Do Thu Trang: Love goes through the stomach

Back in September we broadcast an interview with the award-winning blogger Do Thu Trang. She offers a witty and original take on many aspects of relations between Czechs and the country’s Vietnamese community, seen from the point of view of a second generation Vietnamese Czech. In this week’s Czech Books, we meet Trang again and take a closer look at her writing with David Vaughan.

Do Thu Trang, photo: archive of Do Thu TrangDo Thu Trang, photo: archive of Do Thu Trang The number of people of Vietnamese origin in the Czech Republic is estimated to be around 60,000, making the Vietnamese one of the country’s biggest minorities. In the quarter of a century since the fall of communism, Vietnamese-run shops, stalls and restaurants have become a major part of the Czech townscape. During that time a second generation has grown up: young people whose family background is Vietnamese, but whose home is the Czech Republic. Do Thu Trang is the best known voice of that generation. I asked her how her blog began.

“I started about eight years ago when I was at grammar school. I really love writing in Czech, I love reading Czech, and that’s one of the main reasons why I started. I posted my very first blog in 2008.”

How old were you at the time?

“I was eighteen and close to my graduation. It was a time when a lot of young people of Vietnamese origin started writing blogs about the Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic, and I was one of them.”

Why do think it was that so many people suddenly started writing about their experiences?

“I remember some of my friends, who were not so much interested in our community and our culture started asking me questions that I was not able to answer, because it was maybe too political for me or too complex to explain. This was one of the reasons why I wanted to bring some positive light into the dialogue between our two societies. This was also the aim of other Vietnamese bloggers of that time.”

What was your first post about?

“I attended seven weddings within about six months, so I wanted to start with something positive. The Vietnamese wedding is something positive, so this was my very first post.”

I should imagine that Vietnamese weddings are very different from Czech weddings.

“We usually have huge weddings and the biggest one had about eight hundred guests. It’s all about the food – we love eating food and everything we would celebrate goes through the stomach, I’d say.”

So let’s hear you read one of your posts. You have one that is also connected with food, but is not quite so appetizing.

The Rude Noodle

“Yes, it’s the name we give THAT restaurant,” Miss Yen told us with stoic calm. With the same calm she explained that people try to avoid going to THAT restaurant. It’s not that they don’t know how to cook, nor is it the fact that they grill the meat right by the toilets. It’s just the owner. She’s unpleasant and rude to her customers, be they Czech or Vietnamese.

You don’t need an intimate knowledge of the Sapa Market to know which restaurant we’re talking about. It’s that little bistro specializing in bun cha in the food section. The one over by the toilets.

We went there for a quick bite the other day; our Czech colleague wanted to try it. He’s a fan of Vietnamese food and all things Vietnamese. Even a Romanian health officer would shut this place down, he noted. As soon as we got close, I had an idea of what was in store.

You see, the manageress is the embodiment of all the worst features of hospitality and service. Not a scrap of Asian good manners. A permanent sneer, she never says hello; if you get her on a good day she might just say thank you. She all but hurls the food at customers and tells you where to sit with the finesse of an SS officer. During our feast a Czech customer turned up. “Eat alone?” she asked and sent him off to sit with another solitary Czech diner. The two men smiled at one another, bemused and submissive, looking round the half empty restaurant. Apart from us and a little cluster of Chinese diners they were the only people in the place. You’ve guessed it. Not many Vietnamese go there.

Now, in some seedy old beerhouse you might not expect anything different, but this kind of Vietnamese antiservice would come as a shock even to a Vietnamese Jamie Oliver. I must admit though – the food was excellent and one of these days I might go there again. Unless, that is, they get closed down by that Romanian health officer.

[Trans.: David Vaughan]

The Sapa market that you are writing about here is very special place in Prague…

“It’s said to be the centre of the Vietnamese diaspora in the Czech Republic, it’s been said that it’s a cultural and also a trade centre for us. Recently, I would say, it’s become more food oriented, a food centre of the Vietnamese diaspora, and also a lot of people from abroad who visit Prague are interested in visiting Sapa. Every city has Chinatown, but Prague has this Little Hanoi.”

Sapa market, photo: Filip JandourekSapa market, photo: Filip Jandourek It’s on the southern edge of Prague, by a housing estate. It’s not in the centre, as you might expect of a Chinatown.

“Yes, that’s right. It’s a city within a city.”

How do you feel when you go there? Does it feel like a kind of homecoming or do you feel more like a Czech, having spent pretty much all your life in the Czech Republic?

“It’s hard to say. Prague is definitely my hometown. But Sapa is a totally different world and there are so many feelings and so many different tastes that I can’t tell whether this is a homecoming or it’s totally different from what I am used to.”

