Paradise Shot — Norway in the World’s Arms

diaCRITICS contributor Trangđài Glassey-Trầnguyễn, a doctoral student in the United States, offers an overview of the Vietnamese communities in Scandanavia while reflecting upon the recent Oslo attacks by Anders Behring Breivik. Her emotions are poignant, after living in Scandanavia during a Fulbright year in 2004-05. “Of all the Nordic countries, Norway is home to the largest and most vibrant Vietnamese community. Oslo is indeed the ‘mecca’ of Vietnamese diasporas in Northern Europe,” Trangđài  explains. 

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Peace. Paradise. Both.

Paradise Found

I found myself [again] in Stockholm. The beautiful silence. The green forest. The silky breezes. Clear water. The bay. Blue sky. Pure air. The calmness of life itself. The intellectual Phạm Thị Hoài, during a conversation at her Berlin home, recalled how serene it was to drive in Sweden’s nature on a family vacation for hours, finding no soul in sight.

2004. Lappis, the dormitory adjacent to Stockholms Universitet. The dirt road leading to the Stockholm campus smelled of home, redolent of memories of the Mekong Delta, my birthplace.

1994-2004. Ten years in bustling-hustling Orange County, and I had forgotten what silence tasted like. There, in the silence of Stockholm, I found myself. I was coming home.

From bonding with nature to encounters with the Nordic people during my Fulbright year 2004-05, I embraced Scandinavia as heaven on earth, in spite of my difference in opinions on certain matters pertaining to the Nordic way of life.

It was my first time experiencing four-season weather. One of my lifetime mentors, Dr. Craig Ihara at CSU Fullerton, was afraid I wouldn’t survive. “Maybe she’d pack and go home prematurely” was his thought. It was not mine. Though the winter was cold and different, I was excited about it. The virgin snow that fell in early November 2004. The dramatic clouds with silver lining and ethereal colors at dawn and dusk. The nakedness of trees, bare and dormant. I did not survive my first Nordic winter. I embraced it.

I flung open the large windows to my room every morning, letting the biting air in, pure and piercing. I did yoga. Maybe that was the trick. I embraced winter. Winter embraced me. I didn’t get sick. To my surprise, some of my colleagues at Stockholms Universitet –  Viking men towering over me – were under the weather. They caught a cold or something else.

Summer is the most celebrated season of the year. The sun is the reason. But the sun was no novelty to me. After all, I had spent my first two decades in tropical Vietnam.

Vietnamese in Norway

Not every Vietnamese shares my embrace of the Scandinavia, especially the first-generation immigrants living in this region. This land is too cold, too quiet, and too void of Vietnamese life for some of them.

The number of Vietnamese living in the Northern countries is substantial, though much lower compared to the figures in North America, Australia, or Western Europe. Of all the Nordic countries, Norway is home to the largest and most vibrant Vietnamese community. Oslo is indeed the ‘mecca’ of Vietnamese diasporas in Northern Europe. The estimates are 25,000 in Norway, 20,000 in Sweden, 14,000 in Denmark, and 6,000 in Finland.

When they meet, those young Vietnamese students in Nordic countries mix Vietnamese and Scandinavian tongues. In Upsalla, May 2005.

Some Vietnamese immigrants there might think that life in any Nordic country is the same. Tuấn Bá Cao, a Vietnamese immigrant, observed that “The policies on minorities and immigration in the Nordic countries, including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, are quite similar. I often wonder why they are not one Nordic country, as it is not easy to find differences between them.” (Translation mine. Original: CHÍNH SÁCH đối với người Thiểu Số và Tỵ Nạn tại các quốc gia Bắc Âu, gồm Đan Mạch, Na-Uy, Thụy Điển, Phần Lan, không khác nhau. Lắm lúc tôi tự hỏi tại sao họ không là một nước Bắc Âu khi khó mà tìm được sự khác biệt của họ.)

While Tuấn’s perspective might have stemmed from the similar life style and some shared histories of the related countries, his observation does not account for the distinctively different trajectories and developments of the various Vietnamese populations in Northern Europe.

During a November 2004 group dinner in Malmo, Sweden, some Vietnamese expressed admiration for their counterparts in Oslo. D., an entrepreneur, exclaimed how you can’t find even one Vietnamese professional in Sweden, but you can find several in any field in Norway, doctors, lawyers, you name it. “Only if we were like them,” he said. “Or like the Vietnamese in the U.S.,” his friend Khánh, also a business man, added.

In October 2004, I conducted an oral history interview in Stockholm with Father Thadeus Trần Chánh Thành, the chaplain for Vietnamese Catholics in all of Sweden and Åland, an archipelago in the Baltic Sea. As a boat person, he had first-hand experiences about the immigration processes in the Nordic countries. He recalled how the Princess of Norway, upon learning about the plight of the boat people, came in person to the refugee camps and helped set up the admission of the refugees to her country. Sweden, however, did not take in the Vietnamese refugees because of her support of North Vietnam during the war, and mostly admitted ethnic-Chinese Vietnamese after the 1979 Sino-Vietnam war when the government of Vietnam purged ethnic Chinese en masse.

