Confidently Conveying Vietnamese Culture

Tran Ngoc Thuy

2019 / January

Chen Chun-fang /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Phil Newell

Tran Ngoc Thuy came from Vietnam to study in Taiwan, where she realized her dream of learning Chinese and also met her Prince Charming, as Taiwan transformed from a foreign land into her homeland. In order to increase mutual understanding between Taiwanese and Vietnamese, Ngoc Thuy has worked as an interpreter and teacher, hosted a radio show, and run a restaurant. Amidst this very busy life she has still found time to compile a Vietnamese glossary of Taiwanese legal terms, to help immigrant sisters from Vietnam to understand their rights. The best single term to summarize her many diverse roles would be “cultural emissary.”



Tran Ngoc Thuy (also known as Yvonne Chen) comes from Dong Nai Province in Vietnam. From a young age she came into contact with Taiwanese television dramas and songs, which sparked her interest in the Chinese language. Starting in middle school she used her free time to study Chinese, and after graduating from university she became a teacher of Chinese. After teaching for a ­period of time, she recognized her own shortcomings, and from there got the idea to go abroad for advanced study.

When Tran Ngoc Thuy first proposed the idea of going to study in Taiwan to her family and friends, the idea that most local people had of Taiwan was limited to transnational marriages, and to them the notion of going there to study seemed very novel. But her eldest sister, who had married into a Taiwanese family 20 years previously, often told Ngoc Thuy that the quality of life in Taiwan was good, and encouraged her to come. Although she didn’t understand very much about Taiwan and had never been abroad before, Ngoc Thuy embraced the concept that one should see more of the world while young and took a plane by herself to Taiwan to study in the Department of Applied Chinese Language and Culture at National Taiwan Normal University.

Helping her expatriate sisters

The people who most helped calm Ngoc Thuy’s ­anxiety when she first got to Taiwan were the Vietnamese volunteers who helped her fill out forms when she went to the National Immigration Agency to handle the paperwork for her residence permit. The friendly and helpful attitude of these volunteers and the fact that she could speak freely with them in her native tongue left Ngoc Thuy with an unforgettable feeling of gratitude, and she hoped that she herself would one day have the opportunity to work as a volunteer at the NIA.

Ngoc Thuy used her free time to attend classes in interpretation, and she has now worked as a volunteer interpreter at the NIA for nearly four years. Seeing how helpless many of her immigrant sisters were when encountering legal problems, she wanted to do something to help them, and so it was that she came to compile her Taiwan‡Vietnam Glossary of Major Legal Terms.

At first Ngoc Thuy was merely collating words that she had learned in interpreting class. Because she had an interest in law, she would pay special attention to law-­related news reports, and when she encountered a term she didn’t understand she would note it down and search for the Chinese meaning. Thumbing through Chinese explana­tions of legal terms, she found that while the words were simple, the sentences were often awkward and complex. Even people from Taiwan could not neces­sarily under­stand the text, much less immigrants who were not well versed in Chinese. Consequently Ngoc Thuy put a lot of time into understanding the meaning and effect of these legal terms, rewriting the original Chinese-­language explanations into sentences that could be understood at first glance, and then adding a translation and explanation in Vietnamese. She hoped to produce a glossary of legal terms that all her sisters from Vietnam could understand, whether they had just arrived in Taiwan or had lived here for a long time. As she encountered differences between the laws of the two countries, or laws which had no Vietnamese counterpart, Ngoc Thuy specially returned to Vietnam to consult a lawyer in hopes of providing more accurate explanations.

After she successfully applied for participation in the NIA’s “Dream Weaving Project for New Immigrants and Their Children,” she turned the content she had gathered into a booklet, which was printed as the ­Taiwan‡Vietnam Glossary of Major Legal Terms.

Tran Ngoc Thuy encourages immigrants of other nationalities to produce legal reference materials for people from their own countries, and today there are already sisters from other lands who have begun compiling terms. Ngoc Thuy is happy to see immigrants to Taiwan have more resources, because, as she wrote in the foreword to her glossary, “Everyone is equal before the law, but first there must be equality of information.”

Appreciation comes from understanding

Appreciation comes from understanding, Ngoc Thuy believes, and people often jump to the wrong conclusions when they don’t understand each other. For example, in Vietnam folding your arms means “I will restrain myself, and leave this space to you”; it is a sign of respect for the other person. However, to Taiwanese the same gesture means “I don’t want to talk,” and is considered a very defensive posture. If we can understand the differences between the two cultures, we will be able to increase mutual understanding and respect.

Ngoc Thuy believes that she should take advantage of her background to become a bridge for understanding between the cultures of the two countries. By chance she got an opportunity to attend a training course for immigrant talent for radio, where she learned about the production, editing, and hosting of radio programs.

Ngoc Thuy and Daisy Dai, who comes from ­Chengdu in mainland China’s Si­chuan Province, host a radio program on National Education Radio entitled ­Xingfu Bei Taiwan (“Happy Northern Taiwan”). They invite people from various lands living in Taiwan to share the culture of their mother country and their personal stories. Ngoc Thuy states: “The guests we invite for the program are not necessarily big shots with great abilities, but they are invariably people who have worked hard to manage their own lives. Even if the person is doing something as simple as caring for their family well, our interviews can encourage more people to follow their example, or under­stand that the guests are putting great effort into their lives in Taiwan.”

The taste of Vietnam in Taiwan

Last April Ngoc Thuy and her sister opened a Vietnamese restaurant called “Yue Hao Chi” on ­Wanda Road in Tai­pei. Unlike the impression many people have of small Vietnamese eateries, “Yue Hao Chi” is clean and comfortable, and strongly Vietnamese in style. On the walls, which are papered with a red brick pattern, are oil paintings that Ngoc Thuy commissioned from Vietnam. One shows a scene of Vietnam in olden times, with a hazi­ness suggestive of damp air after rain. The other shows the Ben ­Thanh market, a century-old landmark in Ho Chi Minh City. The painter packed into the work the market building from the French colonial era, women wearing ao dai (Vietnamese national dress) and conical farmers’ hats, and the hoang mai flowers (Ochna integer­rima) that symbolize the atmosphere of new year in southern Vietnam.

Ngoc Thuy’s thoughtful approach appears every­where in the restaurant’s decor, which includes stunning handmade lanterns from the historic city of Hoi An. Color­fully painted conical farmers’ hats, the rambutan trees that flourish in her native land, and the ­hoang mai and peach blossoms that every household must have for the New Year holiday show differences in customs between southern and northern Vietnam. Immigrant customers feel right at home, while Taiwanese patrons can surround themselves with the exotic atmosphere of a foreign land.

Tran Ngoc Thuy, who is today still studying in the Graduate Institute of Curriculum and Instruction at National Taiwan Normal University, is student, teacher, wife, mother, interpreter, volunteer, radio program host…. Despite these many roles, Ngoc Thuy still persists in com­piling one or two legal terms per day, because she believes, “Even if I only do a little bit every day, slowly accumu­lating terms is still better than doing nothing at all.”

When asked how she finds the time for all her activities, Ngoc Thuy laughs and says, “The busier a person is, the better they are able to manage their time.” Watching Ngoc Thuy as she moves industriously around the restaurant, her face always bears a smile, and her eyes are bright with self-confidence.

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