It’s interesting that you are talking about tastes and flavours. In your writing too, food appears again and again.

“I love to say that people should become friends through the stomach, because love goes through the stomach. This is how it works between our societies and nationalities as well, because thanks to the number of Vietnamese fast-food places, a lot of Czech people have started to be interested in our culture as well.”

You grew up in Western Bohemia, you went to a Czech grammar school and you say that you always loved studying the Czech language in school. So you must have been steeped in Czech culture and Czech literature and the history of Czech writing. And you say that you have always enjoyed writing Czech. How do you feel in that Czech literary context?

“I can definitely say that I’ve been inspired by many famous Czech writers, like Vítězslav Nezval, Jaroslav Seifert, and also Václav Havel definitely, because I love how he can tell so much through short messages and short words. And I’m definitely flattered that my readers are interested not just in the content, but also the form. They like the way that the posts are easy to read.”

And you also write poetry. Could you read us one of your poems?

“I want it to be easy to read, easy to remember, and I like it when the poetry makes people laugh.

Meloun a Míša jdou na dračku
Chlazený Gambáč jakbysmet
Všecko za kačku
Plnit kasu ve večerce není
zhola žádnej med

“This poem is called Melon and Míša, which is a typical Czech ice cream. And it relates to the ‘večerky’ – corner shops – run by Vietnamese people. And this short poem says that it’s not easy to run a corner shop like this. It also shows the stereotype, because ‘gambáč’ is an informal word for Gamrinus beer, a very typical beer that is popular among Czech people.

Melon and Míša they’ll soon be gone
Chilled Gambáč like hot cakes Going for a song
Seven-eleven and never a break
Spare a thought for the living we scrape.

[Trans.: David Vaughan]

What I notice in that little poem and in a lot of your writing is how you love playing with words, with the ambiguities of words, with double meanings or unexpected associations.

“The whole aim of this blog is that people should not take themselves that seriously and they should still keep their inner child. This is how I stay playful and the double meanings are a kind of hidden treasure that you can discover and play with. So this is a game for me, fun.”

Photo: Vendula KosíkováPhoto: Vendula Kosíková When you were a child, did your parents sing Vietnamese lullabies to you and read you children’s poems? Is there a tradition similar to what we know in Europe?

“They didn’t, but I wish they had, because there are so many poems and lullabies that I would love to know and sing to my children one day. But I grew up listening to Czech songs and reading Czech poetry, so this is one of the reasons why I am more influenced by these short messages. Vietnamese poetry is really long. Poems tend to be calling for the future, calling for love, they’re very, very emotional and I prefer short and fun word games.”

You’re well known and successful as a “Vietnamese blogger” in the Czech Republic. Do you ever have the feeling that you want to step out of that role and just be a “blogger”?

“It’s going to be a label that I will wear for the rest of my life because I look the way I look. I don’t actually mind, because this label is a short cut to connecting Vietnamese and Czech society, because people know that there is a Vietnamese girl writing a blog in Czech. So I don’t have to explain and I don’t have to prove myself all the time. Even though I’m writing about the stereotypes, this is something I’m fighting against, because I’m making fun of stereotype.”

To finish, could you read one more post from your blog?

Two Views of Money or What Drives Me up the Wall:

One:

That some of our home-grown customers like to turn up carrying less money than the value of what they’re buying, assuming that they’ll pay with a handful of loose change and we’ll trust them and won’t bother to check. And then they’re surprised that it “doesn’t quite add up,” because they “counted it wrong.” Yes, of course, especially when they always buy exactly the same thing. So yes, Charlie, don’t forget that five crowns (again) next time.

Two:

We’ve got a visitor at home (so this is real-time, an instant reaction guaranteed). After the usual polite exchanges, a Vietnamese acquaintance of my parents whom I’ve never met before asks me how much I earn. And he follows it up by asking whether I make enough to support my parents. All I can do is react with a Vietnamese smile and by telling him it’s none of his business.

Two views of money.

[Trans.: David Vaughan]

I’ve spoken to a lot of Vietnamese people in the Czech Republic and many have adopted a European name, just to make things easier. How is it with you?

“I also have my Czech name, Lenka, but I’m not using it any more. I’m fine with Trang, my real name.”

I think you said that your dad is the last person who still calls you Lenka, isn’t he?

“Yes. I think he does it because it’s fun for him. It’s a kind of rebellion.”

So, what should I call you?

“Trang. Do Thu Trang.”

Do Thu Trang, thank you very much for talking to Radio Prague.