A body-guided tour on a Vietnamese market

Having been put to my first journalistic trial, I failed completely. My interviewees avoided talking to me and answering the simplest questions, such as: Where are you from? How long do you live in Poland? They just repeated: "I don’t understand, I don’t understand", but they did. Of course they did.

On Thursday we eventually made up our minds – we were going to visit the biggest marketplace in Europe, at least that is how it is described by its management. Long ago it used to be a stadium, pride of the Polish United Workers Party, but then the political system changed and all the parades and May marches, which had taken place on the sports field, were gone. Once-crowded platforms have been waiting for better times. Not for long.

On that Thursday morning we crossed the Poniatowski bridge over the Vistula river in Warsaw and found ourselves in the very heart of new Polish business, in the middle of numerous stands with clothes, cosmetics, illegal CDs, cassettes and computer software. Yet we did not come here to make investigations about piracy and about so called "Polish businessmen".

As a matter of fact, we were going to interview and take some photos of their colleagues, much more interesting for us. We were not allowed to do that, as one guard impolitely let us know, unless the security management had given us a permit.

That was not the case. There is no place here to describe the very beauty of the market management bureau and the whole process of getting their consent for the photos. At the end of the day we were happy to get the permission and our own private bodyguard, or rather "bodyguide", who walked arm in arm with us through the streets of the market.

Vietnamese sellers have their own market sector. This means three or four streets where the metal stands covered with patches of rust are filled only by goods imported from Vietnam, mainly clothes. Here one can buy cheap T-shirts, cotton sweaters, winter jackets, colorful socks for children, underwear, actually everything one needs.

The sellers begin their working day at 4 or 5 a.m. They open their stands, exhibit everything they have in stock and wait for clients. Thursday is not a profitable market day. At 11 o’clock the traffic does not seem very busy and the Vietnamese men spend their day on the street playing a strange game which bears a resemblance to backgammon. Younger men train their agility by kicking a stone with a woolen thread attached to it.

Women stay at the stall and watch over the clothes. Our guard led us to a tiny Vietnamese grocery shop hidden in a narrow street behind the stalls. Here you can find everything you need to prepare a won-tong or a Vietnamese chicken soup with noodles. From time to time vegetables and fruits are being shipped from the owners’ home country. Next to the shop there is a small bar, a ‘greasy spoon’ for Vietnamese people only. We could observe from outside a little, grey room crowded with sellers eating soup with sticks and just looking through the window at some unexpected intruders, that means us.

Most of the Vietnamese people we were taking photos of were happy, smiling and talking to us and posing to the camera in front of their small business. Yet at the very moment I was approaching trying to interview them, they became as silent as a grave. Having been put to my first journalistic trial, I failed completely. My interlocutors avoided talking to me and answering the simplest questions, like: Where are you from? How long do you live in Poland? They just repeated: "I don’t understand, I don’t understand." But they did. Of course, they did.

This is characteristic for Vietnamese people living in Warsaw. And completely understandable. One must keep in mind that they do not have permission to stay and work in Poland. They learn Polish, but it is no wonder they do not want to talk with strangers about their home country. Nevertheless, it would be a big simplification to satisfy oneself with such an explanation. There must be something about their culture, that the Vietnamese people feel inclined to create their own society inside the society of the country they are living in.

This inclination is actually to be found among all groups of foreigners in all countries and consists of many factors: the need to maintain one’s cultural background, fear of intolerance, occasionally a lack of curiosity about the culture of the host country. Yet the smaller the differences between two cultures, the easier it is for the foreigners to assimilate. Although the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Polish People’s Republic used to be allies in the eastern bloc, we still do not know much about each other. Polish and Vietnamese people bridge the differences only when it is a real must – while doing business together. Hopefully it is just the beginning of their contacts.

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