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The view of Vysehrad from our window, circa Wintertime

“Why?” is not just a great song by the indomitable Annie Lennox. “WHY?” is also the question I often find myself asking about what I am doing here in AryanLandia, aka Prague.

In my second expat+HAREM guest post I discuss Prague’s dark legacies of Communism, Neo-Nazism and discrimination against the Romani peoples. I also discuss how I deal with being a visible minority in the city and the ways I have found to cope.

The day after the piece went live I was again hit in the face with the reality of how uncomfortable it can be for a person of color in Prague:

I was waiting for my tram, one stop away from home, the only brown person as per usual. I purposefully got on last since I would only be going one stop, which is the correct tram etiquette. An old woman was standing right in the doorway and wouldn’t move. I, and many others, bumped into her because of her awkward position, but instead of saying something to all of us she started screaming at me. I told her to relax and that I was getting off at the next stop. She yelled at me even louder.

Adrenaline started coursing through my body with such force my hands began to shake. She kept yelling. Since I didn’t understand what she was saying there was no way to respond. Laughter bubbled out. There was nothing else I could do. She kept yelling. Her face a mask of disgust and hatred. I looked at her contorted visage and laughed more, even though what I really wanted to do was spit rage.

The tram arrived at my stop. As I was leaving I said, “Have a nice day!” in a very bubbly and friendly California voice. Her mouth dropped to the floor in mortification, and I heard a ripple of chuckles from the people around me who understood what I’d said in English. It was hours before I stopped shaking, and then I had a tummyache from the adrenaline overdose, something that’s not happened to me in years, bringing back the trauma of Wendy’s murder. I called my husband, told him what happened. The Czechs he was with said if it happened again to loudly call the person, “bigot”, which means “racist” in Czech. Good to know, but sad that I have to know.

I came home and wept, the only release I could find for the utter humiliation I had just experienced.

So I started asking myself again, “WHY?” Why are you here, Sezin? Since I will not let a racist old bitch get the best of me, here’s what I’ve come up with:

I have two really good jobs, one at a renowned university and the other at a fantastic international school. My husband also has a great job which helps afford me time to write.

The creative energy in Prague is magnificent. Since I have lived here I have written a play, a full-length screenplay, been published in numerous newspapers, magazines and websites, placed as a runner-up winner in an expat writing competition, published my first novel, and I’m working on the sequel and a third novel already.

I will not get arrested or harassed for my criticisms of Prague, like I might if I lived in the USA or Turkey or Sri Lanka.

I do not get sexually harassed in public like living in Spain or Pakistan.

I have a steady and fast Internet connection that has allowed me to thrive in literary salons like the expat+HAREM, meet like-minded people on Twitter and keep up with friends on FaceBook.

I know an amazing tattoo artist whose art is phenomenal and who charges Czech rates for her work. If she worked in Switzerland, France or the USA she would be able to charge four times what she does here. A woman tattoo artist makes all the difference.

We have a beautiful flat right in the centre of town that overlooks the university botanical garden as well as my favorite spot in Prague: Vysehrad, the original 6th Century settlement of this crazy city.

There is no need for a car, useful since I still have not learned how to drive.

Since I’ve been here I’ve randomly met the entire Newcastle rugby team, a man who did the lighting for “AMERICAN BEAUTY” and “Flags of Our Fathers”, and Olympics silver medalists from the American volleyball team to Beijing.

I’ve managed to make friends with the notoriously closed-off Prague expat old-timers, the ones who’ve been here since the 1990s and who usually don’t bother talking with newcomers, a feat in and of itself.

I’ve overcome a portion of my fear of going out at nighttime alone.

And more.

For now Prague is home, I have made a great home for myself here, even though it is one that is separate from the lives of Czech natives. Yes, the world outside Sezin’s Prague tends to be a hostile environment, but I have the power to write about it and purge it so my life isn’t ruled by fear.

When it comes to the grain of it, my husband and I would have to deal with racism anywhere we went, whether directed towards me for being brown or towards him for being white. If, for example, we moved back to the USA I would fit right in to a black or Hispanic neighborhood and he would become the visible target.

I’m stubborn and been through worse in my life. I will stay in Prague until the city is done with me, and that’s final.

Do you ever find yourself asking “Why?” about the place you’ve chosen to live?

© Sezin Koehler 2010. Reprinting in any form requires permission from the author.

