The scale of assistance provided to medics by the Vietnamese community during the 2020 pandemic inspires admiration and gratitude. It stems from the sense of belonging to Poland and deeply rooted in the culture order to help those in need and repay the debt incurred at the time when they themselves needed such help.
The Vietnamese in an organized way and on their own initiative supported the Poles during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The duration of this assistance, its scope and the scale of the phenomenon itself is so great that it often arouses admiration and gratitude not only in those who experienced it. It also raises questions about the reasons for providing such support. However, before I go into the details and attempt to explain this phenomenon, I want to point out that I am not including here the assistance that members of the Vietnamese community in Poland provided to their compatriots in Vietnam just after the first outbreak was quarantined in the initial period of the epidemic’s spread to countries neighboring China. This happened two months before the first officially recognized person infected with the virus appeared in Poland. I am also overlooking the issue of extensive preparations and actions to ensure safety, protection and assistance to members of one’s own community, which had already been undertaken since the end of January and were adjusted to the recommendations of the Polish Ministry of Health and the needs of the community throughout the year.
Support from the Vietnamese as a one-time spurt?
How did the aid to Poles during the pandemic evolve? In Warsaw, it initially took the form of grassroots, private initiatives by people who were already doing regular charity work for the marginalized in Polish society. Since 2017, the owner of Pitaya bar, Ms. Đặng Thị Vân (Liliana Dang), together with her uncle, Mr. Hoàng Thế Diễm (Không Có Sách), had been donating hot meals to homeless people at the Central Railway Station in Warsaw as part of the activities undertaken by the Give Tea Foundation. It was from her that the first initiative to establish cooperation in order to provide assistance to medical services came on March 14, 2020, just after the epidemiological emergency was declared in Poland. Together with her uncle, she collaborated with the Polish group Sygnal – Pogotowie Gastronomiczne and already on March 17 the first hot meals along with drinks were donated to hospitals as part of the #VNjesteśmyzWami campaign. The Support Group for Medics, Doctors and Victims of COVID-19 Virus (HỖ TRỢ Y, BÁC SỸ và CÁC NẠN NHÂN VIRUS COVID-19, hereafter referred to as: Medics Support Group), which was quickly joined by more restaurateurs and bar owners willing to fund hot meals for medics. Others sponsored specific restaurants or bars to participate in the campaign. The activities included designing a logo with a red heart and a stethoscope and the words: “Thank you so much. We are with you. Vietnamese in Poland.” Thanks to the initiative of Mr. Cao Hồng Thái, a food truck located by the MSWiA hospital joined the activities, serving rice gruel also in the evenings. Mr. Ngô Văn Tưởng was one of the people coordinating the Vietnamese people’s spontaneous actions. Vietnamese from other cities also joined in: Zgierz, Bydgoszcz, Katowice, Bytom, Sosnowiec, Szczecin, Poznan and Wroclaw. The meals were given to Polish coordinators who delivered them to specific locations. It is estimated that within two months, the Vietnamese from Warsaw handed over approximately 21,000 free meals. In other cities, where the Vietnamese community is much smaller, it is assumed that over 5,000 ready-made meals were donated. As Mr Hoàng Thế Diễm points out, it is impossible to determine the exact amount due to the fact that many simply cooked spontaneously and delivered to hospitals without bragging about it to anyone. Back in March, the Pitaya bar kitchen was made available to the Signal – Emergency Catering group, where up to 300 two-course meals a day were cooked on average until it closed on 15 May 2020.
Meanwhile, a nationwide campaign to sew masks for medical personnel has been joined. For example, as early as March 25, 2020, one family donated 12,000 sewn masks. They were delivered not only to hospitals but also to other public institutions. Latex gloves and disinfectant fluids were also provided. Donations from Buddhists of Thiên Phúc Pagoda, one of two Vietnamese Buddhist temples located in Laszczki near Raszyn, were distributed to 13 hospitals mainly in Warsaw, as well as to administrative institutions in Wolka Kosowska and Ochota borough, the most populous district of Warsaw. A medical tent was donated to the hospital in Grojec. Graduates of Polish universities living in Vietnam also joined the action. On March 29, thanks to a donation from the VIFON company and money collected by the Association of Vietnamese in Poland and among graduates, gifts of tests for SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus produced in Vietnam, protective suits and disposable gloves were handed over. Their value amounted to 500 thousand zloty.
