– by Teal Vickrey

This fall, Fulbright ETAs share their experiences adjusting and adapting to new cultures – and the challenges, humor, and new ways of seeing the world that come with diving into life in another country.  Read the full series here.

This piece was written by Teal Vickrey, a 2016-17 ETA in the Czech Republic.

I placed my hand on the bark. I dipped the white tips of my tennis shoes into the wet dirt.  I closed my eyes and inhaled the fresh scent of South Bohemia. I stacked my spine straight like the trunk of the tree, and with each breath I pictured my branches reaching out. I pictured myself blooming, while at the same time my roots settled in and held tight to the soggy earth.

I was trying to connect with the land. I was attempting to arrive and to be present in Vimperk, Czech Republic, where I had been living for the past half year. I had arrived here six months before as a happy-go-lucky English Teaching Assistant, ready to revel in the differences and fully integrate myself into a new culture. But recently, living as a foreigner in this small town was beginning to get the best of me.

Months before, in November, I had attended the Maturitní Ples, a large ball celebrating the oldest students who would be taking their final exams in May. I watched as the teachers spoke eagerly to one another across the table while I sat quietly at the end drinking my beer. A live band played on the stage and green and purple lights illuminated the large ball room. Three small blue tickets lay before me as I excitedly waited for the raffle to begin. The music stopped and everyone returned to their seats; I sat up in my chair and tried to see the prizes being paraded into the crowded ballroom. Two men hobbled in carrying something obviously very big and very heavy. My colleague turned around. “It’s a boar,” she said pointing. I stood up. What I saw was not only a boar with an apple in its mouth, but also dead pheasants and bags of potatoes. Afterwards, a woman at the next table walked around flaunting her prizes, two dead pheasants hanging limply from around her neck like a feather boa. I heard the other teachers chuckling and I became aware that my mouth was hanging wide open as I watched her. It was shocking differences like this one that I initially revelled in, but that were now friendly reminders that I was still a gawking outsider and not a part of their community.

I looked down on the town from where I stood. I could see the red roofs in the spaces between the pine needles, the dark coal smoke slithering up to the sky. I had hiked into the middle of the Šumava forest and come to this tree. I wanted to be more like this tree. I wanted to be able to unapologetically stand my ground and to be accepted as a part of their forest.

I had tried to achieve this over the last six months, adapting to their culture in little ways. I ate with a knife and a fork now, using the knife to scoop food onto my fork until my plate was wiped clean. I took my shoes off and put slippers on before entering a house and saved my big toothy grin that ended in two deep dimples for special occasions: smiling is an American’s dead giveaway. Yet I can never seem to completely remove the “Made in America” sign apparently ablaze on my forehead. Once, while waiting for my mother to arrive from Colorado, I decided to wait at a Costa Coffee near the arrival gates. I approached the familiar circular Costa Coffee sign, which displayed three coffee beans seemingly huddled together for an important meeting in the middle. The bartender was a tall, young Czech with almond eyes that practically melted into his dark brown smock. “Cappuccino, prosím,” I said it the same way I always do: my tongue riding the wave of notes, bellowing the “o,” lightly tripping over the “n” and singing prosím at the end like a sweet ringing bell. The accuracy has even surprised me at times and always leads the barista to believe that I am Czech. It’s in these cafés, amongst strangers, where I usually find the most solace. “Malé nebo velké?” he inquired.  “Velky prosím.” As he reached for the bigger paper cup he asked something I had never heard before, something I hadn’t practiced in my Czech lessons. Shame-faced, I asked him to repeat it in English. “For here or to go?” he asked. Apparently the “for here” size was an enormous white mug, so I sat sipping my oversized-coffee like the American I undeniably was.

I pushed my toes a little further into the mossy soil. I wanted to feel connected to this community, but I still didn’t quite know how. I closed my eyes.  I began to envision the roots beneath my feet, that had been dancing and entangling for hundreds of years; reaching out and telling a whole story of their own. I thought how deep they ran and where they might end. They grounded this tree and allowed it to survive, even in the hardest of times. I breathed more slowly, clearing my mind. This is why I had initially hiked up into the forest, to find a quiet place to meditate.

I thought back to when I had first learned meditation: I was four years old and sitting cross-legged on my grandmother’s floor. She sat across from me, her long brown hair so long it tickled the tips of her knees. Her dainty fingers fell open like a flower, adorned with silver rings. I had been playing in her activity room on a small trampoline she had, and this was her attempt to calm me down, which was something I struggled with as a four-year-old. A big purple Buddha sat in the corner behind her, giving me a big encouraging smile as I tried to “breath slowly” and “calm down.” I thought of her words while I stood at this tree: “When we are having a hard time,” she would say, “we can always breathe our troubles away.”

This reminded me of  something my colleague Jarka, a fellow English teacher, once told me. When she is having a hard time, she cooks her grandmother’s blueberry dumpling recipe. As a girl, she would spend her summers at her grandmother’s cottage with all her cousins. They always looked forward to times at their babička’s house because she would make these sweet dumplings. Jarka told me this over lunch when the school cafeteria so happened to be serving them. Our plates were stacked high with round white dumplings, dusted with powdered sugar and filled with warm blueberries. I pictured my young colleague and her cousins, crowded around a big wooden table in a traditional Czech cabin, the bright green Šumava hills right outside the window, with blueberry blue smiles and white powdered lips. Her grandmother had long passed but she often found comfort in preparing her recipe. “These always remind me of my happy childhood summers,” she told me and popped a bite into her mouth.

So here I stood, meditating as I had been taught to do 5,641 miles away in Boulder. I thought again of my desires to fit in and my frustrations that I still didn’t feel like a member of their community. I intended to release them with each exhalation. I inhaled the flora, and as I released my breath what left my body instead was laughter as the irony, so sweet and so simple, struck me.

I am not Czech. No amount of meditating was going to fix that: in fact meditating was the biggest testimonial against it. The beauty was in accepting that no amount of sweet dumplings would fix it either: that is somebody else’s beautiful story.

My thoughts returned to the roots miles beneath the mossy green South Bohemian soil. In the beginning, I had thought being a teacher here was all about reveling in the differences. But they are unwavering: they are the pheasants around their necks and the words we don’t understand. Something more lies beyond them. It is here we can find the answers to why they love sweet dumplings and to why the strange American goes off into the woods by herself. Here we discover the childhoods and the grandmothers we’ve all had. Beneath the surface, we can find our common humanity, running deep like the roots of this tree. Standing there, I thought: how often we fail to look beneath the surface, disregarding others for their differences; how rarely we consider their roots; and how scarcely we even begin to ponder our own.

Teal was an ETA in Vimperk, Czech Republic where she taught 225 students. She graduated in 2016 from Colorado State University where she studied Communications and English – creative writing.

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