Searching for Bánh Mì in East Berlin

Anna Nguyen

(Germany)

We said we went to Dong Xuan in Berlin in search of bánh mì. But what we were really curious about were the market halls, which have been referred to as both Little Saigon and Chinatown. Different names, different geographic meanings, but the use of synonyms are often used to flatten and conflate histories, especially those histories that tell a particular story of diasporic communities. The noun Dong Xuan itself is a beautiful Vietnamese name, referring to a spring meadow.

We had been living in Hannover, in western Germany, for more than a year now. In our first month of living in the new apartment, when our belongings were in transit and when the kitchen had not yet been furnished, I kept returning to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant to taste comfort and familiarity. The owner asked me if I was acclimating to Germany. I shook my head, and her eyes softened knowingly at my unease in living in a country I had grown suspicious of.

“There’s not much for us to do here,” she had said. “At least in the U.S., there are Chinatowns.” Much later, I realized she didn’t mention Dong Xuan in Berlin.

We took a cab to Lichtenberg. My tattoo appointment had taken longer than expected, and we wanted to spend as much time as we could at Dong Xuan. We only ever took day trips to Berlin, the overhyped city never persuading us to spend a night or more. We have a cat to come home to.

The combined train and bus rides would have taken at least an hour to get to Lichtenberg. Even after taking some wrong turns despite warnings from the map on his app, the driver pulled up to one of the market halls in about twenty minutes.

“Chinatown,” he announced. I knew enough German to politely say danke schön to him. In the car, I could see the large red letters spelling out Dong Xuan Center on one of the six identical white industrial buildings. He drove away from what looked like an expansive parking lot. Store names were largely in Vietnamese. They shared space with vendors, we’d find out later, from India, China, and Pakistan. 

We got lost trying to find the bánh mì stand. We entered one hall and walked past the long corridor full of rooms selling groceries, clothes, blankets, cell phones and accessories, and housewares and into another building that featured the same blueprint. The languages spoken in the halls were not German, an observation that startled and brought me joy. In Hannover, conversations in non-German languages were held in hushed, quiet tones, as if the residents were afraid of being heard not speaking the state-mandated language. I live in a country where the word freedom is brought up so many times, in so many spaces, including academic spaces, by the powerful elite. Yet, their freedom doesn’t capture my conception of freedom, which includes the ability to speak in one’s uncolonized language. Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o long ago forsook writing in English to turn his attention to writing in Gikuyu, a decision that asks us to properly attend to the institutional, and simultaneous tyrannical nature, of language.[1] Like any nation’s desire to dominate, language becomes a tool of erasure passed down by the colonizer to the colonized. I wonder why forgetful German academics cite Ngũgĩ, who has documented Germany’s dominion in Africa. And why they loathe hearing non-German languages.

I often order, in my limited German, noodles from a shop in the Hannover train station where I thought I heard Vietnamese. I wasn’t certain. Sometimes I long so much to hear the sounds of Vietnamese, I think I imagine them. I leaned over the counter to hear what the three workers were saying, despite the loud bangs of pots and ladles in the chef’s cramped workspace. The younger cashier, dressed in a stylish black turtleneck and wearing silver wire-rimmed glasses, peered at me curiously. My short frame, draped in an oversized faux fur coat, my head with a large, messy top knot spilling out from volume and height bent at an angle created a conspicuous site.

“Alles gut?” he asked. I think he recognized me, if for my hair and neck tattoos. And he knows I can’t speak German. He once remarked, in English, that “we all learn German eventually.” His tone was playful, but his eyes didn’t match the humorous wisdom of the sentiment.

“Ja, ja,” I answered. The woman asked me a question. Rather than utter “bitte,” a common word used for a plethora of reasons, I hesitated. Repeating the question again wouldn’t help me understand.

Instead, I asked, “sprechen sie Vietnamesisch?” She couldn’t hear me, for a mixture of reasons. My voice was muffled by my mask and by the noises discharging from the kitchen. The chef, furthest away from us, exclaimed in our shared language, “you speak Vietnamese?”

We were quite loud, and I turned my body to face the dining area. Three diners were looking into the kitchen, and their faces bore an expression I have come to detest, of indignance and annoyance at loud sounds emitting from non-German languages. I spoke Vietnamese as loudly as I wanted, accepting no arbitrary social or cultural graces in the rigidly stern country. My three friends, however, resumed their quiet speaking ways after the initial surprise faded.

All of their voices carried a northern accent. When I moved away from the cash register to watch the chef cook my noodles, he asked how long I had been living in the area.

“Almost two years?” he echoed, his long spatula spoon in the air. I knew what he was thinking. My German was non-existent. “You probably won’t stay for very long, will you?”

It wasn’t a malicious question or assumption. If I wanted to remain in Germany, I would need to pass a language test, to show my allegiance to the country. There’s a sentiment I’ve seen shared across Vietnamese and non-white Germans who relocated to the area. When they ask if I like living here, my hesitation to be honest does not astonish them. Their eyes immediately change from genuine curiosity to understanding. No one has said anything glowing about Germany.

