By Laura Appena
Why would someone from a tropical place with year-round abundant sunshine move to a faraway land in the north of Europe where the temperature in February usually hits close to minus 20'C? Nguyen family did :)
The concept of LIFE IN ONE CIRCLE is to eventually connect the participant families in chain that forms a circle. Since the first one was Masalski family who moved away from Latvia, the next one is supposed to be a foreign family that has arrived in Latvia from elsewhere. We were very glad to have found such family from Vietnam. My Nguyen came to Latvia 4 years ago, first just for a trip. It was kind of a love from the first sight with Latvia. It took Nguyens just one day to firmly decide to move there.
From huge, tropical metropolis to small village in north
In Vietnam, Nguyen family used to live in Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon). For those of you who are not familiar with that city – it has almost 9 million inhabitants and about 4 million scooters and motorbikes. Now being in Latvia, they live in Iecava – a village in Semigallia region with 9 thousand inhabitants. You can do the math :) And they love it there! It’s quiet and peaceful, people are familiar and friendly. And – there is a skiing slope half an hour ride away from their home. Yep, they enjoy winter, snow and skiing a lot. That is something they do on a very regular basis – sometimes even couple of times per week during the snowy season.
There is one thing they do miss, though. Green veggies and juicy fruits that just melt in your mouth. Obviously, the ones you can get in Latvia cannot compete with the Vietnamese ones. But whenever friends or relatives from back home come to visit them, they always have some of those goodies in their bags. And when they run out of those, My’s sister Thuy drives to Riga Central market to find some decent runners-up. Thuy came along for the ride, when My’s family moved to Latvia. Now she, her husband Chuong and son Khang share the house with them in Iecava.
Let’s be cautious about stereotypes
In the first years, Nguyen family heard a lot of negative comments about Vietnamese people in Latvia. There had been few stories about illegal immigrants, covered by local media. And usually that is totally enough for a big part of the society to draw conclusions and thus create stereotypes. Unfortunately. I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that there are people, which choose to be so hostile and quick to judge and generalize, without even knowing the full story. Maybe I just need to read less comments on the internet :) Anyhow, My and her family are determined to change that perception. They have given interviews on national TV and newspapers, explaining that not all Vietnamese people in Latvia have arrived there illegally and with bad intentions. Nguyen family and other fellow families that they know are learning about Latvian culture and immersing themselves in it. Nguyens was one of the first Vietnamese family that moved there. It was not easy, but they had Latvian friends who kindly helped them with all the formalities and arrangements. Since then, Nguyen family had done their best to help other Vietnamese families settle in after moving to Latvia. A lot of them are entrepreneurs, investing in local economy and providing jobs. Nguyen family has several businesses that they have opened over the recent years, with the money that they had saved up in Vietnam. They have Vietnamese restaurant in the capital city Riga, alcohol stores in Iecava and nearby city Bauska, where they also have computer store, shop of sporting goods and beauty salon. By the way, in Vietnam, you can make the big bucks much easier and faster. Even if the competition is high, the market is insanely huge. And – the bureaucracy Is less complex. But despite all that, they have chosen to develop their business in Latvia.
Meet Nguyen family
The home of Nguyen family is very cosy and colourful. When you walk in, you instantly get the vibe that there are kids living there – cute drawings and school diplomas on the walls, toys everywhere. They have a dog named Buck, aquarium with fishes of all colours, and even a chicken in the backyard. The kids love to go and check whether she has laid any eggs.
It has been an amazing experience photographing Nguyen family and we had so much fun spending time together. So I'm excited to introduce you to all of the family members.
When we first met My, we hit it off right away. She says that one of the things she likes the most about Latvia is its friendly people. I think it gets one to know one :) She's definitely a people person. And a very enthusiastic and energetic woman. My is the main handler of the family businesses. But she is grateful for having awesome and trustworthy assistants and employees, and for being able to spend more time with her family. Something she could not do while working on her corporate day job back in Vietnam. She also deeply cherishes the relationships with her friends and considers them to be her family. It also applies to her Latvian friends. The kids might meet their actual grandparents only couple times per year, but, as My told us, she feels that the parents of her closest friends in Latvia are just like grandparents to her kids.
Tong, My’s husband, was a successful ophthalmologist back home, with years of education and experience. Sadly, law forbids him to work in this field in Europe. I do not know much about those kind of regulations, but I am sure it must be very tough not being able to do the work you love. As he says, that is the only thing that he has lost after moving away from Vietnam. But all the other things in their current life outbalances that. Tong helps out his wife in the businesses but most of his time is spent with the kids. He gives them a lift to the school and kindergarten, picks them up, takes them to the classes and trainings, attends the oldest son’s football games, etc. Oh, and he also plays tennis with My. They play doubles and are really good together. They have even participated in international competitions. And twice a week he drives to nearby city Jelgava to take Latvian language course, together with a couple of people from Ukraine and China.