The Vietnamese community in Oslo seems to be a frequent visiting point for their ethnic fellows in other parts of Europe. Micae Nguyễn Hữu Xuân Điềm, an exchange student from Vietnam, commuted from Rome, Italy, to Oslo during his years abroad, and spent a few weeks during summer to help with Catholic Youth Camps. He spoke of how generous the social benefits are in Norway, making it possible for some frugal elderly immigrants to spend the six winter months with their families in Vietnam.

The large number of Vietnamese in Oslo makes it more possible for the group to establish a formal social structure, and sustain regular activities that have not been possible for Vietnamese immigrants in the rest of Northern Europe.

Paradise Shot

I think it is cheating to visit Scandinavia during the summer only. You must live through the long winter with little sun and skip through the bursting spring to appreciate properly what summer brings. And though the other three seasons have their own charm and boon, the Nordic people are vested in heliolatry. A hint of summer, and people put on their bikinis to attract the sun. I am never quite sure if the sun comes out for them, or they summon the sun.

Water is omnipresent in Scandinavia - both a charming asset and a natural cooling device during summer.

With or without heliolatry, summer is the most beautiful and fun season in the Nordic countries for many. The celebration of long sunny days can’t ever be emphasized enough. Tourists make their way to Scandinavia in waves during the estival months. That’s when they can have it to themselves, as the locals are spending time away from the big cities like Oslo and Stockholm, enjoying their summer homes or family vacations. Peace!

Then came Anders Behring Breivik. The news took me asunder. It was almost unreal to decode the news stories inundating the media, from print to reel, from traditional to virtual. It was the more shocking to witness the Breivik attacks planned and executed during this time of the year. A nine-year plan.

It is such a cruel act to take the lives of others in this way on any day of the year, but it might be even more cruel because summer has always been associated with sweet times, friendship, family visits, vacations. It is like shooting at a couple on their wedding day. Or a child entering her summer garden. When I lived in Lappis for parts of summer 2005, all my corridor mates went home during summer. They came home and re-experienced childhood flavors.

The author (in light teal shirt) and her corridor mates at Lappis celebrate a late summer tea in 2005

What am I to make of this? It took me days to gather my thoughts for this essay. I was unsure how to approach it. I struggled to put my thoughts into words. I felt violated. It was my home, too, that part of the world. If challenges enrich a person’s perspectives, Scandinavia with its own challenges had enriched me. I took a journey to the North, and there, I [was] transformed.

Reflecting on the Nordic experience, Tuấn thinks that “The kind and humane nature of the Nordic peoples are evident, even though the opportunities for upward mobility amongst the minorities are not as open as they are in the U.S., Australia, or Canada. Reservation is a dominant trait here.” (Translation mine. Original: Bản chất hiền hòa và nhân ái của dân Bắc Âu không thể chối bỏ được, cho dù CƠ HỘI TIẾN THÂN của người Thiểu-Số không được dễ dàng như ở Mỹ, Úc, Canada etc. Bảo Thủ là bản chất của họ.)

Analyzing the recent attacks in Oslo, Tuấn said, “The Breveik event is a result of anger in a small group of native locals towards immigrants who had taken advantage of their generosity and caused social discordances. The fear of losing the ownership of their country.” (Translation mine. Original: Biến cố Breveik là kết quả của sự TỨC GIẬN cuả một nhóm nhỏ của người bản xứ đối với giống dân thiểu số  đã lợi dụng lòng nhân đạo của họ để rồi gây rối loạn xã hội của họ. Sự lo sợ BỊ MẤT CHỦ QUYỀN ĐẤT NƯỚC của họ.)

The Nordic people are polite, quiet, and reserved. Vietnamese immigrants I talked to during my sojourn there often asked how I deal with the violence so prevalent in the U.S. Peace is such an ideal, Sweden prides itself on 200 years of unbroken peace. Phan Hiển Mạnh, a Malmo businessman, told me how a Stockholm postcard prompted him to come to Sweden. He was a stateless person in East Germany, hiding from police raids, running around all the time. He was tired. And saw a postcard of Stockholm. And he wanted that life. He wanted that peace. He crossed the border, entered the refugee camps in Sweden, and almost ten years later, he was admitted.

Peace. It is a dominant trait. It is what touched me the deepest during my year there.

Snow la nuit

Norway in the arms of the world

While the recent shooting has been the focus of world’s news, I do not want to associate Norway with just that. It has been a koan to compose this piece. What approach is appropriate? What useful perspective can I bring? What other conversations can be forged besides the white supremacy, anti-immigrant tirades, anti-diversity volleys, global security, personal responsibility, xenophobia, anti-Muslim violence?