In Lodz, a much smaller Vietnamese community of about 500 people has also taken on the task of preparing daily hot meals for the medics. On the initiative of Mrs. Trần Thị Hoài Phương (Lilly Tran) from Lodz, who for 5 years has been cooperating with the Free Place Foundation preparing Easter breakfasts and Christmas Eve dinners for the lonely, a fundraiser was also organized. Donations from the community in the form of latex gloves and towels worth 11 thousand PLN were given to the Polish Mother’s Memorial Health Institute in Lodz.
In the fall, it was once again decided to take relief measures. On October 20, when infections in Poland reached over 12,000 people a day, the Medical Support Group led by Mr Hoàng Thế Diễm and Mr Nguyễn Đức Thảo (Tadek Tadek) from Warsaw resumed its activities. It should be noted that this decision was made at a time when central Vietnam was covered by the flood of the century, and the Vietnamese community in Poland was in the process of raising funds to support flood victims from central Vietnam. In turn, the #VNjestesmyzWami campaign itself this time covered Warsaw’s mostly one-name infectious disease hospitals and those with covid wards, which were provided with up to a hundred meals a day. By the date of its completion, i.e. 23 January 2021, approximately 10,000 meals were provided from donations collected by the community during that period alone. According to Ewa Plasek, coordinator of the autumn action from the Polish side, who in the spring coordinated the action of delivering masks to hospitals, the Vietnamese immediately responded to her additional facebook appeals providing the hospitals with blouses, pajamas, towels, wellingtons, water and other necessary items.
Many families, too numerous to mention here, took their own initiatives. The preparation of spring rolls by Mr Trần Nam (Nam Phong) and his friends on the occasion of Christmas Eve 2020 for the homeless from the Catholic Community Bread of Life at 17 Lopuszanska Street is one such grassroots activity. Noteworthy is the initiative of one of the families who involved shoppers in their stores to donate a portion of their purchases for the meals prepared for the medics. And although the #VNjestesmyzWami action has already ended, the Vietnamese continue to donate masks to hospitals and respond to their needs. On February 2, 2021, 21 thousand disposable masks were handed over to the University Clinical Center WUM in Warsaw.
It is worth emphasizing that the charity work undertaken by people of Vietnamese descent during the pandemic is not a one-off spurt for medical personnel and does not involve only Warsaw. It is a methodical and in most cases non-media work of individuals, which in 2020 gained momentum. Let us cite the previously mentioned systematic cooking of meals for the Give a Tea Foundation from Warsaw for Monday dinners for the homeless. Preparing Easter and Christmas Eve meals for up to 1,500 lonely people with the Free Place Foundation in Lodz. Mr. Trần Nam’s joining the Smile Warsaw initiative in 2018 resulted in a widening circle of Vietnamese volunteers and Sunday donations of hot meals, clothing, socks and underwear. Charitable actions taken before the pandemic also include small actions, e.g. Mrs. Đặng Thị Bính Thìn (Tina Thìn) cut the hair of the homeless from the house at 17 Lopuszanska Street. The Association of Vietnamese in Poland every year during the pre-Christmas period donates gifts to specific homes for the homeless, orphanages and community centers in and around Warsaw. Many engage in large-scale Polish media campaigns such as WOSP. Mr. Phan Châu Thành, one of the businessmen and extremely socially active representatives of the younger generation, in 2019 joined the organizers of WOSP by creating an auction of specially sewn sportswear for this purpose. In 2020, Ms. Lilly Tran, together with representatives of the Warsaw community, prepared 1000 hot bowls of phở soup for the volunteers of the WOSP action in Lodz.
