the ashamed american

I hate that I cannot speak Czech, and yet here I am in Prague, walking around and enjoying myself and not even trying to learn how to say thank you, even though I bought a little phrasebook. I hate assholes like that, and I think it’s making me not enjoy myself as much as I could be. And that’s a bit silly, because so far I just try to be polite and smile, and most people do speak a lot of English, so I don’t think it’s actually a problem. But I think this may be the last time for awhile that I go somewhere where I don’t speak the language or where I can’t fake it convincingly, so that leaves only places where romance languages and English are spoken.

My favorite thing about everyday life in Prague is that, even though there is a subway and a bus system, I basically only need the streetcar to get to my classes and readings and dorm, and streetcars are the bestest (that, conveniently, is my tram and the photo is taken near Charles University, though I just googled it to find it). Today I was on my way back to the dorm, nearly falling asleep from having stayed up way too late last night, and the tram was fairly crowded. A woman with a cane got on, and since I am that bitch foreigner who speaks no Czech except “please” and “good night” (“thank you” is such a difficult word that I cannot remember), it didn’t really occur to me to offer her a seat. I’ll chalk it up to being out of it and sleepy. Anyway, she didn’t look at me and instead asked the girl across from me to give up her seat.

Totally valid. I can’t think of a public transport system I’ve ever been on that didn’t have a sign asking you to please give up your seat for the elderly, disabled, or pregnant (which, according to health insurance, is a disability anyway….yay, America!). But I’m pretty sure she didn’t ask politely; she just told the girl to get up. (And then I had this flash dream of her telling me to get up, me not understanding, and her beating me with her cane. This is my linguistically challenged terror.) There’s something about language that is totally understandable even when it’s unintelligible. I always knew in Kenya when I was being talked about, even when my head was down in a pile of potatoes I had to peel and the women were speaking Kikuyu. I understood Portuguese in my heart long before I took a college course. And I come from a family in which one set of grandparents uses Yiddish all the time and the other speaks only Spanglish. Language is fluid.

So should that make me feel less guilty? I still feel guilty. There are lots of things I love, but generally I am ashamed of my nationality, and it also saddens me that we cannot have a collective national identity (even if that’s kind of silly to assume any country can have one) in the way that the Czech Republic or many other countries do, because we have such a tradition of dissent and marginalization and because being either subversive or rebellious is the way to be and because patriotism these days only implies Republicanism. So here I am, an ashamed American who cannot quite be called an expatriot. What am I?

(Also, every time I hear a language that I don’t speak, I want to speak Spanish. I’m not sure why.)


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