At five, my daughter Anna Lee hasn’t consciously thought much about her own cultural identity. Most of the time, her imagination and sense of practicality grant her automatic inclusion to any group. When she’s in a Czech setting, she identifies herself as Czech and when she’s in a setting where English is spoken, she’s an English-speaker. She doesn’t usually distinguish between herself and English speakers of other nationalities, apart from noticing different expressions.
During school hours, Anna is 100% Czech. Although her classmates (and their parents) may stare when we speak English together in the cloakroom, Anna is oblivious. Her largest concern is whether I’ll remember to read her the lunch menu, and if her best friend Eliška will be at school that day. She wants to fit in with the other Czech kids, and she is quick to remind her little brother that unless he learns to speak Czech better, he won’t be able to go to her školka (Czech preschool) next year. Recently, when one father tried to get his English-speaking son to talk to Anna and Oliver as we dressed in the cloakroom both his son and Anna just stared at him. Later, I asked Anna if she knew the boy, and she replied, of course she did. Although the boy was Czech, he’d spent half the semester in the Cayman Islands and apparently knew English quite well. However, neither he nor Anna gave the father the pleasure of practicing their mutual language skills. Oliver, on the other hand, babbled happily, “I Oliver. What your name?” but I don’t think his English was intelligible enough to meet the father’s expectations.
When Anna visits my weekly English lesson, I have to remind her to speak English, since she automatically switches into Czech as soon as she sees her peers. Even though some of them are amazed by Anna’s English abilities, she seems unaware that the language skills that come so instinctively to her are ones which her friends are obtaining painstakingly word-by-word. At the end of class, she offers to sing them songs in English she’s made up, and even though I cringe inside, my students always say that they want to hear her.
During a recent trip to the American Embassy to renew Anna’s passport, I made a special point to remember to show both my children the American flag flying at the Embassy’s entrance. Anna exclaimed, “Oh, that’s Grana’s flag. That’s the same one she has at her house in America.” I explained to the children that we were Americans and that this building offers services to us while we’re living in Prague. Anna was impressed with the portraits of the US Presidents hanging on the Embassy walls, but she didn’t blink a moment later when one of the Embassy employees began to ask her questions about her name and age in Czech. I also had to laugh when the Embassy official called out my name, “Mr. Prucha,” in accordance to the grammar rules of last names in Czech, even though he knew I was an American named Emily. But of course the children didn’t notice.
On the way home, when I told the children that they were half-Czech and half-American, but that I was just American, they both got mad. They insisted they were just like me, 100% American. However, I know that the conversation would have gone exactly the opposite if they had been having a similar conversation with Radek, their father.
Last weekend we were attended a housewarming party given by an American couple who’ve lived in Prague for years but don’t yet have any children. Children were invited to the party, which started at the child-friendly hour of 4 o’clock, and I expected that we’d be one of the few couples there with kids. Surprisingly, when we arrived at half-past five, their large apartment was overrun with 20 or so children from infancy to early-teen. My children clung cautiously to my legs as we watched a pillow fight in one room and children playing some make-believe game of monsters in another room. The apartment was also filled with a multi-lingual group of adults who were casually chatting in English, Czech, or French while trying to stay out of the way of the rambunctious kids.
Anna quickly picked out the girl closest to her size and proclaimed, “I want to play with her.” “So, go ask her,” I retorted, anxious to get the kids settled and to join the party myself. At that moment, the girl she had pointed to glanced in Anna’s direction and Anna bravely said, “Do you want to play with me?” The girl thought for a moment and quickly responded in Czech, “I have to play with these two boys because one of them is a monster.” “Ok, I’ll play with you,” Anna answered also in Czech. That was the last I saw of her for most of the night, except for the brief glimpses I caught when the games subsided enough for kids to drink or eat. Oliver simultaneously disappeared, tagging along behind Anna to offer encouragement to the monster-catchers.
When I finally caught up with my host friends later in the night, they both exclaimed over the number of children at the party. As it turns out, with the exception of two families that were Czech, the rest of the families and children were blended just like ours. Some of the children had lived their entire lives in Prague while others had just arrived from growing up in another country. One precocious half-Czech half-American seven-year old, who’d recently moved to Prague after living his entire life in the US took a liking to Anna and before we left, he asked her for her number. Not knowing what “number” he was talking about, Anna took him to Radek to explain. Radek ended up giving the boy his own mobile number. Even though the boy spoke English with Anna all night, when Radek dictated his number in Czech, the boy wrote it down without batting an eye.
I’m not sure if the children realized what a unique setting they played in that night, it’s not so often that I’ve been to a gathering where nearly all the children can switch back and forth between languages and cultures with such fluidity. Although, it’s happening more and more recently as we meet other families in the Czech Republic with similarly mixed backgrounds. When I asked Anna later, if the kids she’d played with were Czech or something else, she didn’t have a clue. But she gave me a detailed break-down for each child she’d played with and how they had played together, saying “mostly English” or “mostly Czech” according to the language they’d played in together. In the end, she said they were all mixed, just like her. She was curious why I was asking, and again I had to remind myself, that to her, just as to her other bicultural friends, speaking at least two languages and belonging to more than one culture was simply second nature.