Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cultural Sensitivity

Everyday I try to be as culturally sensitive as possible, which mainly involves me trying not to be noticed as a foreigner. I don't want to step on toes and offend anyone, because this isn't my country and I have no more entitlement to live here than any other foreigner. And I already feel that I am asking too much, to have people speak English to me or to demand this service in my everyday life.
But there are obvious places where and when I will be questioned about my intentions here. Yesterday I was at the playground with the primary school children and the Czech teachers were there as well. Through a translator, my assistant teacher, the other teachers questioned what I was doing in the Czech Republic, and why, if I don't speak the language, am I here. I tried to articulate as best I could, what I don't know. They curtly thanked me for my information.
My friend Radek who I help with English, wants to know why i won't learn Czech, and seems offended when i say that it's very hard, and therefore sort of insurmountable. But really, I could at least learn a little conversation and please some people, to show them that I am at least trying.
My landlady doesn't speak English and therefore we have to involve her daughter in our conversations... isn't that a lot to ask? To live in her apartment and to demand, through our lack of Czech, that she speaks or uses English with us? She may be crazy and disrespectful in her own way, however we are disrespecting her as well through our language barrier.

Everyday I feel a twinge of guilt about living in Prague and not knowing the language; I feel sometimes that I am an English language missionary, spreading the language of 'Merica, furthering the globalization of American culture.
Of course, living and working abroad is an absolutely amazing experience. However, I often question my own intentions, mainly brought on by the above mentioned situations and inquisitive stares of the Czech people who I unintentionally offend when i don't understand them, or when I cause a faux pas which I am only semi-aware of. Such as sniffling, which apparently is very offensive, but men blowing snot rockets on the street is not....
I try to live here without an eye of scrutiny, but rather one of observation and learning. I wanted to write a post about all of the insane cultural idiosyncrasies that I've noticed, but not today, or this week, when I'm wallowing in doubt about what exactly I'm doing here.
I think admitting that it's purely selfish would clear the air a little bit. I'm here because I love Europe, I loved the year I spent here in college and wanted to continue living here. I'm teaching because it's the most available job for native English speakers, and I also enjoy it.
Simply, I am happier in Europe, living the way Europeans do... Dad probably created this yearning and identification with the general way of life here; extreme frugality, reusing napkins and paper towels; homemade everything, bread, wine, beer (and on several unfortunate occasions, ginger ale); guilt about everything, a victimized, pessimistic view of life which I've found is the main view point in Eastern European literature, and thus culturally.
I'm here because I love traveling and learning about new cultures. I live here because I want to and am fortunate enough to be able to. I'm here because I want to grow as a person by being outside my element. I'm here because I'm avoiding what would potentially be my American life after college.
I think the guilt arises from my reasons for living here, selfish ones, and from the things I unintentionally demand of others through my unavoidable lack of knowledge.


  1. Well, I think you should learn Czech. It may be hard, but you have the absolute best opportunity right now being in the country and having the ability to speak it and hear it every day.

    Even in just an hour of study a day you could make surprising progress.

    Check out, and I've also heard good things about Colloquial Czech by James Naughton.

    I realize that not everyone is as language-obsessed as me, but I think you're doing yourself a great disservice by not learning the language!

    If you message me on Facebook, I can provide you with more learning resources.