The influence of Buddhist teachings on charity
What is the reason for such activity of the community, which for a long time was perceived in Poland as closed? First of all, it should be noted that the material status of the Vietnamese community has improved significantly over the past 30 years. They are no longer just traders in cheap shoes and clothing or cooks from small bars with Asian food, with little knowledge of the Polish language and culture. The number of serious investors and entrepreneurs of Vietnamese origin is growing, and they also run their businesses abroad in such sectors as gastronomy, hotel management and real estate. An example is the already mentioned VIFON company established in Poland in 1990. In addition, the next generation, raised and educated in this country, has also come into the picture. They continue the legacy of their parents or create their own business projects.
So what else, besides simply being rooted in Poland, might cause them to become involved in Polish society? Religion often plays a significant role in promoting the imperative to help others. Some of my interlocutors explain their participation in charity through their belief in the karmic law (luật nhân quả) [literally: luật – law, nhân – cause, quả – effect]. According to the teachings recorded in the sutras or Buddhist books, ‘giving’ (dana in the Pali language) is one of the basic practices. Buddhists believe that by doing good deeds they will generate good karma, which will eventually lead them in future incarnations to achieve nirvana (Gethin 1998). In practice, their actions often involve the belief that the help they give will be reciprocated more in the present than in a future incarnation.
Belonging to Polish society and Vietnamese culture
I discovered about another of the premises of this now highly visible philanthropic activity of the Vietnamese community at the beginning of my field research. At the beginning of 2019, Mr. Nguyễn Quốc Phương vice president of the Vietnamese Buddhist Society in Poland associated with the Thiên Phúc pagoda, who, which informing me about organizing the Tết Không Đồng charity event for the first time, of the occasion of Tết of Lunar New Year, used Vietnamese proverb: “Lá lành đùm lá rách” [ translated literally: All the leaves cover the torn leaves]. It was also mentioned at the very beginning of the development of the pandemic in an appeal to members of the Vietnamese community to create a fund to prevent the spread of the virus to help those in need in the community. In turn, the proverb itself signifies an encouragement to wrap care around those who find themselves in a difficult life situation.
In addition to the injunction to help those in need, the proverb reflects another important aspect of Vietnamese culture, which is the sense of belonging to a social group, and more broadly to the society in which they live. Living and working in this country for years, they learn the language and the Polish way of thinking. Their children develop friendships with Poles, marry them, and from which the next generations are born. Regardless of whether their marriages in Poland are nationally homogenous or not, the fact that they received Polish education, let alone lived in Poland from the moment of their birth, makes them feel uncomfortable returning to their families in Vietnam without the knowledge of the local cultural codes. Words of Vice President of the Association of Vietnamese in Poland, Mr. Trần Trọng Hùng quoted on the website termedia.pl: “We are and want to be part of Poland” (https://www.termedia.pl/koronawirus/Spolecznosc-wietnamska-w-Polsce-przekaze-szpitalom-testy-na-koronawirusa,37358.html) from this perspective it can be read as a request, or perhaps even appeal for social recognition of the representatives of the Vietnamese community as equal Polish citizens regardless of their origin and skin color. Especially since many of them declare their love for Poland, which they treat as their second homeland.
And although, as one young businessman told me, the mentality of the first generation of Vietnamese in Poland often remains typically Vietnamese, the generation and a half, of which he is a representative, have adopted European culture due to the fact that they came to Poland at school age and started education here. In their adult life, they usually choose one of two paths: they concentrate on what their parents have already created in Poland without taking any interest in the situation in Vietnam, or they also get involved in the affairs of their country of origin by making efforts to build a civil society there. On the other hand, for people of the second generation, i.e. those who were born in Poland, life in Vietnam, its culture and values, as well as its way of thinking are completely foreign and unknown, because they grew up only here. And the third generation, school-age children, are the “white cards”, who he believes should be “taught to be simply human, not Polish or Vietnamese, but human. To teach to be guided by the heart, not to look down on others, to have compassion towards others and to see the value in being different, standing out from the environment, because every stick has two ends.” That is why it is important to him to educate the first generation of Vietnamese in Poland so that they know and understand the reality of life in the country. He cares about speaking well of his community. It is also important to him that children of Vietnamese origin receive equal treatment in schools and that they themselves receive equal treatment with Poles in offices and other public places.