Lam, the oldest son, is 8 years old 2nd grader whose time is filled with activities in more than just one field. He is very good at sports. Lam plays in Iecava football team, attends karate and tennis lessons. He participates in Latvian folk dance group at his school. He practices drum playing. And Lam also studies for International Math Olympiad. And with all that, he still has time for reading books, skiing and cheering up for his favourite hockey team. He must be having more than 24 hours a day, right? :
Thanh, Lam’s younger brother, is a 6-year-old who is crazy about dragons and dinosaurs. And so is his cousin Khang who is the same age. Since they live in the same house, they spend a lot of time together. They also attend the same kindergarten, just different groups. They both play drums and ukulele. And they love to go outside to play with their dog and chicken. Thanh and Khang are superenergetic kids, bouncing around the house, chasing balloons and each other.
Inside stories from kindergarten and school
We did not get our hopes up about doing photo shoots at the school and kindergarten, cause in the UK we unfortunately could not photograph the boys during classes. But, as it turns out, teachers in Iecava are very eager to participate in such adventures :) I myself went to kindergarten for 3 months when I was a kid, so I don’t have many memories of those times, apart from washing our hands in puddles and that one boy who run me over with doll pram :) But was so fun seeing those little kiddos making their memories and felt great that we could be the ones capturing them on camera. While we were at the kindergarten, the kids did all kinds of activities – singing, dancing, playing outside... But my two personal favourites were watching them as they craft penguins out of a toilet paper rolls and dress themselves in winter clothing before heading out.
At Lam’s school, Iecavas vidusskola, one of the classes we got to visit was Ethics. Oh, you should have seen those second graders in action! They are so engaged in class, full of confidence, very open-minded and have no fear expressing their thoughts and opinions. At least, that’s how it felt. 25 years ago, when I was sitting in a school desk, things were quite different. So I am truly happy about this young generation – our future seems to be in safe hands :) Oh, and we also saw Lam at his karate lesson. By the way, remember us photographing Rudolfs and Markuss at their jiu jitsu martial arts training? It’s kinda fun drawing parallels among the families of LIFE IN ONE CIRCLE. Anyhow, thanks a lot to Lam’s karate teacher, to his school teachers Aina and Dace, as well as to Thanh’s teacher Liga and all the other staff for making all those photo shoots happen. Really appreciate the opportunity.
Business-like thinking at early age :)
All the Nguyen kids speak Vietnamese and they are fluent in Latvian. They know Latvian national anthem by heart and they love to sing it whenever their beloved Latvian ice hockey team Dinamo wins a game. (Off topic – does this ring a bell? :) If you recall, Normunds from our previous blog post is also a big fan of that team). Anyhow, My has tried to sing and teach them the Vietnamese national song, but, as she says, they just don’t feel it the way they feel the Latvian one. But she is not sad about it. She is glad that they feel strongly connected to the culture that they are currently living in. However, she makes sure that they speak Vietnamese at home. She says that it’s much more difficult than Latvian and they need to practise it daily not to forget. They also visit their grandparents in Vietnam at least once a year, usually for a couple of weeks during summer – to experience Vietnamese culture. My also reads books in Vietnamese for kids. An interesting idea got my attention – kids get 50 cents for doing a small household chore, but they get 5 euro for reading a book. And – additional 5 euro if they are able to express their opinions on the book or tell how they would write the ending of the book.
With this “business training for kids” approach, the parents want to make sure that kids understand one thing – they can earn money doing physical work, but they might make much more if they commit to mental work. Oh, and that is not all. The children also meet a private Vietnamese math tutor online every week, to get ready for European and Asian Math Olympiad. It guarantees them enrollment in one of the best Latvian high schools. Moreover, it is likely that after graduating in Latvia, they apply to Oxford or Cambridge. So, My and Tong have big plans for the little ones to ensure that they have a great and prosperous future :)
Keeping traditions alive and embracing new ones
Nguyen family loves to celebrate holidays. Both Latvian and Vietnamese. They truly enjoy participating in Latvian national festivities. Based on what My told us about their Midsummer Festival celebration, it was clear that they perform more traditions than the average Latvian :) They not only drink bear and sing by the bonfire wearing a flower wreath. They even roll around in the morning dew before dawn, which I have done exactly once in my life :)
The biggest Vietnamese festival is Lunar New Year, which is celebrated over the course of several days, with red-and-yellow decorations everywhere, with special rice cake and with “the lucky money” that all kids are superexcited to get for lucky and prosperous upcoming year. My usually organizes a big party at her Vietnamese restaurant but this year she went to Vietnam to celebrate it. Otherwise, we would have been thrilled to participate. Well, maybe next year :)
How did you like the Nguyen family story? Can you relate in having similar experience if you are living in a foreign land yourself? Or maybe you know somebody in your own country that has moved there from elsewhere? Welcome to share your story and thoughts in the comments below!