Last week I wanted to introduce my Jewish heritage to my Czech students by talking about Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year which lasted from last Wednesday, Sept 20 -Friday, Sept 22 (Happy 5778 :P!). This included an apples & honey taste test – although some thought it was too sweet (naturally), most really enjoyed it.
Since most Czech students, or Czech people generally, in my experience know mainly stereotypes about Jews (although many of the students pleasantly surprised me with their knowledge!), I wanted to give the situation a bit of context.
When I came to class, I wrote the words “stereotypes” and “diversity” on the board. I asked for the kids’ input, but since neither of these has an easy one-to-one translation into Czech, I defined them. First, I tried to demonstrate what a stereotype is by writing on the board one very well-known internationally, “All Americans are stupid”… and I asked if anyone had heard that before.
In a class of my youngsters, here’s how that went:
*finishes chalking last letter, back still turned to the board*
Whole class: *gasps*
An 11-year old: “Are YOU stupid?”
Me: “Do I LOOK stupid?”
11-year old: “Um, no…”
😀 Cross-cultural understanding is much easier than everyone thinks…
The American smile at work.
After we myth-busted that one, we also talked about some Czech stereotypes, including the common one that Czechs are xenophobic. (Here’s a little information about their European neighbors, including the alliance of the four Visegrad countries.) This will become relevant below.
Then, I defined diversity as simply as I could, that it’s a situation when many people from different countries, having different cultures, speaking different languages, having different skin colors and genders, are all in the same place, using NYC – a locality with many Jewish people – as an example.
Afterwards, I asked them if they think Czech Republic is a diverse country.
Now, a few facts.
There are nearly 500,000 foreigners living with short-term or permanent visas in CZ, out of a total 10.6 million population. This translates to roughly 5% of the population, and according to some sources, 3% of that is Slovak (high immigration due to the fact that the two countries split in 1993, despite baby boomers still insisting on the name Czechoslovakia). In the country, Prague has the highest concentration of foreigners at about 14%. (Unfortunately, many of them do not speak Czech.) Maybe they like it here because of the high quality and value of family life. But overall, 95% of the population is “ethnically and linguistically Czech.” (Though this doesn’t exclude German ancestry, based on the close, pre-WWII history.) So-called “old” minorities like Poles and Germans live in regions of CZ which are close to their countries of origin.
Czech Republic is not a diverse country – but! It could be! Or, it’s starting to be.
Back to my small case study. After talking about American stereotypes, we moved on to Czech ones. Conscientious classes mentioned the stereotype of Czechs being racist (the link will lead you to a recent and very controversial incident of social media meltdowns regarding the company Lidl).
Indeed, this is a very interesting time for that question considering the EU refugee crisis and the Visegrad group’s negative stance towards “migrants.” Whenever a student brought up the racist stereotype, either the others laughed about it or you could feel some slight tension. They didn’t like this stereotype and vehemently disagreed with it – to their credit. (The question is, of course, whether they understand what racism really is. Admittedly a difficult feat in a country that was under a Communist regime for forty years.)
And when I asked the students whether CZ is a diverse country, most of them said without hesitation that it is. I did not ask them to elaborate too much, but simply asked, “What makes it diverse?”
Here is what they said.
Ethnic and racial diversity
There are reasonably-sized minority groups, at least in the Czech consciousness. These include mostly Slovaks, and afterwards Romani (a group with its own dark history in CZ), Ukrainians and Vietnamese.
Together they are called “new minorities.” The Vietnamese, as far as I know, are the largest Asian minority, but they were strangely and incorrectly identified by many classes as Chinese or Japanese – despite the fact that some students have Vietnamese classmates. They also mentioned Africans, whom they have started to see in the region, and are a bit of a novelty for them (95% of the country is white and Czech).
A big positive of this lesson was that some classes learned the word “dialect”! There are three main parts of CZ, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, and each of the 12 regions within those three have dialectal differences.
For example, Brno-speak is called Hantec. They call the tram (tramvaj) a šalina instead – this is the major example everyone shares.
From the West to the East of the country, dialects are said to get shorter. Bohemians, especially “Prague people,” are said to SIIIING their words, which are long and flowy. Moravians (perhaps they are the origins of this saying) speak in a medium-paced way, but often alter vowels within the words like with mléko and polévka, and with the endings of adjectives – dobrý vs. dobrej. And Silesians, like people who live in Ostrava, famously cut their words short. The best example is the famed and well-loved singer Jaromír Nohavica.
