Moving to Czech Repulic: Adapting to Czech culture

This post is part of a larger series. You can find the other parts here - #1 - Why did I do it? #2 - Getting in #3 - Adapting to Czech Republic #5 - How did it change me?

This is a deep dive into everything below the surface with a lot of my experiences in Czech Republic.

The most consistent issue I face in CZ is the language barrier. Coming from Sri Lanka and having visited India and Malaysia, I took it for granted that I could get by with English since it was widely used in those countries. In SL it is also an official language so even the packaging had an English translation. This is definitely not the case in CZ. Here everything was in Czech. The first time I went to a restaurant alone, I was given a menu in Czech. When I tried to go to the toilet, the doors didn’t have the standard male/female signs. Instead there was only the Czech word for man and women.

Google translate was my savior in those first weeks. It’s instant translate feature has saved me more times than I can count. I could just point my phone camera at something and it would translate it on the spot. In this case, I used it on the menu and got a rough idea of what each dish was. I still had no idea what the dish was so my experience at a restaurant was a complete gamble in those first weeks. I also pointed google translate at the toilet door which translated one of the words to “wow”. So I went to the other door on a hunch. Later I discovered that the Czech word for man (Pani) also can also be used to show surprise which meant that I had used the ladies’ washroom.

The struggle continued when I went shopping. The packaging was either in Czech or had every European language except English. Signing contracts in Czech were more of a concern. My phone, bank and accommodation contracts were only in Czech. Sometimes I relied on a friend to translate who usually gave me a brief translation. Partly because legal documents are not the very interesting to talk about and also because they didn’t know English well enough to translate the complicated terms. What I discovered is that Czech is a very colorful and descriptive language where some words had no direct translations to English.

The biggest irony is that the foreigner’s ministry (Ministry of Interior) didn’t use English. From a legal point of view, I understand this. They didn’t want to be held responsible for any misunderstanding durings translation when most of their officers spoke little to no English. At least in Prague, there is a chance I might run into an officer how speaks English but it’s never a guarantee.

Once in Budějovice I was tired of asking my friends to waste hours with me at the ministry so I decided to go on my own. After waiting for an hour, the officer asked me to speak Czech and I said that I couldn’t. I slowly explained that I only wanted to change my official address. When she saw that I wasn’t going to leave, she gave a printed notice that read “Official communication language is Czech. If you cannot speak Czech, you need to find a translator at your own cost”. Since then I have always asked a friend to come with me and I’m incredibly grateful to all of them. I secretly think that this is an integration test. To corresponding with the ministry you either needed to learn Czech or know some locals well enough to have them come with you or be rich enough to afford a translator or visa agency.

Eventually I got used to this. I picked up a vocabulary of random Czech words that is sufficient do most everyday things. But that hardest thing for me to adjust to was being left out of conversations. Both of the companies I worked at tried their best to make things comfortable for me by having meetings, slack channels and JIRAs in English. But this didn’t change the fact the banter was always in Czech and I missed all of it.

I can’t count the number of lunches with my colleagues where I sat in the corner not knowing what the conversation was and unable to contribute anything. For a while I pushed to have conversations in English but I stopped eventually. When the conversation switched to English, all the small conversations around the table stopped and one person would translate what there were talking about. I didn’t want to do that to them. Moreover, the weight of continuing the conversation in English would then fall on me. I had to keep speaking in English or they would soon encounter a term they couldn’t translate and the conversation was back to Czech. I felt really low the first few months because of this. But now I have gotten used it. The introvert part of my personality loved it. Now if I have something to ask I ask it and my coworkers would bring up the more interesting topics up with me. I call this the bullshit filter. I only get the rich gossip instead of the everyday jibber jabber.

The Czech Republic is a country with a strong drinking culture. It is one of the largest producers and consumers of beer and it clearly shows. Every street had a bar that served alcohol. This is a stark contrast to SL where due to religious and cultural reasons drinking is not publicly accepted. In my entire extended family, I have never seen or heard of any of them drinking. My dad proudly brags about how he has been sober for all of his 75 years. Even I was completely sober before moving to CZ. The same can’t be said anymore.

While my initial notions about how alcohol is bad is gone, I still prefer non-alcoholic drinks whenever possible. But drinking is so ingrained into Czech and European culture that it is impossible to get away from it. After a few hours into a bar, people open up more than they ever did while they were sober. Some people find it impossible to be social without alcohol and I find that a bit sad. It has become a mandatory social lubricant.

The CZ is the most atheistic country in Europe. Most people here don’t have a declared religion and identify as atheists. Meanwhile I am a Buddhist raised in a conservative Buddhist family. My mom saw herself as religious and tried to pray as much as possible. My dad wasn’t very enthusiastic about visiting temples and praying but instead kept declaring how he was living life by the precepts. I followed my dad’s lead and I was never very religious. I always strived to be respectful during any religious event, unlike most of my generation who tended to ignore or dismiss it. Whenever my mom insisted I do some ritual, I tried my best to believe in it even though I was skeptical. She believed the word of some fortune tellers too so some of these rituals were very random. Once I had to take care of plant placed in a particular direction to improve my learning ability. I developing small rituals of my own too, believing if I did something a certain way I would get what I wanted. My parents definitely believed that you needed religion and I believed it too.

But that is far from the truth. Despite the atheism, Czech Republic functions normally. Crime is rare and I feel there is less crime here than in SL. This might have more to do with average wealth of a person though. A lot of people have their own principles which they got from their parents and they live by it. After being in this environment, my already week belief in rituals and the supernatural faded away. Instead I became more principle based, living my life on a set of principles from Buddhism. Instead of relying on an external deity or a force, this puts the power entirely in my hands and I prefer it that way.

