When you travel you learn a lot. Not just about the country you came to visit, nor the history you are about to learn in each place, but most of all you learn about yourself and people in general. The one interesting thing I learned during my travels is how people see you in contradiction to how you see yourself. Once you get out of your familiar environment where everybody knows who you are and what you do, the things you find out about yourself may be very interesting. For instance: you may see yourself as a young, fun girl, while others see you as an aging momma J. It could be doubly confusing when it comes to observations of other cultures and nations. Especially if you have dual citizenship and have the experience of being from two nations. Then it becomes really interesting. Like it or not, most of the time outside of your country you will not be viewed as an individual but as a representative of your homeland. You learn very quickly how your country is perceived by others.
A few years ago our travels took us to Rome, Italy. I love Italians. We all know that Italians can be very charming as well as they can be very annoying – especially Romans. I do not want to categorize here because it would defeat the purpose of this article, but Romans do have a reputation… even among other Italians J.
We just arrived in Rome, checked in to our hotel and took the metro to the Colosseum. It was a really hot summer day. The sun was beating on our heads. The girls were young, so we got them a drink, took their hands and planned to browse the Colosseum. We were a young American family, our first time in Italy, with two small children, traveling on a budget. We learned very quickly that the Roman “tourist hunters” did not see us the same way. They saw a family from the richest country in the world, who could afford to travel all the way to Europe. They did not see The Dehning Family, they saw America. They decided to take advantage of it. Every few steps we took we got offered a tour of the Colosseum, a tour of the Forum, a tour of the downtown, and a tour of anything else Rome has to offer. The offers were not held out nicely and were not affordable. We were polite and tried to explain that we were not interested. Never mind! Tour guides were screaming at us, pushing each other just to get to us, and overall it was becoming a very unpleasant experience. We could not even get through. We paused and looked around us. Not a big surprise when we found out that those tourist hunters aimed at Americans only. Tourists from other countries seemed to be off the hook. Then Bruce got an idea: “Let’s pretend that we are from Czech, a Czech family.” So we pretended – kind of, because we are also from Czech. The kids and I switched from English to Czech and Bruce was using all of the Czech he knew. It worked like a magic wand. Suddenly we were not from the richest country in the world but from a small, post-communist country that was known for struggling economically. Not really such an interest for tourist’s money strippers. Never mind that there are plenty of rich Czechs who love to spend their money during vacation. We were immediately perceived differently. It was working, but it was very sad at the same time. In that moment I remembered that I already knew this feeling from my past and I had a flashback to my teens.
When I was about sixteen years old my school arranged an educational trip to Eastern Germany. It was not a usual event for the time and place. It was around the year 1987, which was still pretty deep communism, as I call it “The Dark Ages.” Likely my school had an unusual principal who had incredible ideas. Perhaps some of his ideas were too advanced for his time and place and eventually he ended up in prison because of it. But until then we could only gain thanks to his forward thinking. So it happened that few of us lucky students, chosen on a first come first served basis, traveled for few days to East Berlin!
We had an amazing time. We saw the most amazing things, learn a lot about the history, admired all the different buildings, palaces, and stories Berlin was offering. We stayed in a Youth Hostel in the middle of Berlin where students from other countries were staying as well. We met young people from all over Europe and for the first time in my life the kids from the East met the kids from the West. You can imagine how many questions we had for each other. We were using English or German to communicate and some knew even more languages. We would talk all night along, something only young people can do. We met other Czechoslovakians as well. We were all bright and well behaved children, eager to learn and hopefully, one day, live better.
We created a group of Czechs, maybe eight kids, and decided to explore East Berlin on our own one night. We had a good amount of money from home that we smuggled in and wanted to spend (on smuggling money in communism see my article “McDonald’s More Than Just Fast Food”).
We had an eye on the restaurant in the Berlin Tower which seemed very luxurious to us. We arrived at the Berlin Tower at night. We put on our best clothes, combed our hair, and behaved classy. We had to show our passports at the door, a usual routine at that time and place. An ID or passport was necessary in order to get into a fancy restaurant. What a disappointment when the doorman did not let us in. First we thought it was because of our age but in a few minutes we learned it was because we were from Czech. One of our friends spoke German very well and he overheard the conversation between the doorman and the waiter. They would not let in some poor Czechs who would order one tea and pay in eastern marks, they were looking for western costumers only - costumers who could bring western marks or dollars. Needless to say that the restaurant was close to empty, not many Westerners browsed Eastern Berlin in 1987.
We were totally crushed. We did not expect that from East Germans. We thought they knew how we felt, we thought we were on the same “Boat of Misery” and we thought they would have some solidarity with us because of it. We could not be more wrong. We walked back to the hostel in silence, each of us with our own thoughts. My whole life I was raised to be proud to be Czech and now this? What should I make out of it in my sixteen years old head?
We walked back to our hostel and before we reached it one of the Czech boys got an idea. He urged us not to give up and think up a plan for the next day. He figured out that if the restaurants in Berlin worked the same way as in Prague, there should be new shift of workers tomorrow. We shall try to go there again but instead of admitting our passports he will show them his French ID. It was not a real French ID but a membership ID for pro cyclists who toured France. This boy was a pro bicyclist and he did tour France once and owned just this basically insignificant little French membership card. We figured that the East Germans will not know how a real French ID looks anyway. The second part of the plan was either to speak French, or pretend to speak French or be quiet. Once we got in it would be safe to use Czech, because fancy restaurants do not want any scandals, which we were ready to make in the case of them throwing us out.
