How life can redefine particular terms
I’d never intended to make Prague a permanent home. Naively, I just thought I’d visit the city for a year or so, try my hand at teaching English and see where my adventure led me. Armed with the handbook, Teach English Abroad, I was eager to experience the thrill of absorbing the Czech language, culture and getting to know its people. I didn’t have a gripe with my home country, there was no political reason forcing my move and no job or company paying my way and as such, I really did not consider myself or my situation worthy of the term “expat.”
Before moving to Prague, I imagined an “expat” as a bearded old man, scruffy, and belligerent penning the details of his intentional political exile, while sipping wine midday in a smoky café in Buenos Aires (or some equally exotic location). Merriam-Webster says an expatriate is one who “withdraw[s] (oneself) from residence in or allegiance to one’s native country.” Yet that dictionary definition, which I had held to while growing up, shifted shortly after my arrival in Prague.
It was fellow English-teachers who were my first friends in Prague. Primarily non-Czechs, they were an international smorgasbord and ran the gamut in terms of age, experience, temperament and work ethic. Most were only in Prague temporarily. Those that had been here awhile seemed stuck by sheer economics or lack of motivation to move elsewhere. I don’t think I ever heard any of them refer to themselves as expats, although it was difficult to pin down exactly what they represented.
I soon discovered that in some circles the term “expat” was commonly used as a blanket label that could encompass any non-Czech living in Prague, including me and my fellow English teachers. Riding on the obsession with the term is the well-known resource for non-Czechs living in Prague, a website called www.expats.cz which offers housing, employment, news and forums for non-Czechs to meet and network with other non-Czech in similar situations. Although I’ve yet to attend any of the expat parties posted on the site, a few of my fellow male English teachers mentioned trying out an “expat” event just to see if they could land themselves a date. The whole notion of being an “expat” seemed odd to me, although as I began to hear the word used more frequently, I also wondered if I wasn’t missing out on something.
When I typed the word “expat” into Google, entries for www.expats.cz were two of the top five results, which seemed surprising. But when I talked to a friend who’s lived abroad in several locations, she mentioned that she had never heard the word “expat” thrown around in other countries as much as it is in the Czech Republic. I surmised that the Czech Republic must have an unusually large population of non-Czechs who identify themselves as expats. But why, I wondered?
I had to laugh when I read a Wikapedia entry on “expatriate.” Under “Notable Expatriates,” there is section specifically called “American Expatriates.” At first read, I didn’t notice the small globe with a huge orange exclamation point with a note that cautions readers that the views expressed below are primarily American and not representative of a world-view and should be expanded in a talking section. The entry claims that Prague had a robust expat community with over 30,000 Americans living in Prague in 1993 (cited by the New York Times). It also notes the number of English language bookstores, theaters, readings and open mics. I’ve heard all these statistics before. But it was the final sentence that really got me, “And, though now somewhat diminished in size and range of activities, the English-language expatriates living in Prague remain an active and cohesive community.” It sounds like propaganda straight from the mouth of an expat PR rep.
In the loosest sense of the term, yes, Prague is filled with expats, of all varieties, although even after five and a half years living here I’m still not comfortable thinking of myself in those terms. Now, when I think of the expat community in Prague, the image that comes to mind is one of families who have been transplanted here because of a work opportunity. We have several friends who fall into this category, and their lives are notably different from ours, namely, their children typically attend international schools, they stay for the length of their contract and then move on, and, perhaps, most importantly, they network in a different way than my family does. Whether or not the expat community in Prague is a “cohesive community” is a statement I can’t testify to, although some of my friends who’ve come to Prague on an “expat” packet claim that once their children started international schools, then they had an instant community of support.
I don’t usually think of our fellow “half-n-half” friends as “expats,” nor do I think of other non-Czech friends who live here and have assimilated into Czech society, either by learning the language or by adapting to the culture. Since Radek is Czech and the children are half-Czech, I don’t feel that I ever have to explain why I live in Prague. It is home for our family for now, just as the US is home to us when we’re there. After seven years of marriage and three kids, when I reflect on the twists and turns my life has taken both in Prague and in the US, it seems that precisely because I won’t identify myself as an “expat” that I’ll always have a community of support, regardless where we live.