They know. I know. We all know.

“It seems so,” I answered, my tone clipped. The chef looked into my eyes, as if to confirm something I hadn’t said. Wordlessly, he started mixing the noodles with the sauce again. The back of his head nodded.

At the noisy Dong Xuan, the shop owners couldn’t see the smile I returned from behind my mask. I repeated their greeting. “Hallo.” We’d come back later for their chilli peppers. To my left, I heard multiple conversations in Vietnamese, all of the different regional accents jumbling together. The barbershop was crowded. Nowhere did I see white Germans.

After walking in and out of three halls, we were outside again. Finally, the elusive bánh mì stand was in sight. The young Vietnamese women busily took orders in a food truck. Despite the chilly day, we could eat outdoors. A tent was a few footsteps away from their workspace. I told my partner to find a seat.

The lady who took my order gaped at me. She quickly recovered and repeated my order again. Four bánh mì with tofu and a cà phê sữa đá. She eyed me up and down. Maybe it was my flat American accent, maybe it was loud clothes and very noticeable tattoos that marked me as different from the others nearby. I have made aesthetic choices that members of my linguistic community have gazed at me with some contempt and judgment. I’m quite used to these looks.

I stood next to an unoccupied machine and a large plastic bin that held stalks of sugarcane. There were a few people, all Vietnamese speakers, waiting for someone to take their orders. A young man appeared from behind the trailer and began placing the stalks into the machine, which quickly came alive and competed with the loud conversations. Some asked for their juice without ice, some asked for a separate cup of ice. Four euros per cup of juice.

He caught me staring and asked, “can chị speak Vietnamese?” His accent matched his coworkers, quite northern. His hair was bleached blonde, more yellow than white, a hair experiment I too had tried a few times in my youth. His oversized, thick pale blue sweater reminded me of Justin Timberlake from his boy band days.

“I can,” I affirmed.

“Did you just get a tattoo?” He must have seen the plastic wrap on my chest with tape. One could barely make out the beautiful engraving of a shining sun on a bed of clouds. If I had to tell a story about that particular tattoo, I’d say the tattoo represents my mental state while living in Germany. The clouds might slowly be concealing the sun, or the sun is finally emerging. I am always somewhere between optimism and despair.

“I did,” I confirmed.

A man ordered a cup of sugar cane juice.

“Where are you from?”

“I was born in the United States.”

“Are you on a trip?” he asked.

“Not really,” I said vaguely. “Were you born here, em?” He had called me older sister. I, in turn, called him little brother. I only ever try to match honorifics. At my age, I’m no longer sure if I’m the chị or em. I might even be an aunty. Though my face is almost always masked, perhaps the faint lines near my eyes or the few grey hairs on my head give away my age.

The em continued to smile widely. He had been smiling throughout our whole exchange.

“No, I just got here yesterday.”

The man waiting for his cup of sugar cane juice chuckled.

“Really,” I muttered, suppressing the urge to roll my eyes. I’m often teased by speakers whose accents are more geographically specific than my own.  

When the order was completed, I took the bag of bánh mì and thanked them.

“Bye-bye!” I cried out in my accent loudly, startling all of them. 

“I didn’t see anyone else ordering bánh mì,” I reported when I placed the bag carefully on the table. I unwrapped one of them and noticed that the baguette was barely toasted and warm. It looked a bit anaemic, yet I bit into it hungrily. I chewed thoughtfully. The bread wasn’t crispy, the very pale tofu was unseasoned, there weren’t a lot of pickled carrots or cilantro. I added some Hoisin and the goose brand Sriracha sauce and took another bite. Still bland. But I was grateful I was finally eating a bánh mì at Dong Xuan. The only place it’s offered in Hannover is at a coffee shop, where Vietnamese students studying at the local university hang out to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. My partner and I both work at the university and rarely have non-Germans in our classes. And we seldom see customers eat the baguette sandwiches at the coffee shop.

My partner wolfed down his first bánh mì. We purchased extra for the train ride home, but he was still famished. He unwrapped his other one.

“This one tastes better,” he offered after I mentioned that the bánh mì in Hannover actually had pâté and more pickled vegetables. “Maybe the flavours will be better in the other one.”

I took my time eating. Across from our table, a young woman was quietly eating a bowl of noodles. Her long, black hair was straight and gleamed in the sunlight. Her stroller was next to her, carefully parked so that it didn’t take up space.

“Everyone’s eating some form of noodles,” my partner remarked. Some ordered bowls of phở, some bowls didn’t have broth. “They look delicious.”

“We’ll try something else next time,” I answered, brushing the crumbs off of the table. I didn’t know when that next time would be.

The late lunch crowd was dispersing. Only empty dishes and plates remained on the tables.

When I exited the tent, em was bussing the outdoor small tables nearby. He smoked a cigarette as he worked.

“Can I leave my glass on the table?”

“Yes, yes, I’ll get it,” he said, waving a hand in the air.

“See you soon, I hope?”

“Bye-bye!” he answered with dramatic enthusiasm, imitating my accent.

