The Czech Republic is one of the most homogenous countries in the world, with over 90% of Czechs identifying as ethnically Czech. This means that, to some extent, everyone looks the same. While Prague is a metropolitan city which, by nature, attracts a diverse population of tourists, the city is still largely homogenous outside of the typical tourist haunts.
I see this as an opportunity to have an immersive cultural learning experience, but I also find it slightly uncomfortable at times. Most of the time, my race is not something that heavily and negatively affects me. As a student of NYU Prague, I am in an NYU bubble, where all our students speak English and are from diverse backgrounds. I only notice that I am different when I get greeted at coffee shops with “Namaste!”, get asked where I’m REALLY from (note: “America” is not a satisfactory answer), when I am always the first one to have my transport pass checked when conductors come on board, or when I am stared at on the tram home, where I am the only person of color.
While I have never really been put in danger as a direct result of my race, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated with (what I would call in America) microaggressions. But over time, this experience has led me to many important realizations.
Most of this treatment is not with malintent. A large majority of Czech people are simply unfamiliar with people of color due to a lack of representation in their media and daily lives. They are saying and doing these things because they are curious and are not versed in the discussions of diversity and inclusion, and therefore, may have preconceived notions that impact their behavior. I have to remind myself that to many Czechs, I am one of the first people they have ever met who looks like me.
I really see the evidence of this in Czech media around me, which I started noticing and analyzing thanks to my Advertising and Society professor (who is awesome and whose class you should definitely take!). McDonalds Czech Republic has launched a new “Tikka Masala Chicken Burger”, based on the Indian dish “Chicken Tikka Masala”. My friends and I have noticed however that the model is not Indian, but rather is a European, caucasian woman who imitates Indian features and accessories.
The reality of homogenous countries is that they are not places with a wide variety of racial backgrounds and drastically different cultures, so if you do not directly fit in, you stand out. But this does not necessarily have to feel isolating or negative.
In some way, all of us at NYU are minorities in Prague in that we are foreigners. I feel a lot more comfortable walking around with the knowledge that so many foreigners, within NYU or not, are living and thriving in Prague, so there is a large community of people to relate to. And once you step outside of tourist and NYU-frequented areas, you will realize that many Czech locals have not gotten the chance to speak to Americans, and they actually value the experience to understand more about a different culture. The greatest thing I have learned through this experience is not only to embrace my differences, but also embrace the differences of other people. Once I took the time to understand why people are the way they are and started looking at my surroundings through that lens, I was really able to appreciate the history, culture, and people of this country unlike ever before.