15 Responses to Why?

  1. So the lady needs to be either:

    a) crazy
    b) racist

    in order for you to be able to explain her actions? You say that you wish she wasn’t being a racist, but since she wasn’t crazy (in your clearly professional opinion) she must be racist. This is a jump in logic that completely contradicts your critical thinking link. Good work posting a Wikipedia link, the ultimate form of debate.

    Since you can’t understand the language, I’m uncertain how you could even reach a conclusion as to what she was thinking? With the skill of being able to read people’s minds, you’d think you would be able to avoid these kinds of situations. It must simply be easier to assign blame elsewhere, your post is written in the typical ‘I did everything perfectly, the world is out to get me’ fashion.

    I have been here far longer than yourself and have been coming here for decades. While I completely agree that racism and xenophobia are aspects of the Czech and Prague society, your example isn’t proof of either of these things and trivializes the trials that people go through when they are actually able to understand what people are saying to them. You have no idea what she was saying, NONE, yet jump to a conclusion that is in line with your point of view.

    Hopefully you reflect on your story a bit and maybe adjust it to make it seem less like such a one-sided rant coming from somebody making grandiose assumptions. Until then, I simply hope that more people don’t jump on the train of blaming the world around them for things they don’t even understand.

  2. Hi, I got to this links from expats.cz. Sorry to hear what happened to you. Let me first say that I am Czech. And let me follow it up by saying that the SAME thing happened to me – a couple of times, maybe even more times than I would care to remember. You run into some keyed-up jerk who just goes off for no reason. And I’m “white”, if you must know. You did not understand what that jerk of a woman was saying, right? I am sorry, but it seems to me you’re doing yourself no favors assuming that anything nasty that happens to you is because of your race. Why?
    Are you familiar with the saying, we always find what we are looking for?

    • Hi Ondrej, and thanks for your comment.

      If you’ll read the first response I wrote to Vaceslav you’ll see that I explain further about the woman who screamed at me, her appearance, etc. I have also had other experiences with crazy people here who have screamed at me, but you will not find me writing about those nor will you find me taking those attacks personally. You can’t take anything coming from a crazy person seriously. However, the recent incident was perpetrated by a very sober and lucid, well-dressed old lady, as you can read about below.

      Nowhere in my writings (or my life, for that matter) have I given the impression that “anything nasty that happens to me is because of my race”. Race is an issue every person of color must deal with when in a predominantly white society, but this issue certainly does not rule my life nor do I use race as a go-to excuse any time anything bad happens. If you took the time to read the other things I write about life in Prague you will see that the majority is very positive, and if you read my entire blog post here as well you would see that I have quite a wonderful life. This was a very dramatic and horrible incident, it needed to be told, but it was only one incident and now it also needs to be put in the past.

      I don’t agree that we always find what we are looking for. Anyone possessing the skill of critical thinking (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_thinking) is able to see past their preconceived notions and determine whether it is their own pre-disposition to a belief or whether something else is at play. I would be the first one to wish that this experience had not happened in the way it did, that the old lady had been crazy, etc. But she was not crazy. Wishing this incident away would not help anyone, and certainly not me.

      It seems like you need to come to terms with the fact that there is a great deal of racism and xenophobia here in Prague. There is no way to have a dialogue on this very complicated issue unless everyone can agree that the problem exists, and acknowledging the fact that many people of ethnic minorities experience racism while living here.

      Thank you again for your comments and enjoy your weekend,


  3. » do you experience any form of discrimination being a majority minority in Russia?

    Now when I moved to a large city I look back and think there is some sort of discrimination, but when I lived there, I accepted it as the natural way of things 🙂
    No rude kinds, like physical violence, at least not in that particular region.

    » in America when there is a large ethnic minority
    » community we sometimes hear stories of reverse racism

    Yes, I’ve heard about the term “White flight”.
    I think this may be a universal phenomenon.
    In Russia it’s mostly not about race (since most of the population are white European), but looks (darker hair or similar), culture (language, way of life, gestures, customs) etc.

