The local expat scene includes people from all over the world, but one thing unites us all: we came here seeking something different. Explorers at heart, we go abroad in search of different cultures and new ways of doing things. However, living in another country inevitably forces you to look at your own culture in a new light as well. As an American who’s spent nearly a decade living in the Czech Republic, here are five things expat life has taught me about my own culture and people.
Being Nice to Strangers is OK!
We’ve all encountered the occasional rudeness from a Czech waiter, Metro passenger, or office worker. Prague residents just don’t feel the need to be kind to anonymous strangers they’ll likely never see again. Moodiness is often contagious and it’s easy to get drawn into negativity mode when surrounded by scowling faces. Every culture has a “default setting” for how one should deal with strangers in public, and the Czech dial is certainly a few notches lower than the American one.
In speaking with some Czechs, I’ve even met some disdain for the happy-go-lucky American way of greeting each other. “Yeah, you Americans ask ‘How are you?’ but you don’t really care how the person is!” In my opinion, this is one of our better qualities! When a person is unexpectedly friendly towards you, your mood instantly improves, just like random rudeness has the opposite effect. And even if Americans often don’t really mean it, I’ll take an insincere nice person over a sincere jerk any day of the week!
We Need to Get out More
No, I’m not referring to the Czech belief that Americans rarely travel. Even the millions who don’t have passports make the occasional trip to the beach, Disneyland, or Silver Dollar City. However, trips and excursions in the States often seem like “special occasions.” After observing how active Czechs are, going out and being active just seems to be embedded in the culture. Many Czechs plan something special nearly every weekend, and most able-bodied Czechs regularly do healthy activities like cycling, skating, hiking, skiing, and snowboarding. When the weather gets nice, the parks and beer gardens fill up immediately. Sure, plenty of Americans are also quite active, but it’s not a given like it is for most Czech people.
We’re Flavor Junkies
After visiting several European countries and thinking the local cuisine was “somewhat bland,” I finally considered whether it was my native cuisine that’s outside the norm. Perhaps many of us find Czech food somewhat unexciting because our taste buds were so overstimulated back home. Recently I saw a Stateside friend share photos of Maple Bacon and Froot Loop-encrusted doughnuts from a gourmet bakery. How does the humble Czech kobliha compete with that!?
Many Czechs dislike Mexican food because it’s “too spicy” and dilute fruit juice because it’s “too sweet,” something I had never really considered before, yet practice regularly now. While Americans slather an endless array of condiments on their food, give Czechs mustard, horseradish, and tartar sauce and they are set for life. And don’t get me started on sweets. What would happen if you gave some Czech village kids a handful of Sour Patch Kids?
We Follow the Rules
Americans seem to be more concerned with rules and “fairness” compared to our Czech comrades. We tend to feel that everyone should be subject to the same rules whereas Czechs often seem to operate on the “every man for himself” principle. When we wait in lines in the States, it’s usually a given that you let people who came before you go first, but in a Czech shop it’s a mad dash to get there first. Too slow? Tough luck, grandma!
Czechs often disregard rules and laws altogether. It’s hard to imagine people scampering across freeways in America like people here crossing the D1 behind Muzeum. When I attended a concert in the Lucerna Velky Sal, loads of people sparked up immediately after the lights went out, despite No Smoking signs posted everywhere. I get the sense that Americans are more likely to follow rules for the sake of doing so, and also more likely to call someone out for breaking them.
We Don’t Realize (or Care) How Loud We Are
This one might be somewhat controversial, but DON’T try to TELL me that Americans aren’t LOUD! Surely we can agree that Americans are higher on the “attention seeking” scale than Czechs, who often prefer to blend into the background. Perhaps the pitch and and tone of our accent just travels farther, or maybe Americans just have a greater need to “be heard.”
Some of you might be thinking “that’s only because you more easily notice your own native language,” but I’m not buying it. My window opens up to a courtyard shared by dozens of other flats, yet the Americans across the way are the only ones I hear with any regularity (and it is quite regular!). I’ve even caught myself reverberating throughout a pub or restaurant. Sometimes we are just simply unaware of how easily our voices travel.
What has living in the Czech Republic taught you about your own culture?