Several issues came to the surface with the onslaught of the Oslo shooting. Islam in Europe, Muslim immigrants in Europe, multiculturalism, ethnic diversity, armed security, civil freedom, white supremacy, etc. But I think the one thing that really surfaced for me, and it keeps resurfacing, has been pain. I don’t know if writing all of this makes the pain less or more. But writing it, it felt like I was swimming/drowning in the water myself, like the victims and/or survivors at the moment of attack.

Before the Breviek moment, I did not know that I would come back to the Nordic countries with a different sense of belonging. That one of my homes has been disturbed. That peace was challenged.

I know that the tension is there, not just for extremists like Breviek, but for people from all different walks of life and from all sides of the society. It is not comfortable for a native, I suppose, to feel excluded in their own land when two immigrants carry on a conversation in a different language. Multiculturalism has several limits. So does human tolerance. But it is the opportunities that we have today – the opportunities to be in each other’s back yard, the opportunities to taste someone else’s space without having to inhibit that space, that make all the tension meaningful, or useful.

Human movements are never one-way, but multi-directional. Over 500 Danes are living in Vietnam today. 22,000 Danes visited Vietnam in 2008. In January 2005, Sweden suffered a great loss when hundreds of Swedes were caught in the Tsunami in Thailand. The Nordic people can be found all over the world. And a fraction of the world can be found in the Nordic lands.

I take pain personally. After all, how else can we manage it? Or grow? But I also believe in human solidarity. It is important to remind ourselves, in the shock of the Breviek tragedy, that there are countless other good-will Norwegians who stand up for the belief in ethnic diversity and inclusion.

Norway has entered the twenty first century – again, this time by itself, in 2011 – with this tragic event. The country as a whole has a chance to have an open and direct conversation with the world about its perspective on the most pressing matter of our time: immigration and integration.

The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo will carry another layer of meaning, now that the domestic peace has been disturbed. The quietness of Norway has been pierced. When the Norwegians observe a moment of silence in honor of the lost lives today, they will heed a different kind of silence. But they will do so in the condoling arms of the world.

New and renewed conversations stemming from this event will continue to dominate the global discourses in the immediate future. But where is the conversation leading us? The answer depends on how we continue to forge a peaceful, equitable, and meaningful co-existence for all. Each and all of us.

Trangđài Glassey-Trầnguyễn is the only scholar to conduct multi-lingual oral histories and research on the Vietnamese diasporas in the U.S., European countries, Australia, and Vietnam since 1998. She is the very first researcher to collect extensive bilingual interviews with Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon, and has published hundreds of works – both critical and creative – in Vietnamese and English. In 2004-05, she was accorded an exceptional-ranking Fulbright full grant to study the Vietnamese in Sweden. She is also the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions for her artistry, scholarship, and cultural works. She holds a graduate degree in anthropology from Stanford University, and is working on her doctorate studies. 

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  1. I attended anthropology courses with Trangdai here in the States. I always wondered how her Fulbright year turned out, and now I can see it! I hope all is well with you, Trangdai, if you see this comment, and I hope you are well! (I am back in the States after living all over the place!)

    • ¡Hola, María! So glad to hear from you! I’ve been thinking about you and Christina Sepulveda lately since I am now back in OC. Look toward hearing more about your experiences trekking the globe.

  2. Hi BT,

    Thank you for reading, and for your comments.

    I think as ‘diasporic subjects’ (i.e. most if not all of us in today’s mobile world) we all experience what you called ‘tâm hồn khắc khoải’ at one point or another. I did undergo these moments myself, and there is no guarantee that I have ‘graduated’ from that state of being.

    As such, I think this ‘yearning’ or ‘the tormented soul’ (for the sake of this conversation, because the issue you raised in fact points to a very salient and encompassing theme) can be both productive and necessary. But I certainly don’t think we need to feel ‘entrapped’ in it, because again, it can be productive and we can take an active role in how we respond to it.

    I personally believe that we all must have little deaths along our lives in order to evolve, or to move forward, or to be. These little deaths take place when we in fact confront the torementedness of our souls (whatever that might be, a home country, a past love), and let ourselves be.

    I did not seek out solutions for this dilemma. I think there are ways to make it useful, and meaningful. That topic deserves a dissertation.

    But here’s my offer :). There was a poem that said happiness is the anticipation of sorrow. So joy or pain, are they but yin and yang? Life’d be boring if it’s just one thing. Từ Thức didn’t want to stay in Thiên Thai, remember? So are you sure you want to be all happy jovie all the time?


  3. Hi Trang Dai Glassey,
    I’m so moved by the sharing of emotions of yours through the text about the Nordic countries and the vietnamese communities. I am even more impressed to learn you are the first researcher about vietnamese communities in the world. I wonder if through your research you have found the reason and hopefully the solution for the permanent “tormented soul” (tam hon khac khoai) of the 1st and may be 2nd generation of vietnamese who are so “wrapped up”, “entrapped” in the nostalgia of the old country that they can never be completely happy where they are.


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