Cover of The Border Within by Phi Hong Su
The Border Within
Vietnamese Migrants Transforming Ethnic Nationalism in Berlin
Phi Hong Su


February 2022
216 pages.
from $28.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503630062
Paperback ISBN: 9781503630147
Ebook ISBN: 9781503630154

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Winner of the 2023 Annual Book Review Award, sponsored by the International Migration Review.

Honorable Mention for the 2023 Thomas and Znaniecki Best Book Award, sponsored by the American Sociological Association (ASA) - International Migration Section.

When the Berlin Wall fell, Germany united in a wave of euphoria and solidarity. Also caught in the current were Vietnamese border crossers who had left their homeland after its reunification in 1975. Unwilling to live under socialism, one group resettled in West Berlin as refugees. In the name of socialist solidarity, a second group arrived in East Berlin as contract workers. The Border Within paints a vivid portrait of these disparate Vietnamese migrants' encounters with each other in the post-socialist city of Berlin. Journalists, scholars, and Vietnamese border crossers themselves consider these groups that left their homes under vastly different conditions to be one people, linked by an unquestionable ethnic nationhood. Phi Hong Su's rigorous ethnography unpacks this intuition. In absorbing prose, Su reveals how these Cold War compatriots enact palpable social boundaries in everyday life. This book uncovers how 20th-century state formation and international migration—together, border crossings—generate enduring migrant classifications. In doing so, border crossings fracture shared ethnic, national, and religious identities in enduring ways.

About the author

Phi Hong Su is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at Williams College. Previously, she was a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Division of Social Science at New York University Abu Dhabi.

"Phi Hong Su's The Border Within is a game-changing book. Using rich ethnographic data with Vietnamese refugees and former contract workers in a reunified Berlin, Su paints a vivid portrait of how national and ethnic categories play out in everyday life. Avoiding simplistic conceptions of these categories, Su takes us into the lives of her subjects as they adopt and transform national and ethnic categories to draw lines of unity and division. This book is essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand how migration, war, and changing political boundaries influence belonging."

—Tomás R. Jiménez, co-author of States of Belonging

"A vivid account of Vietnamese border crossings – social, national, and political – that reconceptualizes the diaspora and notions of ethnonationalism. Su's remarkable study of the diverse pathways of Vietnamese migration to the once-divided city of Berlin serves as a poignant reminder of the ways in which Cold War divisions continue to shape daily lives and raise complex questions of belonging."

—Christina Schwenkel, author of Building Socialism

"In this remarkable book, Phi Hong Su poignantly analyzes what it means to be Vietnamese in the context of migration between two countries that were profoundly affected by war, national division, and reunification. Having originated decades ago, the Vietnamese community in Germany today continues to confront the impact of violence, division, and reunification on community, ethnic, national, and individual identities. Su deftly unpacks how discrepant histories of borders and border crossings within a coethnic migrant group shape ethnic nationalisms through social relationships and religious practices. The book makes a groundbreaking contribution to transnational studies of Asia and the Asian diaspora."

—Ann Marie Leshkowich, College of the Holy Cross

"The field of postcolonial studies has long been concerned with issues of cultural hybridity, national belonging, and political sovereignty. Phi Hong Su's The Border Within: Vietnamese Migrants Transforming Ethnic Nationalism in Berlin tackles all these weighty matters with a remarkable deftness that bridges divergent interests in decolonization, global migration, [and] the Cold War.... The Border Within is a major text for anyone who wishes to grasp the social forces that delimit postcolonial and diasporic identities. This important study reveals how nations are made, unmade, and remade with an understanding that the path to independence and freedom is riddled with endless controversy."

—Long T. Bui, Postcolonial Interventions

"Phi Hong Su asks a question of enduring interest to migration scholars and students of nationalism: How do ordinary people, thousands of miles from their homeland, make sense of their membership in a distant nation? Su adds two absorbing, creative wrinkles to this question by using a research design that sets The Border Within apart from prior scholarship...Su is both courageous and empathetic in the way she deals with the internal politics of the Vietnamese, their notions of ethnic nationalism, and their lives in Germany...These questions point to how fascinating and generative it is to read The Border Within."

—Irene Bloemraad, Social Forces

"...unusually theoretically sophisticated and analytically coherent.... The resulting book is as ambitious as it is humble: it shows a tremendous understanding of multiple national contexts and never makes grand claims that do not emerge from the data itself.... These arguments complement multiple fields of scholarship, including on the inadequacy of legal labels in capturing the true range of migration pathways and experiences; on taking categories, such as ethnicity, as to be explainedrather than explanatory; on immigrants as emigrants who continue to be impacted by their homelands; on the potential encumbrance of diasporic networks; on the lingering effects of the Cold War; and on how illuminating migrants' views onto receiving societies' histories can be.... Su's writing is unfailingly elegant, clear, and accessible."

—Ulrike Bialas, International Migration Review

"This short yet discerning monograph gives a vivid account of the persistence of divisions—including their subtle impact on social identity and social differentiation among Vietnamese in the diaspora decades after the Vietnam War and the Cold War ended. Su achieves this by engaging in wide-ranging fieldwork, including interviews with dozens of southerners as well as northerners. It is one of the most important monographs on this subject published in the last decade, and it should be read widely."

—Tuan Hoang, Journal of Vietnamese Studies

"This innovative book provides a sophisticated picture of the relationship between borders and boundaries and between nationhood and nationalism, which is of interest not only to scholars in transnational migration studies and in Vietnamese studies but to all readers interested in state formation, immigration, and postconflict division and reconciliation, as well.... The Border Within is an inspiring and well-written book. I believe the book is essential for anyone who wants to understand how partition, reunification, and migration shape the nationhood and nationalism, the unity and the division, among diasporic Vietnamese people."

—Nghi Truong, Journal of Asian Studies

"Significant interventions of [The Border Within] include moving beyond the binary of refugee and migrant and showing the complexity of people's motivations for crossing borders beyond economic or political explanations. The work also challenges the trinity of citizen-state-territory, revealing the complex ways 'international migration allows people to carry their ideas of the nation and, at times, their national memberships with them abroad'.

"The book is clearly written and compelling with its ethnographic voice and thick description. It would appeal to a lay audience and undergraduate courses focused on global and transnational sociology, international migration, and political sociology. The book is one of the few written in English in the field of sociology that focuses on stories of the Vietnamese diaspora outside the United States, France, Canada, and Australia."

—Jennifer Huynh, Contemporary Sociology