Gratitude understood as repayment of a debt
The historical and political conditions of cooperation between Poland and Vietnam have given many Vietnamese the opportunity to gain higher education in Poland and often significantly improve their family’s material situation in Vietnam. It is not surprising that they can feel grateful. What often puzzled me, however, during my fieldwork in Vietnam in 2019 and earlier in 2015 as part of Grazyna Szymanska-Matusiewicz’s (2019) project, was the frequency with which graduates of Polish universities spoke of perceived gratitude for Poland.
The aid currently provided by the Vietnamese may therefore be the result of pure human gratitude, but also of a culturally rooted sense of repayment of a debt incurred at a time when the Vietnamese themselves needed such help. This kind of duty is visible in linguistic phrases I often hear, e.g. biết ơn [translated literally: biết – to know, ơn – a good deed, a favour] or nhớ ơn [literally: nhớ – to remember about] i.e. just to be grateful. But it is not just a matter of saying thank you to the person who helped me. It means much more. It is about remembering all the things that I have experienced so far, that have shaped me and made me who I am and what I have come to in life. But it doesn’t end with just remembering and feeling grateful. It is first and foremost an engine for action, a motivation that ensures that when the time is right, I will be able to repay the debt I once incurred to the best of my ability to redress the imbalance. This gratitude, coupled in turn with a strong sense of community and human connection, can produce not a single one-time support, but great and if necessary, long-term help coming from many directions, as we witnessed throughout 2020.
This motivation to pay back debt is reflected in two Vietnamese proverbs: Ãn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây [translated literally: When eating fruit, remember who planted the tree] and Uống nước nhớ nguồn [literally: When drinking water, remember its source]. Both commands show gratitude for the contributions and hardships made by previous generations, parents, teachers, doctors or others whose work has brought us tangible benefits. This is also how the gratitude that graduates of Polish universities talk about can be understood.
The outbreak of this as yet uncontrollable pandemic has triggered many spontaneous aid responses not only from Poles but also from migrant communities residing in Poland. It also highlighted and to a large extent intensified the charitable activities of the Vietnamese living here. In early March, they were an immediate, spontaneous response to the needs of hospitals and medics throughout Poland. In autumn, on the other hand, they took the form of a more organized action focused mainly on single-named hospitals in Warsaw, which lasted until the first vaccines arrived in Poland.
The great commitment of the Vietnamese people to help the medics caused a wave of loudly verbalized gratitude. Ms. Magdalena Mankowska, coordinator of the Signal – Emergency Catering group, experienced it on a daily basis, which she testified to in a statement recorded for Meloradio on April 4, 2020:
“[…] At the very beginning it was, I admit, such… such a shock for me. So, so… I was a bit reserved, because these quantities were, for example, 150, 200 portions. Huge quantities. And it wasn’t that it was one day. It was equal, it was every day. And at some point I started to dig into the subject and ask what it was all about, why it was happening. And then I heard something that made me very moved, that Poland is also their country and they will fight side by side with us for the health of doctors. It was such a breakthrough, because I saw that I had not only good, kind people around me, but also friends. […]”
The Vietnamese living in Poland want to be treated as equal citizens of the country where they live and work, where their children or even grandchildren are born. Feeling the sense of belonging to this country, they undertake assistance activities aiming at bringing relief or joy in everyday difficult life of people on the verge of social exclusion. They do it because, as they say, it gives them joy and the desire to continue sharing. And they do it so that their children can have a better life here.
The text is based on materials collected as part of the research project “Ancestor worship as an element of transnational support network for Vietnamese families in Vietnam and Poland” funded by the National Science Center (project no. 2017/27/N/HS6/02161).
Translation: Karolina Piotrowska
 To properly understand this proverb, the key word is “đùm”. “Đùm bọc” means “to surround with care”. Thus, it is not about literally covering a leaf with a leaf, but about metaphorically caring for a better-off person over one in need.
Gethin, R. (1998). Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Szymanska-Matusiewicz, G. (2019). Vietnamese in Poland, Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang D.
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