Many students are involved in hody celebrations, like those that happened last week in Tišnov. They dress-up in their roles as stárci in processions and exhibitions of traditional dances on the square and in the cultural centers, by morning walking from house to house offering slivovice and wine and inviting people to the festivities. This is one of the main ways the cultural history is preserved.
I got schooled on this topic recently by people who have participated and they told me all about the differences in kroj – regional costume – of course, more decorative costumes and more skirts means richer villages and towns.
Czech friends: Is it true? I know this is showing a typical Bohemian kroj, but do most kroje have this many layers? http://www.tresbohemes.com/2016/10/whats-under-kroj/
#Czech #CzechRepublic #Czechia #hody #tradition #culture #kroj #folktradition
Posted by CHLOHEMIAN on Sunday, September 24, 2017
See the post here.
Overall, it was a very interesting and eye-opening experience for me to actually talk to the students about their opinions. It was encouraging, and it shows a big open window for the future of CZ as a country that is interested in learning about the foreigners that inhabit it.
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Such an interesting post! I wasn’t aware that Czech people were considered racist at all! But when you mentioned the heritage of communism it made sense. You can see these kinds of tendencies in more rural regions of Eastern Germany too (not to say that they don’t exist in the west). It’s so interesting to see the changes from generation to generation though! Norway is quite similar in that it is such a small country and immigration hasn’t been a topic until about one generation ago so the country is still adjusting and making progress I guess!
This was such an interesting post to read, Chloe! And good for you for talking about this difficult but so so so important topic with children. I also appreciated that you put “migrant” in quotes because that is a term that really irks me when certain countries (including France where I’ve just been) refer to refugees. ANYWAY. The only Czech person that I actually know quite well is a woman who I worked with in the UK when I worked at a refugee resettlement agency… so NOT xenophobic at all, the most welcoming and open minded lady out there. So, being American myself, every day at work we smashed those stereotypes 😉
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The term they use here also means migrant pejoratively. I try my best to approach it sensitively, because combating racism here is not like in the US – shouting down doesn’t work – there’s a lot of propaganda, and people don’t understand the human implications of these issues. Doing my best 🙂
Would love to hear more about your experiences in that resettlement agency!
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It’s always interesting to broach the subject of stereotypes with Czech students. Most of my students are adults and are well aware of the stereotypes that exist about Czechs with regards to xenophobia and the like. Most of my students have also been quite well travelled and genuinely interested in the larger world around them.
I have to say that the last few years have been a fascinating time to be in Czech society as the changes in view towards minorities have changed markedly.
If I look at it strictly from a standpoint of living in Brno, I almost don’t recognize the city in many ways. When I arrived in 2004, Czech was the only language you heard on the streets and if you had to tell someone that you didn’t speak Czech, they’d more than likely brush you off or ask if you spoke German.
Fast forward to today and the linguistic landscape of the city is distinctly more varied. Largely, this has been to do with the local universities hosting more foreign students and more foreign companies setting up offices in the city and requiring multi-ligual staff. These factors have resulted in an uptick in local tourism as the families and friends of the foreigners living here coming to visit.
There’s also the matter that a lot of the Czechs who were just little kids when I arrived have since graduated school and joined the work force. They’ve been exposed to influences and opportunities their parents never had and the difference shows.
When I walk into a shop, I always start in Czech. If I’m dealing with a young person, I know there’s a very good chance the answer will come back in English whether I like it or not. I know they’ll catch my accent, but it’s always a bit of a gamble if they’ll oblige me and stay in Czech or if they’ll take the opportunity to practice their English for free. Some of them are visibly unhappy if I insist on staying in Czech while others are quite appreciative of it.
Interestingly, the break up of Czechoslovakia was a bit of a hit to diversity in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. There is a marked decrease in the ability of young people in both countries to operate fluently between the two languages partly because the 50-50 split of Czech and Slovak language programing on TV no longer exists.
In the larger picture, I think the xenophobe stereotype persists because the country has a population of around ten and a half million people but is only around 79,000 square kilometres in size. That means that the “next person” is never far away and your chances of meeting more people with similar views is greater than if you come from a country of greater geographic size in relation to population and greater physical distance between urban and rural centres.
Many great points! I also think Brno is a huge epicenter of cultural (and linguistic, as you say) shift. I also always try to operate first in Czech, esp in Brno where I’m more anonymous, and I mainly find that people are pleasantly surprised! I love being in that sweet spot of finding English speakers if I need them, but in an immersive enough environment to actually learn and use the language.
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