The next night we carried out our plan. It was very exciting. We dressed up, combed our hair, filled up our wallets (with eastern marks and even some dollars) and headed back to the Tower. The restaurant worked just like in Czech, a new shift was in, a new doorman at the door. Our friend showed him his fake French ID and mumbled a few words in French. We were let in immediately and the waiter sat us at the first table with the best view of the city. We made it, we were in!
We were sipping probably our most expensive bottle of Coca Cola ever. We were in silence. What’s wrong, I wondered? We got in, we made it, we got the best table available… why are we not happy?
We were not happy. We were actually all so down that we did not even enjoy the Coca Cola. We all admitted that it did not feel right. We all admitted that in order to get in we had to give up on who were are, where we were from, and what we believed in. Someone asked: “Why should the French be better than us anyway?” So, we finished our drink and appetizers, put a fat tip on the table and left.
It was the first time in my life that I realized how wrong it is to judge someone by their nationality. How wrong it is to profile people and what a negative effect it has on everyone? We could not explain it back then and I believe that none of us could even fully comprehend the experience of our last two nights, but we felt that it was all wrong. It felt so wrong.
And here I was, many years later in Italy, chased by the Italians, now living in America “pretending” that I was actually Czech, so they would leave me and my American family alone! How crazy was that! I could not even figure it out!
I realized that I can not change what people think of the country I came from. What people think they know is always stronger than what it actually is. I could not change that at that moment, but I could certainly change my reaction to it. I decided no more pretending. If they think I am an American then I will be an American who will strictly tell them off. If they can figure out that I am also Czech, I will also be Czech. Let them deal with that confusion, but no more confusion for me. I was making a pledge to myself.
The big test came on our next trip to Mexico. Our cruise ship anchored in Cabo San Lucas, a beautiful beach town in Northern Mexico. We disembarked and enjoyed our beautiful spring day. Bruce and the girls went swimming and I stayed on the beach. In a few minutes I was surrounded by many salesmen. They interrupted my well deserved resting time and started to yell at me their offers. They would not leave me alone. I looked at their goods, textiles mostly, and did not really want nor need any of them. I got up off my blanket and was ready to tell them off. I was even thinking about talking to them in Czech J. Then I came to realize that nobody in Mexico cares if you are from Czech. I also became aware of the fact that they do not see me the way I see myself. I saw myself as short, pail, tired, home stay mom, who got her vacation as a last minute deal and has to strictly watch her budget now. Then I began to see myself through their eyes. They were all shorter and darker than me, looking up at me with hope. They were pointing at me, they were pointing at our cruise ship, and promising to make me a good deal if I bought their goods. They saw a tall, white, rich American woman who came on a big expensive ship, probably their only chance of income that day. They thought they knew that what they see was it. And they were almost right. I was an American (in many ways) and I was rich (in many ways). Suddenly I did not see the annoying group of Mexican vendors in them but I saw all the men who are trying to make a living.
I decided to make a compromise. I told them that I am on a strict budget and I will buy one thing only from the vendor who gives me the best deal. Some vendors left immediately, not willing to make any deals. A small group of vendors stayed and competed between each other for a while. The “winner” came up with a really good price that I could afford. We were both happy. It was great experience. I was not pretending who I was nor was I trying to argue into who I was not. I just did what I felt was right for me and the other side could take it or leave it. I become aware of a new appreciation for all of experiences and embraced my life as a Czech, as an American, as a woman, and mostly as a human being.
Let me point out, and this is very important, that after experiencing both worlds it is not always all fun to be a citizen of a big and rich country as it may seem to an outsider. It is actually very hard. Not only you are constantly stripped of your hard earned money, you are also involved in some historical or political arguments. When you come from a Superpower and therefore a well known country that has influence on a large part of the world, everyone will immediately have some – not always nice - opinion about your homeland, especially so, if you happen to be from America.
There are almost seven billion people in the world and everyone knows about USA. It has been said that therefore there are about seven billions opinions on USA. Everyone has one! Now: out of these seven billion world citizens, most of them will not know where the Czech Republic is or whether it even exists. This is very convenient for Czechs and puts them instantly in a neutral position as a person, and as a traveler especially. Almost nobody has an opinion about the Czech Republic, unless they are your European neighbors and have to deal with you on a daily basis. Think about that.
Of course there are many nations and ways people look at their citizens. I will not even go in to what it is to be a Russian, Chinese, Israeli, or Iranian tourist in that matter. How you are perceived by others also depends on your gender and age. I will not even start on issues like different races or religions. This is very complex topic, a book could be written on it. I wish to keep this article short, therefore allow me to focus on my side of the story this time.
I will end as I started: traveling teaches us incredible things but above all it teaches us about who we really are and who are the others. While it is important to stay loyal to your beliefs and your country (old or new), getting to know the world also shows you how categorizing people into groups by their nationality or other differences is simply wrong and ignorant. There should only be differentiation between good and bad individuals, right and wrong actions. There should be no boundaries otherwise.
Walk with your eyes and mind open every day or you may miss on a brilliant person, gain a great friend or a wonderful wife/husband ;)
KD J (2011)