    • Thanks for explaining, Vaceslav, and giving us some further insight into where you live in Russia. Fascinating! I visited your blog and so wished there was a universal blog translator so I could read about the things that interest you. Here’s hoping that one day there will be one, and please do let me know if you are writing anything in English. I’d be very happy to support. 🙂

  4. » I know it must be hard to hear about these things happening in your country

    No-no, I just happen to have this Czech name of an ancient Slavic Christian ruler-martir. I live in Russia and I am interested in minority issues as a rarer example of a person from majority people (Russian) in an area where a nation-wide minority is in majority (over 70%, Ossetes in N. Ossetia).
    So I can like feel for both sides, you know 🙂

    • I’m so sorry for assuming you were Czech, Vaceslav! You have a really interesting position in life. We’ve got another discussion going at http://www.expatharem.com/2010/04/28/past-is-present/ and maybe you’d like to contribute something from your unique perspective? For example, do you experience any form of discrimination being a majority minority in Russia? For example, in America when there is a large ethnic minority community we sometimes hear stories of reverse racism. I would love to hear more about your story!

  5. Old people in trams and buses shouted on me countless times and I am white Czech. Usually I even didn’t know what is the reason of it (I have big KOSS UR 18 headphones on my ears all the time so I usually miss the beginning of the shouting and later it is impossible to find out as asking “what is wrong” only causes more rage). Generally old people hate everything that differs from median. Could she see your tatoos? All old people I know hate tattooed people, they are much less concerned about the skin colour. But I live far from Prague, so maybe it is otherwise there.

    Still, I agree with Väĉeslav, why are you sure that woman yelled on you because of your appearence? You didn’t understand her words, you write.

    • @Mr T – Thank you for commenting. I actually answered many of your questions in my response below to Vaceslav. But, no, she couldn’t see my tattoos. I was coming straight from work and so I was even dressed very smartly.

      @Catherine – No, thank YOU! It’s sort of been a horrible few days, but anyway time to move on and move forward. Your support is so wonderful.

      @Isao – I agree, and I love what you said about the “veil of armor humor” of TCKs. Yes! I absolutely have that, and it usually works to defuse these kinds of situations, although at the same time it’s the fuzzy end of a lollypop, to coin a Marilyn Monroe phrase. Bias is indeed like the Matrix, and it is so hard to be able to step outside our view to see the other side. I’ve been trying to feel compassion for that woman on the tram, but I’m not there yet. Probably when I stop having anxiety attacks before going on the tram alone I will be able to foster that emotion. Thank you so much for commenting! It’s great seeing you here!

      @Vaceslav – Thank you ever so much for your support. I know it must be hard to hear about these things happening in your country, but the best way to move forward is with open eyes and open minds. You are a great reminder to me that it isn’t all Czech people, I just had a particularly bad experience with one person. Thank you!

  6. What a dreadful experience, Sezin – but I’m so glad you are able to write about it, to purge it from your system. And then to go on to list all those wonderful accomplishments and reasons why you are in Prague now – brava! You truly know who you are and what you are doing, and meanwhile are casting light and truth where it’s needed. Thank you!

  7. I must admit that I never had such horrendous experience you have gone through in my expat days in Taiwan. This place is a haven for expatriates—at least those from developed countries—compared to what you have described in Prague. Well, if I have darker skin the situation might change. An American-Vietnamese girl once described her experience of being identified as a housekeeper from Philippines. She laughed over it, but not entirely without that thin veil of armor humor, a survival skill every TCK needs to adopt.

    I think expatriates with pale skin are protected by a biased view against “Western” foreigners—don’t bother them because they are different/upper—just like those with darker skin are harassed by an equally biased view against “Southern” foreigners—bother them because they are different/lower.

    These days I am thinking that “bias” is like the Matrix; it’s everywhere, yet few of us can see and feel its real effects. I want to be taking the red pill, day and night. Awareness might be intangible, but is so real.

  8. Well, why are you sure that woman yelled on you because of your appearence? I know many cases when people just yell on any person that was unfourtunate to appear by their side. You didn’t understand her words, you write.

    There are also some part of just crazy persons in large cities, who talk to ghosts and yell on passengers — they could be treated by psychiatrists only on their own will, and they don’t want to, of course.

    • Thank you for your comments, Vaceslav.

      Sadly, she wasn’t a crazy person, she was very nicely dressed in a suit and fully made up, clean, a fancy purse. I know it was because of my color because I saw many people bump into her and she fixated on me because I am clearly not Czech. I also know because the people around me looked totally shocked at the things she was saying and she went on for a good five minutes, a very long time on a packed tram. I saw her face as she was screaming at me and it was a look of pure hatred. Horrible.

      I do agree that there are crazy people in big cities who do the yell at passengers or pedestrians. Beleive me, that has happened to me many times in Prague, but I’ve never taken it personally because it wasn’t. Those people clearly have no idea where reality begins. The woman who screamed at me this time was very sober and lucid.

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