My name is Daniela and I began to immigrate from Blatná, Czechoslovakia to the United States in 1984 when I was 20 years old to follow my sweetheart. My boyfriend and I left Czechoslovakia with the desire to enjoy freedom from communism. He also had a desire to be able to travel and make a good life for him. We would be able to have political freedom and freedom of speech. It took me three years to come to the U.S. I escaped Czechoslovakia and stayed in a refugee camp in Austria for about one year during which time I was going through a series of applications, paper interviews, and interviews with the American ambassador to determine whether I would be a viable candidate of the U.S. They decided my fate. Unfortunately, I was denied the visa for undisclosed reasons to me. I came to Canada and that worked for me. I spent two years in Canada and applied for a U.S. visa again, but now because my boyfriend was already living in the U.S. and we eventually married in Canada, I was granted a green card. It was difficult leaving my family behind not knowing when I would see them again; we were burning all the bridges behind us. We left illegally so if we decided to go back we would be imprisoned. It was a relief to us in 1989, with the Velvet Revolution, when the political situation changed and allowed us to be able to travel again.
Living in Canada for two years made the transition to being an immigrant to the U.S. feel very similar. My first impression was noticing how friendly all the people were to an immigrant and that they treated me with a lot of help and respect. I never experienced anyone who was mean to me for being an immigrant in his or her state. It was refreshing. Initially we tried to keep Czech traditions more so, but over the years, we have embraced the American cultures and traditions here. One thing we focused on was to teach our child the native language so we would speak that at home exclusively. We also gave her a part of our heritage of what we grew up with including children’s stories, lullabies, and cartoons. We only speak Czech in our home, about 80% of the time. We did not find any societies or clubs, but we do have a strong Czech community where we associate with friends. Nothing is official; it is more about personal relationships. We have met people randomly in public places and then their friends and acquaintances become ours and so on until we have this community. More recently, one of our friends brought more of the Czech community together by creating a webpage. Food and beer is really really good and important in our culture. Many family gatherings revolve around food. You have to try some!
Since living in the U.S. and returning to Czech, I have noticed people are behaving differently towards each other there. There is more corruption in the government level all the way down to privately owned businesses, so you can’t trust people to not undercut you or be dishonest with you. I have a hard time with it, and I don’t encounter it as much here, so it is more of a deterrent from considering going back. On a personal note, the Czech people are more honest, or blunt, about their feelings and you know where you stand with them and what they think about life and they don’t beat around the bush which is refreshing. The American culture is phonier and it takes more time to get to know somebody because they hide behind a professional layer. I return to Czech though to maintain the family relationships since we don’t have much family here and I also want my child to develop a relationship with her grandparents and relatives there. It is very important to maintain the link. As for culture, it is hard to learn and maintain on short vacations, but she understands the culture very well now.
Knowing what I know now and looking back on my decision to leave and how that impacted my family dynamics and the relationships with my parents and sister, I was selfish. I was 20 and had no idea what lay ahead of me; it was a hard adjustment for my family that I took this step. As a mother now, I don’t know how I would deal with something like that. My impact and the consequences on my parents and sister were deeper than I ever considered. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it again, just that it was selfish. I myself was saddened and heart-broken, because I didn’t know when I would see them. Our conversations and letter exchanges were censored and we couldn’t talk openly about our feelings, all thoughts had to be guarded. Now we can skype face to face and it has brought us more together. Over the years, I have become more Americanized in my way of thinking and my way of life and so sometimes in our communication, we have differences in opinion and the way we look at life. In my old age, I may choose to go back and spend a part of the year in Czech enjoying my family. That is my plan in the future.
Posting from Daniela’s Daughter
My name is Johanka and I have been to the home of my mother Daniela in Blatná and my father in Zlin in the Czech Republic approximately 20 times to visit my family who still live there to maintain family connections and learn of the culture. When preparing for the visit each summer I am excited to see my family, and as a little child to see another country. I now also have some reservations and insecurity about not being as fluent in the language as much as I would like.
Once there I discovered I enjoyed the slower pace, how it is not as westernized, people are more interpersonally related, and not everything is about time and a schedule. In Czech, the customs we uphold and partake in are very much interactions with family, and even there, families still have their concerns with finances or certain looks that mean something as in the U.S. One surprise was when you are celebrating, a birthday for example, as the birthday girl you pay for everything not like how people bring the person gifts in the U.S. Another surprise to me was how in the smaller villages, it is typical for young adults to live with parents until they’re in their mid-late 20s for financial reasons usually, but mostly just because the moms end up taking care of them with the cooking and laundry. There are tons of villages and roads, but only a few freeways. These villages can be as small as 10 houses or up to 100 houses, and everyone just travels to the bigger cities for groceries and other items. I am proud Czech is a self-sustaining country with their own production of meat and vegetables, but Poland is able to produce food cheaper and so many of the farming and dairy farms in Czech have stopped. The people are aware that the food from Poland is of lower quality and most will try to buy Czech produced food. In addition, the baby boomer generation is having many dental issues, because during communism, they did not have access to fruits and vegetables and there is a shortage of good dentists in Czech.
One of the better memories I have is of our cabin by the lake. Most families in the city own a cabin outside of the city and go there on the weekend. My family gatherings include my great-grandma, grandparents, my grandparent’s siblings, cousins, and everyone else who still lives in town. We have several cabins in a row with a field in front of our cabins that goes down to the lake. These gatherings mean a lot to me. I did find out there is an Italian investor who bought the field and so my family and I are concerned that since he plans on developing it our view will be ruined, and people will come to stay there and not appreciate the land.
Being able to speak a blend of the east and west dialects helps me, but I still sometimes feel left out when I am in large social situations, because there are social jokes, sayings, or phrases and people forget I may not understand it. Prague is not very friendly; otherwise, overall Czech is an accepting culture of people who are proud to be Czech, and their great beer, hard workers, beautiful people, but not of the government that can’t be unified. I was not prepared for the state in which the government is in, how selfish the people who are in politics are. Everyone in politics is out for themselves not for the greater good of the people, it’s still a democracy, but I don’t believe it’s a true democracy. Money can get you anywhere there, and it is only older white males who have the connections and money.
When I was leaving Czech, I felt some relief that I would have my own routine back since my only routine there is visiting family. I also felt disappointment that my language, which progresses much quicker while there, would not continue to improve. I wanted to spend more time with my great-grandma. I feel sad my mom and I are removed from everyone. Returning to Czech has made me more of an advocate for family relationships and caregiving. I have made it a point to have large family gatherings for birthdays and holidays, and to have my grandma teach me her dishes and then teach it to people here in the U.S. This has helped me to think about the things that were given to me by my family and then pay it forward. I have learned to remember to slow down and that families are important.
For others returning to their ancestral home for the first time, I would recommend soaking up everything you can, look at the history, thoroughly enjoy the food and drinks, spend time in nature, come bearing gifts, prepare yourself for different customs, and just try to be more of a day in the life of rather than a tourist.
Listening to my mom share her story did not raise new questions or surprise me as I have heard her tell parts before by specifically asking or just through random moments when she would share something. To be honest, I feel a little ashamed I didn’t know more of her story at an earlier age, but I don’t think I would have understood it as much as I do now. Anytime I do hear her story, or the story of another immigrant, I feel as if the general population can relate through the books and movies available, but I am in awe when I try to put myself in her shoes and think of the personal risks she took to come to the U.S. and also with her family dynamics.