. More important, this “migrant/refugee binary” inundates us with assumptions about who deserves help and who does not, whose lives are worth protecting and whose are not.5

Although The Border Within at times invokes a migrant/refugee binary, it ultimately seeks to move beyond the binary. It recognizes that the specific labels under which people cross borders matter deeply for their life opportunities. Yet it also argues that there is much to be gained by reading the narratives of a diverse spectrum of migrants alongside one another. Doing so allows us to see, as political scientist Rebecca Hamlin so aptly captures, “that borders do violent work.”6 I therefore refer broadly to people who migrated under different labels and wove in and out of various such labels throughout their lives as border crossers.

For similar reasons, I refer to state formation as borders crossing over people.7 “The border crossed us” is a rallying cry of the immigrants’ rights movement in the United States. When we picture an invisible yet formidable boundary crossing over people, we glean how borders are not just “physical but also figurative or ideological” tools for defining belonging.8 Examining the border-crossed, this book roots itself in the lived experience of people “who unquestioningly pursued the logic of autonomy in their daily lives.”9 They did not seek resistance or social transformation at every turn, but their thoughts and actions at times nonetheless produced transformative outcomes.

This book, then, is an exercise in analytically informed storytelling.10 It is one that values “less theory, more description.”11 The book privileges this mode of knowledge production in the spirit of offering grounded, accessible insights that I hope will resonate far beyond the academy. The stories of this book’s protagonists reveal how mightily they identify with their ethnic nationhood, even as they collectively dismantle the political project of ethnic nationalism—a different phenomenon.

By nationhood, I mean people’s subjective sense of belonging. Nationhood relies “not just [on] internal claims to social solidarity, common descent . . . [but also] distinctiveness vis-a-vis other nations.”12 We can consider the classic example of Germans as sharing an ethnic nationhood. The Vietnamese protagonists of this book fervently believed in and acted on shared ethnic nationhood, their feelings of belonging to a community of members who presumably share something in common with one another that they do not share with those outside the national club.13

By contrast, nationalism is the political principle that each nation should have its own state because “the political and the national unit should be congruent.”14 Actors work toward this goal through “project[s] to make the political unit, the state (or polity) congruent with the cultural unit, the nation.”15 Extending our example of German nationhood, we would expect nationalist politics to demand that Germans have a state for Germans and that members of the nation should not be divided by state borders. But as the following chapters delve into, the Vietnamese subjects I spent time with in Berlin by and large have abandoned this ethnonationalist project.

More broadly, this book argues that border crossings transform ethnic nationhood and nationalism in ways we miss when we look at state formation or international migration separately. Numerous historical examples reveal how border crossings create new nationhoods. Colonial borders crossed over people throughout the world, spurring the categories of Indian, Kenyan, and so forth.16 People crossing over borders also produced new national categories, as with the emergence of Korean nationhood alongside large population movements within the expanding Japanese Empire.17 In this book, Vietnamese-speaking people identified with the northern, central, or southern regions where they had lived since before French colonization. But the creation of the states of North and South Vietnam in the mid-twentieth century would crystallize these regional identities into national ones, aligned with competing states. People would lug these national identities with them to Germany, where outside observers readily detect that “North and South Vietnamese were and still are today strangers to each other.”18

Border crossings also allow people and communities to reproduce ethnic nationhood and nationalism in particular ways. This happens when people stay put but borders change, as with the unexpected yet extensive ethnopolitics linked to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.19 It also happens when people cross borders and, in doing so, reformulate their understandings of the nation abroad. In this way, 13 million emigrants who went abroad converted their local allegiances to a national Italian one.20 Although cultivated in the Vietnamese homeland, Southern nationalism would live on through the dispersal of southerners after reunification. Northerners would transport abroad their belief that with Vietnamese reunification long settled, people from different regions were “one family” represented by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Yet they would come to find this ethnic nationalism highly contested.