I returned the salutation. Louder. He couldn’t see that I was smiling. Or maybe I was smirking, like he was.

*****

Walking away from Dong Xuan, I noticed how isolated it seemed from other social forms of life. No other buildings neighboured the parking lot. As the market halls grew distant during the fifteen-minute walk to the bus stop, some old Soviet apartment buildings emerged. It was an eerily quiet area, unlike the boisterous market halls.

We stood in the disorderly line with the crowds of people, a mixture of familiar faces from Dong Xuan and those leaving work somewhere nearby. The sounds of Vietnamese hadn’t yet disappeared.

When we got on the bus, it was almost at capacity. I stood a few feet away from my partner, listening to the surrounding conversations, some in German, some in Vietnamese. As people gradually got off, I caught the eyes of the young woman who sat across from us at the outdoor restaurant. She and her stroller were standing close to the doors. She stared back at me, her head slightly cocked. I wondered if she remembered me, a fellow diner in the tent.

After a few more stops, I watched her get off. I watched a lot of Asians get off as we neared the central station. Vietnamese also began to dissipate until I could no longer hear it.

I traced the departing passengers as clues to the geographic borders and boundaries after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as observed by sociologist Phi Hong Su’s ethnographies.[2] In her work, she deftly analyses dichotomies associated with the North/South, migrant/refugee, and communist/anti-communist, simplified binaries that my own refugee parents reproduced when speaking of their own fragmented memories. After the Vietnam War, particular legal statuses and fictions were created, which can be associated by the binaries Su sets out to analyse. In the late 1970s, refugees from South Vietnam and Southeast Asia relocated to Western Germany; in the 1980s, as part of the collaboration between the communist governments of Vietnam and Germany, temporary migrant workers lived in the Eastern area. Within these distinct groups and borders, their stories of integration are different. In the West, Vietnamese refugees and immigrants had resources that helped them integrate in their new spaces; those in the Eastern Bloc were largely isolated from Germany and struggled to find work after the country’s reunification. More binaries emerge, that of the assimilated and the unassimilated, the revolutionary and the nonrevolutionary.

In mapping these boundaries, Su emphasizes that they are porous; they are not stagnant. I look at these binaries to see how hosting countries might use them to tell a particular narrative of immigrants and refugees. Success stories of integration by so-called first worlds are always dishonest, the work incomplete.

The bus ride from Dong Xuan, itself a site created by migrant workers in the Eastern Bloc, to the central station in Berlin does reveal a particular kind of geographic boundary. As we were approaching the so-called hipper neighbourhoods in Berlin, I made note of the very visible absence. Many of the Asians who left halfway through the bus ride from Lichtenberg lived in the more suburban area of Berlin. I was heading to the other side of Berlin, the side where I had to find the train station to head home and where outsiders with expat aspirations longed for an imagined space of progressiveness and accepted foreignness. That place only exists in a naive traveller’s dream. They haven’t had to make hard-to-obtain appointments at the Ausländerbehörde or Bürgeramt, where its state workers treat people of colour as undeserving and unwilling to adapt to German culture.

We finally found a seat, next to two Germans. They were drunk, each holding a can of beer. I watched them leer at women, on the bus and on the streets, and rated them. Nein. Ja. Maybe with a beer.

I willed myself to stop listening, averting my attention away from the lewd men. The bus was emptying, yet the sounds of the dominant language grew forceful.

*****

Our cat greeted us at the door. We were back in western Germany.

I unpacked my tote bag and found my second bánh mì, now soggy. I placed it on a bright red melamine oval plate, the very plate sold in Asian grocery stores and used in restaurants. My mother had purchased a few for me when she visited us in Boston. We were in the Super 88 store, where she insisted I have plastic dishes for our new apartment. She stacked matching bowls of various sizes into my arms, her right hand clutching her cane. I could have purchased them at one of the stalls at Dong Xuan or even the shops in town, but I know when not to argue with my mother over a trivial and kind gesture.

While my partner made himself a quick meal with available ingredients, I sat at the table and ate my bánh mì. I wasn’t as lucky as he was. Both of my bánh mì were missing something. I couldn’t name it, but both seemed wilted and flavourless.

 

Endnotes

[1] Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language and African Culture (James Currey Ltd/Heinemann, 1986).

[2] “’There’s No Solidarity’: Nationalism and Belonging Among Vietnamese Refugees and Immigrants in Berlin,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 12, issue 1 (2017): 73-100; The Border Within: Vietnamese Migrants Transforming Ethnic Nationalism in Berlin (Stanford University Press, 2022).

Anna Nguyen

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Anna Nguyen had been a displaced PhD student for many years, in many different programs and departments at many different universities in many different countries. She decided to rewrite her dissertation in the form of creative non-fiction as an MFA student at Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine, which blends her theoretical training in literary analysis, science and technology studies, and social theory to reflect on institutions, language, expertise, the role of citations, and food. She also hosts a podcast, Critical Literary Consumption, which features authors, poets, and scholars discussing their written work and their thoughts on reading and writing practices. Her essays and academic writing can be found on her website.

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