Oh that's so American of you...
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 06:29AM
J. Preston

Certain things betray one as American, just as I'm sure certain things betray one was Austrian (never crossing on a red) Japanese (a penchant for dashboard-scapes of small collectable plush toys) Indian (a strong, persistent and unabashed stare at any foreigner) Italian (the need to walk in inpenetrable 30-person tourist-packs, tight jeans, puffy fur jackets on men, hightop sneakers, really awful haircuts, need I go on?).

So, what are the things that give away one's Americaness? According to our Czech friend Karel, asking someone "How are you?" upon meeting them is very American. So American, that Czechs quite literally don't know how to respond - it often befuddles them. I should have gathered as much, as I've never gotten a satisfactory answer to this rhetorical question. I used to ask my Czech students, as they filed in the classroom door, "How are you, Honza? And Hana, how are you?" and the questions would literally stop them in their single file tracks, backing up a line of disgruntled students out the door. After each had spent a moment or two considering my question, I'd usually get a response detailing a mixture of physical ailments, dwindling job prospects, and an overall feeling of malaise. I know the Czechs are a complaining people - they openly and proudly admit how much they complain! (It's the Czech pass time! some of them tell me.) I just figured that my question was giving them a platform to complain, and it was my own fault for asking it. 

My landlord is working on remodling the flat below us, and I often see him on my way out the door in the morning. By the looks and sounds of it, he's got a lot to complain about. The first thing I always say to him is "Dobre Den" (Good Day) and then, embarrassed that I don't have the Czech to go much further, I say "Jak si Mate?" (How are you?) This always prompts a fluster of hand movements, hands to head, clenched fists shaken at the ceiling, and then an exasperated wave, motioning me to just go on with my day as his was not worth commenting on.

Karel tells me that "How are you?" is something Czechs would never ask each other, unless it was half way through the converstation when you were truly, genuinely interested in an honest response. They think it's somewhat fake that American's ask this. When you think about it, it's true - we're not looking for a real answer. We're looking for "Fine." "Great!" "Couldn't be better, how about those Dodgers?!" We don't give negative responses to that question, unless we're trying to bring the other person down, and an American would never do that. The Czechs on the other hand....

I've also been told that I was "so American" by another American who has lived here for a few years longer than I (therefore, qualified to judge). What was my transgression? My penchant for fire safety, apparently.  See, most of the building doors here in Prague are locked at night, from both the inside and the outside, but SOME of them are actually locked all day long. In fact, almost every time I leave this friend's apartment, I get to the bottom, realize I don't have a key, and have to walk back up to his floor to get the key, which I then have to keep in my pocket until I remember to give it back to him.  Now, what exactly does one do when that building is aflame?  This door is about 2 inches thick, solid oak, and there is no way I would be able to kick it in, especially with flames lapping at my backside, as some of my manlier friends insist they would do. What is the purpose of a door lock that keeps you IN? Especially in the middle of the day? I don't think it's especially American of me to think that's a dangerous situation, not just for Americans, but for....pretty much all mammals. Maybe that's just the dormant personal injury paralegal in me.

Speaking of safety or lack thereof, take a look at these fantasic skating devices some Czech parents cooked up in their steelyards:

Did you catch that? That was a rusty, metal, home-fashioned ice-skating crutch built for youngin's who have barely learned to walk on sneakers, let alone ice skates. Sharp at it's angles, and about knee high for your average full-grown adult, of which there were about 150 skating on this particular rink on this particular day.

When I first saw it, I thought, wow, what a genius homespun contracption.  And then I saw someone fall and almost lose an eye.  But who am I to judge. That would be cultural imperialism.

Article originally appeared on The Wanderlusting Expat (http://wanderlustingexpat.com/).
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