This week, for the first time since September, I was asked to give a formal introduction of myself to a new group of people. I dug back in my brain to the presentation I made last summer in preparation for meeting my students at the beginning of the school year that showed pictures of the main parts of my life: my family, my pets, my hometown and my university. Yet, midway through my introduction, I realized that it would be strange to introduce myself now without addressing the new life I’ve built here: where I live in Znojmo, my job at school, and the activities I do outside of the classroom. While the things that defined me at the beginning of the year are of course the essentials of who I am, the basic information about my life (and the fact that I have developed a life here) are equally important to my current identity. It was a strange thing to grapple with while “on the spot” talking to a group of intermediate adult English language learners who I will likely never see again.
It’s hard to go five months of living in small-town Czech Republic without feeling the cultural immersion. For the first time this week I noticed that it has become more natural for me to eat my meals with my knife and fork held in the European style—fork in the left hand, knife in the right, and no switching! Some Czenglish (Czech+English mixture of American and British) phrases and grammatical structures have begun to creep into my general speech—college is university, apartment is flat, and I speak way slower, clearer, and occasionally with a funny word order. In addition, this weekend I spent the onset of winter below freezing temperatures and snow exploring the Macocha Abyss and caves, and hiking through the national park outside Znojmo. After always wanting to live in a big city, I found myself questioning how it would be possible to live so far from nature. Somehow my suburban/summer-loving self has adopted the Czech appreciation for the outdoors and bravery for bitter winters all in a short five months.
Yet, while my American life seems (and literally is) miles away, cultural differences consistently remind me that I am in fact a foreigner here, specifically an American one. I get asked all the time, “What is the biggest difference between Czech and American people?” While the disparities are not so great or grating, some of the small things are what show the larger cultural differences:
- We have our “American smiles.” In the Czech Republic, most people smile with their mouths closed or with a half-amused grin. When looking at my high school yearbook, the first comment my mentor made was how everyone, teachers included, had big toothy smiles in their photos.
- We unwaveringly respond with “good” when asked how we are. When you greet an American, it’s typical to ask, “How are you?” And any typical American would respond with “Good, how are you?” Ask it to a Czech person, and you will really here how they are, “Well, not so great, I had to wake up early this morning and now I have a double period of biology.”
- We’re used to having options all the time. When in the grocery store with my Czech friend I got so excited to see blueberries for the first time since my arrival. I immediately reached for them to her dismay—it isn’t the season for blueberries and these blueberries were from Chile, how could they possibly be good and fresh after traveling such a far distance? In the US we’re so used to having choice at our fingertips without questioning whether it is logical based on climate, geography, time of the year, or culture.
The individualistic and competitive culture of the United States comes out in even these small interactions. We are constantly taught to put our “best self” forward and to believe that we can have it all. Our culture is not rooted in a strict tradition of how things “should be” or what we “should do.” Instead, we are encouraged and sometimes pressured to innovate, experiment, and be uniquely original.
While sometimes these Americanisms feel frustrating and negative from a Czech perspective, I felt proud to be representing our culture this past week when giving presentations about Martin Luther King Jr. Day at school. I didn’t leave out the history of slavery, the Civil War, the civil rights abuses and violence in the South, or even the current de facto racial segregation that still exists today. Yet, something about showing my students MLKJ’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and Obama’s “Yes We Can Speech” from his election night in 2008 made me really proud to be American. While we have our problems, our culture also promotes change and the power of the individuals to make a difference. Czech students learn about the American “War of the North and South” and have heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s name, but the details and connections are ignored in the grand scheme of global history. Even though Youtube’s failed attempt at subtitles showed Obama as repetitively saying, “Yes weekend,” I’d like to think that they now better understand an important aspect of American culture and race relations around the world.
The mission of the Fulbright Program, since 1946, is to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” I am so grateful to have this as my job and truly believe this program is a great way both for our country to share our strengths, but also to learn about and appreciate the strengths of other cultures, as well. As I told my students today, while my main role here is to teach English and share American culture, I am equally here to learn about Czech culture and share it with people from home (like right now). Thank you for following along for the first half of my time here in the Czech Republic and I hope you’ll stick around to see what adventures the next 5 months have in store!