What is more surprising in the face of this is the number of honor systems here. A lot of services simply trust that you will pay and don’t actively check whether you have paid or not. The biggest example is public transport. For all the metro, tram and buses in Prague, there are no gates to pass. You can simply walk in even if you don’t have a ticket. The same applies to many restaurants and bars that rely on you to relate what you have ordered when paying the bill. Judging by how widely the systems are still used, it must work.

A question I get asked often is what I used to do in SL for fun. Apart from sitting at my computer all day, I had no answer to give them. At least in my family, we rarely did anything. Until I came to CZ, I spent most of my time travelling to and from school or university and then consuming something on my computer or doing more work. The primary focus of life is study, work and family and there is little time for anything else. Whereas in CZ where I am either travelling, trying new things or attending an event. There is always something to do and I have gotten better at hunting for events in Prague. Due to the flexible working hours and efficient transport system with a short commute, I find more time to do this as well. Most people in SL lose a large portion of their life to the commute.

Sri Lanka has a family oriented culture. Everything is done together with family or with a group. The idea of travelling alone sounds absurd, the whole point of travelling is to have fun with a group. We don’t have the concept of moving out either. Children will live with their parents until they get married. As a result, your family influences you a lot. They will tell you what to study, where to work and who to marry. While some families give their children the choice, many of them don’t. Most people don’t have any experience living on their own and rely on their parents for most of their life.

In CZ and Europe, individuality is the norm. As soon as the kids finish high school, they move away and live on their own. Living with your parents here is a sign that you haven’t got your life together and many are embarrassed to admit it. The upside of this is the independence, you can do whatever you want, whenever you like to. But the downside is the loneliness and the fact that you have to do everything yourself. This is probably the reason why there are so many social events here. People need to go out to find company whereas in SL you always have the company of your family.

The shift in how relationships worked was new for me too. My entire extended family in SL was built through arranged marriage. My mom actively discouraged me from getting into a relationship saying that it was a useless distraction. When the time comes, I would be paired with a bride so I had no need to pursue a relationship. A lot of couples did exist in SL but a lot of them had to keep it secret or be tactful about it since they knew their families might not approve.

Arranged marriage does not exist in CZ. It is entirely up to you to find a partner. So there is a large emphasis on looking good and going out to meet new people. Girls especially tended to dress more provocatively. People were promiscuous and talked somewhat openly about it whereas sex and everything related to it is taboo to an unhealthy level in SL. Some couples lived together without getting married which is unheard of in SL.

When I talk to people who have visited Sri Lanka, they tell me that Sri Lankans are incredibly friendly. What I would say is that most people would try to help out in someway or react positively to any queries. This only increases towards foreigners. This is shown by the number of people that gather on the site of an accident. We are looking for something different to talk about within our repetitive lives.

On the other hand, I have heard a lot of expats say that Czech are rude or unhelpful. Usually they don’t know many Czechs in person either. Having known and talked to many Czechs, this is my conclusion. Many of them are reserved and they do tend to keep to themself. If you look at a stranger in public, they will respond with the same neutral expression they had before. This might have something to do with CZ being cold for most of the year and people are rushing to get indoors. Some cashiers or waiters are not very positive. Mind you, they have the same reaction to other locals.

What I sense is that most people are not confident in their English so they hesitate. A lot of them speak English just fine but they have a much worse impression of themselves. The common issue is the limited vocabulary which I don’t think is a real problem. You can describe it to me and I will probably get it. After almost 2 years, I have gotten very good at it. I have also developed the ability to detect how comfortable someone is with English and I adjust my vocabulary, pronunciation and speed accordingly. I think all expats would agree, we don’t mind how you speak as long you do speak to us.

Because of this discomfort around English, a lot of people are cautious when first talking to me. A lot of the older people just shrug when I ask something in English. However if I ask them with my very basic Czech, they will give me a detailed answer in Czech that I partly understand. However the more time I spend with them, the more they open up. I have gotten to know a lot of my colleagues this way and all of them are extremely helpful and curious. I have had great times filled with dark humour, deep conversation and discussions about what the English or Czech word for something is. Some of them have gone out of their way to help me and I would definitely not have been able to stay in CZ without their help.

My informal theory about their attitude is this. During communist rule the locals couldn’t trust anyone. Even their neighbors could be spies who would betray them to the secret police. So they became reserved and cautious about the people they trust. The parents taught this to their kids and the attitude continued.

One of the more interesting things that I have noticed is the form of English most people speak. They think in Czech and translate that verbatim to English. The result is what the Czechs call “Czenglish” and it was incredibly fascinating to me. This results in phrases worded in Czech word order, mistranslations for words that have multiple meanings in Czech but not in English (e.g. akce means action and event so they might say “There is an action happening tomorrow”) and English words read with Czech pronunciation (e.g.: VGA - VaGaAa). After being around a lot of Czechs, I’m picking up “Czenglish” too.

When you are in a shop or restaurant in SL, you directly ask for what you need and silently accept it. The politeness is implied by the tone of voice. You would only use formal greetings and thank yous in formal speeches or when someone has saved your life. In CZ, when you walk into a place you say “dobrý den” (good day), you pad your request with “prosím” (please), say “děkuji” (thank you) when they respond to your request and then “nashledanou” (goodbye) when you leave. The same applies to all the other European cultures I have seen. For every 100 words you speak, around 50 of them are niceties. Now I’m not sure whether we are being rude in Sri Lanka or the Europeans are being too polite.

Published 18 Nov 2019

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