Prarthna Johri: Being an American in Prague is a curious thing
There are practices vastly different here, such as the pleasantness of people you sit with on a train. You will get a warm, “Dobrý den!” and when you leave you’ll receive a “Na shlédanou!”. The brusqueness of the waiters and waitresses is another change but my personal jury is still out on whether the fake happiness of tip-motivated American waiters is better than the genuine lack of caring.
The bilingualism of many people here is a marvel to me, uncomfortably sheltered in my English speaking cage. They speak fluent Czech and when they notice the lost look in my eyes, many can switch to English without a bat of theirs. I draw comparison to the phrase, “Water everywhere, and not a drop to drink”. There are people speaking around me, there are words everywhere, but fail to comprehend. Luckily, or unluckily, people tend to look at me and assume I speak English and they make the switch before I’ve even stumbled through, “Dobrý den, jak se máš?”.
Every single building looks like a piece of art. The innate, intricate work on every structure is at such odds with the sleek skyscrapers that I see in cities like New York City. Even the residential streets on the outskirts of Prague look like they were created by artists. There are fountains around every corner and greenery like I’ve never seen in a city.
The Czech Republic is rather famous for not having the most tourist friendly interactions. Having been to many of the tourist attractions in Prague, I can hardly blame Czechs for not being our biggest fans. We swarm around certain blocks, demand certain things, and have the gall to get annoyed when these wishes are not fulfilled. We, the tourists, travel in large packs and sometimes even on segues. We speak loudly and in the wrong languages and the little bits of check Czech I can speak is sometimes more of an annoyance than English.
We are tolerated, sometimes with smiles and sometimes with silent glares.
From being American to being of Indian ethnicity, there is a change in temperature. My brown skin makes me stand out. I have frequently been asked where I was from, and when I say the United States I get a frown and a moment of silence before being asked, but where are you really from? These questions stem from genuine curiosity and when I say, I’m of Indian origin, I get a smile.
I believe my Indian heritage is not the problem; my brown skin is. The Roma, a highly marginalized group in the Czech Republic have a similar skin color. They face senseless open discrimination, whether in housing situations or the funneling of Romani students in schools designated for students with learning disabilities. They are stereotyped as thieves and criminals and a feature used to identify and discriminate against them is their skin color.
On the tram, or metro, I will be stared at with anything from curiosity to open disdain. Most of these people will look away after they overhear me speaking English in my very obviously American accent. Some, who don’t, will continue to stare and murmur to their colleagues and it is then that I most wish I spoke Czech. It is to be noted that the vast majority of these strange looks are not from the younger generation. However, from the people I have met and worked with, people of all ages, I’ve received nothing but cordiality and kindness.
Being a foreigner in the Czech Republic is undoubtedly a curious thing. But more than that, it is a joy to see such a beautiful and storied city. It is a privilege to learn the little words I can and to work with the wonderful people I do. And it is truly an honor to get to call Prague my home for six weeks.
Prarthna Johri is a student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, USA, who is an intern at ROMEA.
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