Where are you from?
This question is deceptively simple. “I’m from (_____________)” is taught on day one of most English lessons. However, it also provides expats with the opportunity to add cultural context to their answers.
When I tell people I’m from Seattle, I usually get one of two responses:
a. A glazed over look and smile that tells me they’ve heard of it, but have no idea how to locate it on a map.
b. Enthusiastic tales of their travels there, or of a relative who lives in the general vicinity.
For the first, I grab the nearest coaster or scrap of paper and sketch a poorly drawn outline of the United States. Then I add New York, Los Angeles and Canada to give some frame of reference. I also like to add a few things my area is famous for (the home of Starbucks and Microsoft, plus a music scene that includes Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Macklemore). The details you choose to include give them a glimpse into your personality and can help guide the conversation towards more personal topics.
How long are you here?
My English teaching instincts kicked in the first time I was faced with this common mistake. Did they mean “How long are you here for?” asking about my future plans to stay in the country? Or was this an apology for being late, wondering how long they’d kept me waiting?
The problem here is one of translation. Present perfect doesn’t exist in Czech language so the real question of “How long have you been here?” can be quite difficult for non-native speakers to form. One way to avoid confusion, and not start an impromptu grammar lesson in the middle of a pub, is a broad answer like, “I arrived in Prague two years ago and I have no plans to leave any time soon.”
Why did you come to the Czech Republic?!
This is a perfectly fair question, but I’m always surprised at the skepticism that comes with it. The Czech Republic has a long list of things to love: an interesting blend of history and relatively new democracy, incredible architecture, great beer, an affordable cost of living, a central location ideal for traveling, etc. But no matter how many times I list the positives, the locals seem unconvinced.
I find this sense of modesty endearing. While Prague continues to rank among lists of the best cities in the world, it maintains the charm of a perpetual underdog. Don’t let the reluctance of the receiver dissuade you from singing the praises of their country.
Do people really (______________) in your country?
Congratulations, as an expat you’ve just become an unofficial ambassador of wherever you came from. You may now be expected to answer questions on behalf of your entire country. No pressure. I find this particularly daunting when asked what typical Americans eat/drink/do.
The best solution I’ve come up with is to give specific examples based on my experience, along with a disclaimer that I definitely don’t know everything. I’m happy to confirm facts (yes, there is a McDonalds in almost every city…) and discourage stereotypes (…but I’ve never eaten a hamburger in my life!).
And no matter how many times you get the same question, you might be the first person from abroad the speaker has ever met. A good rule of thumb is to treat each of these interactions with the same level of patience that you’d like (not expect) from any bank, post office or visa application officer.
Do you speak any Czech?
Prepare to be showered with shock and admiration if you’ve managed to master the Czech language. Learning even a few key phrases helps show a level of respect for the culture and gives you a sense of independence. The more tasks you can accomplish without a translator, the more you’ll begin to feel like a local. Also humoring your audience with attempts at pronouncing “ř” can be a great way to lighten the mood.
Are there any questions that you’re particularly tired of hearing?