Ba Lan

Zula Rabikowska

2019 - Ongoing

Warsaw, Masovian Voivodeship, Poland

Ba Lan means “Poland” in Vietnamese and this project focuses on the Vietnamese diaspora in Poland. Poland has a history of being a monoethnic country and its migrant population is rarely depicted. I re-interpret the theme of migration through an untold story of Vietnamese immigrants in Poland. Ba Lan explores the intersections of Polish and Vietnamese culture and examines the relationship between national identity, belonging and ethnicity.

Vietnamese immigrants started to arrive in Poland in the 50s and initially this was on the basis of student exchanges. At the time, Vietnam favoured fellow communist nations and rewarded students with good grades with the possibility of studying in Poland. Currently, the Vietnamese-Polish community is the biggest non-European migrant community living in Poland, with an estimated population of 50-80,000. Poland has a complicated history of extreme approaches towards minorities from peaceful coexistence and tolerance to forced assimilation. Since 2015, Poland has been ruled by Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice), which is a conservative, Christian and anti-immigration political party. The presence of the Vietnamese-Polish community is not reflected in the media, arts and culture. Instead slogans such as “Today's immigrants are tomorrow terrorists” are seen in public spaces.

Ba Lan developed from a place of frustration with the way immigrants are perceived. As a Polish immigrant living in the UK, I worked closely with the Vietnamese-Polish community in Warsaw to better understand how the largest non-European migrant group reconciles their identity in a country which largely believes that nationality is rooted in ethnic origin. Linda Alcoff calls for us to speak whenever possible with others rather than for them, and this project is a result of months of collaboration with Vietnamese-Polish artists, activists, performers, business owners and chefs. I wanted to speak "with" and not "for" a group of people and therefore approached the project collaboratively. I interviewed members of the Vietnamese-Polish community of different ages, genders, political involvement or social standing.

Duality is at the forefront of each photograph in this project, and I explore the multiplicity of identities, imposed norms and expectations that are part of immigrant life in Poland. Each image I made was influenced by conversation, and each location of the portrait was chosen by the person I photographed. I made strong use of mirrors, reflections, geometric lines and jarring images to aesthetically bare the feeling of conflicting identities and belonging of the Vietnamese-Polish community.

The Vietnamese community has been part of the Polish society for many generations, and even to this day Poland continues to be an attractive destination for Vietnamese immigrants. There is an overall feeling amongst the Vietnamese community who have been in Poland for generations that they are denied a Polish identity because of their ethnicity, and are perceived as inadequately Vietnamese by family members still in Vietnam. The Vietnamese community in Poland is perceived as hermetic and inaccessible, and their understanding is largely based on scandalous myths and stereotypes perpetuated by the media. I created images that would challenge this representational approach and engaged with the immigration narrative through a collaborative approach. With the PH Museum Grant, I would like to develop the project further and delve into the intricacies of this community.

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  • Ha with her skateboard. Ha also uses her Polish name Hanna, or her English nickname Jade. She speaks Polish and Vietnamese, but prefers to communicate in English. She is finding school difficult as forming friendships with Polish children is challenging. She prefers to read and ride her skateboard.

  • Lan is a graphic designer and lives the life of a creative in Poland. She feels that she is from Warsaw, rather than Poland or Vietnam. Lan is an activist and feels a lack of support from the Vietnamese-Polish community in her battle against discrimination. Whilst undertaking her activist work, she is aware that being ethnically Vietnamese in Poland puts her at a higher risk of arrest.

  • Anh Nguyen in an ex-communist cafe. Anh was born in Poland and grew up in a household that spoke four languages. She didn't start speaking until she was 2 years old. Her parents moved back to Vietnam when she was 12 leaving her with her older brother who was 18. Anh has no intention of going to Vietnam and has recently had a baby with whom she speaks only in Polish.

  • A Vietnamese grave in North Municipal Cemetery outside Warsaw. Polish media perpetuate the idea that Vietnamese deaths are unreported. Many newspapers have claimed that identity documents of the deceased are often used by recent immigrants.

  • Minh, or Jackie as he is often called. He has been in Poland for a year and prior to that he lived in Australia where he was given his anglophone name. Minh feels at a loss with his Vietnamese identity. In his opinion, a "true" Vietnamese person is someone who knows all of the secret cultural rules.

  • Giang in the old Prague district in Warsaw. Giang was born in Poland and was brought up in a traditional Vietnamese household. His only connection with Polish culture was in school. His childhood was underpinned by racism and he hasn't been in Vietnam for 10 years. He is overwhelmed by the pressure of his Vietnamese family and prefers to stay in Poland.

  • Ton Van Anh is a famous Vietnamese activist who has been living in Poland for the last two decades. Due to her political engagement she is banned from ever returning to Vietnam.

  • A traditional Vietnamese altar where a member who has passed is offered fruit, drink and incense in their memory. These are an important element in a Vietnamese home.

  • Bartek was born in Poland and he feels more Polish than Vietnamese. He studied Graphic Design and is a big fan of pop culture. He says that reconciling different identities is a difficult process, especially in a mono-ethnic country like Poland. When visiting Vietnam he feels like a complete outsider.

  • Mrs Binh on her friend's balcony. Mrs Binh came to Warsaw a couple of years ago with her husband. Unfortunately, they were both denied visas and he had to return. Mrs Binh is in her 60s and has just started her first degree in Poland.

  • Son Thanh Nguyen has been in Poland since 1991, and feels closer to Poland than to Vietnam. He works for Dan Chim Viet, which was the first journal in Eastern Europe to oppose the Vietnamese government. His life has been underpinned by phone threats and a visit to Vietnam is practically impossible. Son's wife is Polish and together they have two kids who don't speak much Vietnamese.

  • Ngo Van Tuong, or Tomek, doing his weekly shopping. Tomek came to Poland in 1983 as a student. He now works as a translator and has recently published a book

  • Kim Lee in his studio. He is the only Vietnamese drag queen in Poland. Kim is half Korean and half Vietnamese, but his life is Poland. He has an IT business, works as an actor as well as a model. Most of his Vietnamese family is unaware of his drag queen performances.

  • Hieniek, or Hien is a creative millennial born in Poland. He doesn't see his identity aligned with a nation or country, but with creativity. He works as model for Puma and freelances as a photographer in Warsaw.

  • Bakalarska Market in Warsaw. This is one of the biggest Vietnamese areas in the city, which offers a fusion of Vietnamese and Polish cuisine.

  • Nam is a journalist and photographer. He left Vietnam a few years ago due to the prosecution by the Vietnamese regime. He now lives in Warsaw and has been able to resume his photographic practice.

  • Asia Foods Store next to a hairdresser in Warsaw. The Vietnamese community in Poland is frustrated by their identity being reduced to "Asian".

  • John Paul II and Ho Chi Minh. Many traders pin up old bank notes from Vietnam and a photo of John Paul II. Religious exile is another reason why many Vietnamese people choose to come to Poland. Only 10% of Vietnam is Catholic, and the government has been known to prosecute those that practice this religion.

  • The inside of a typical Vietnamese shop in Poland. Vietnamese products are important from Vietnam and frequently stored in beer fridges like this one. Tyskie is one of the biggest Polish beer producers.

  • Outside of the Vietnamese pagoda in Warsaw. Located on the outskirts of Warsaw, this pagoda is a divisive symbol in the Vietnamese community in Poland. The pagoda is largely sponsored by the Vietnamese government and embassy promotes the communist regime in Vietnam and is supported by many in Warsaw, but also loathed by others.