By thinking about border crossings jointly, we see how they can powerfully transform nationalism in surprising ways. Contract workers, refugees, and later migrants alike would come to abandon the ethnonationalist project, no longer believing that their shared ethnic nationhood demands a shared state to which they all belong. This loosely echoes scenes from the US Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021, when White nationalists brandishing the Confederate flag were joined by Vietnamese Americans with the yellow flag of fallen South Vietnam. Both flag wavers shared “a radicalized nostalgia for a lost country and a lost cause.”21 The subjects of this book have similarly transnationalized their ethnic nationalism. I do not mean this simply in the sense that their actions and allegiances span state borders. Rather, refugees have merged their devotion to South Vietnam with a commitment to the German nation-state. This latter commitment is key: it is not that they are waiting with bated breath for the fall of communism in Vietnam. Contract workers have also come to see refugees as falling outside the nation-state, even as they all presumably belong to a shared nation. This book is therefore centrally concerned with how Vietnamese people in Berlin rebuilt their lives after war and numerous disruptive border crossings. It highlights how they go about their routines thinking about or ignoring, interacting with, or shunning coethnics.

The Border Within thus explores how border crossings create, reproduce, and, crucially, transform ethnic nationhood and nationalism on the ground. It traces the creation of North and South Vietnamese nationhood and nationalism in the mid-twentieth century and analyzes how people deploy their nationalist allegiances in Germany today. The book unearths how everyday Vietnamese people’s sense of ethnic nationhood has persisted even as their understandings of and commitments to ethnic nationalism have changed. Border crossings do not always produce these outcomes of persistent ethnic nationhood and transformed ethnic nationalism. But this was so with the Vietnamese people in Berlin whose stories underpin this book. More broadly, the book maintains that thinking about state formation and international migration as mirrored processes of border crossings can lend insight into how and why ethnic nationhood and nationalism might change in contradictory ways.


* With the exception of Linh Thứu Pagoda, I have replaced the names of people and organizations with pseudonyms.

I use capital letters when referring to the states and citizens of North and South Vietnam between 1954/55 and 1975, as well as when referring to nationalism oriented around the fallen Republic of Vietnam. I use lowercase when discussing people, places, and things outside that period.

I use capital letters when referring to the states and citizens of East and West Germany between 1949 and 1990/91. I use lowercase when discussing people, places, and things outside that period.

1. Hồ Chí Minh proclaimed an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945, but France continued to exert power over greater Indochina until 1954. The State of Vietnam existed from 1949 until 1955, when Ngô Đình Diệm led a referendum to oust the ceremonial state of head, Bảo Đại, and establish the Republic of Vietnam.

2. Geneva Agreements Article 14(d). /files/KH-LA-VN_540720_GenevaAgreements.pdf.

3. Graziano 2017, 3–4.

4. FitzGerald and Arar 2018.

5. Hamlin 2021.

6. Ibid., 159.

7. Brubaker 1996.

8. Cisneros 2013, 4

9. Shevchenko 2015, 65.

10. I am indebted here to Christina Simko for capturing exactly what I was trying to do.

11. Besbris and Khan 2017.

12. Calhoun 1993, 216. Rogers Brubaker’s Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany is the classic reference for ethnic nationhood. However, his “point is a structural one, not a social-psychological one.” He does not suggest “that the sense of membership or ‘identity’ was primarily ethnocultural,” but, rather, that the logics underpinning citizenship were (1992, 4–5). However, my point is a social one.

13. On countries (and their nations) as a club, see Keating 2018.

14. Gellner 2006, 1.

15. Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008, 536.

16. Breuilly 1993.

17. Kim 2014 refers specifically to diasporic nationhood.

18. Sebastian Schubert, “Berlin’s Vietnamese Wall,” Deutsche Welle, November 27, 2004, berlins-vietnamese-wall/a-1408694.

19. Brubaker 1996.

20. Choate 2008.

21. Viet Thanh Nguyen, “There’s a Reason the South Vietnamese Flag Flew during the Capitol Riot,” Washington Post, January 14, 2021, 2021/01/14/south-vietnam-flag-capitol-riot/.