OPINION: Vietnamec or večerka? Why what we call the corner store matters

A new campaign asks people to avoid labeling businesses based on the owner’s nationality. Czechia responded with mixed views on the subject.

Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas

Written by Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas Published on 23.02.2024 18:00:00 (updated on 23.02.2024) Reading time: 4 minutes

This is an opinion story.

Earlier this month, two students in Spain launched an initiative called #TengoNombre (I Have a Name) to raise awareness about micro racism associated with labeling businesses based on the owner’s nationality.

The campaign gained considerable traction, amassing thousands of followers on Instagram and sparking interest worldwide. It encouraged shop owners to put up signs challenging the practice of referring to them solely by nationality.

According to The Guardian, signs like, “I’m not ‘the Chinese on the corner’; you can call me Cai Qin or Jessi” have begun appearing in shops, bars, and cafes across Barcelona, where the campaign started.

The Guardian notes that the issue goes beyond Spain. “In France, the term l’Arabe is used to describe corner shops with Maghreb heritage, while in Rome, businesses run by individuals from Bangladesh are often referred to as il Bangla.” In the Czech Republic, convenience stores (večerka) are dubbed “Vietnamec” by some due to the high proportion of Vietnamese shop owners.

As news of the campaign reached the Czech Republic, a predictable social media riot ensued. Journalists, politicians, and the Vietnamese community weighed in on the I Have a Name project. While some members of the Vietnamese said they were OK with it, most commenters doubled down on the idea that referring to a shop by its owner’s nationality needs to end.

The debate quickly became a symbolic battleground cutting across generational lines between millennials and boomers, left and right, "snowflakes” and conservatives. Wildly misguided perspectives surfaced, exemplified by a CNN Prima column suggesting shoppers refrain from calling the supermarket "Albert" at the risk of offending individuals with that name.

Senator Zdeněk Hraba (of the STAN party) drew outrage following his troubling post on X that deemed it a “mistake” to label the sentence “jít nakoupit k Vietnamci“ (to go shopping at the Vietnamese) as racist because the Czech Vietnamese population is the country’s most “domesticated” national minority.

The debate over what to call the corner store isn’t a new one in my house. For me, it symbolizes something else entirely – the slippery slope of raising children in a country where seemingly innocuous stereotypes and cultural insensitivity of this variety are commonplace.

Living in the Czech Republic, moments arise where I feel a twinge of discomfort in situations that, while not overtly hateful, indeed diverge from the cultural norms I am accustomed to. Schoolchildren are encouraged to dress up like “Indiáni,” black face appears on TV, and yes, people referring to the convenience store as the Vietnamec is acceptable to many.

Expats who are married to Czechs, have Czech in-laws, or have kids in Czech schools are confronted with similar situations daily. And how do we react? I’m ashamed to admit that, more often than not, I don’t.

The first time I heard my child refer to our local shop – a hotspot of afterschool activity where kids go to stock up on Pocky and Prime – as the Vietnamec, I did nothing. She was with Czech friends, and I didn’t want to embarrass her with a lecture in English. I acknowledged the need for intervention when I later heard one of those friends refer to the shop as the “Číňan” (Chinese man).

The incident led to yet another debate with my Czech husband about how these seemingly innocuous terms contribute to normalizing stereotypes. About how we find common ground between tradition (the Czech love of the Winnetou stories, for instance) and cultural sensitivity (the genuine Native American community we live among when we visit Michigan every summer).

Sadly, no one will ever change Senator Hraba's mind. But asking those who share his viewpoint to check their outrage might be a good place to start. Opening up a conversation in a society that still laughs a little too loudly and holds on to its affinity for stereotypes a little too hard does feel like a step in the right direction.

If common decency doesn’t win this debate, maybe logic will. When I go out for pho or bún cá, at lunchtime with my colleagues, I go for Vietnamese. When I enter a shop selling Dr. Pepper, Pringles, and toothpaste, in addition to ramen and Sriracha, I am not in a Vietnamese shop.

I have never asked the kind gentleman who bags my chocolate and wine after a grueling day at the office where he’s from. And for that reason alone, I’d never assume what his nationality is based on his appearance, not just because it’s racist. But because in the immortal words of my second-grade teacher Mrs. Rogers, when you ‘assume’ you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’

I did, however, this week ask my daughter – now a sixth grader whose classmates are Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese – what everyone calls the store next to the school where a substantial portion of my income goes every week. Despite the exasperation and eye-rolling, I glimpsed in her response (“We just call it the večerka, Mom. Jeez.”) the promise of change.

Do you agree with the premise of the I Have a Name campaign?

Yes 64 %
No 36 %
219 readers voted on this poll. Voting is open
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