First generation Czech American: Experiences in living two cultures in the 21st century
I was born Jana Marcela Vaculik on January 11, 1982, in West, Texas to Jan and Marcela Thalova Vaculik. My fathers parents were the late Karol Vaculik, born March 1909 in Liptovsky Svaty Mikulas, Slovakia and Ludmila Simcikova Vaculik born October 28, 1919 in Hluk, Czech Republic located in eastern Moravia. My mother's parents are the late Josef Thal and Marie Rojikova Thalova of Ceska Lipa, Czech Republic. My father, Jan was born in Miloslavov, Slovakia in 1945 and my mother Marcela was born in Chomutov, Czech Republic in 1947.
My grandparents did not come to America at the same time or to West, Texas immediately. My parents and grandparent's journey to America is one that many immigrants can relate to no matter when they immigrated. Coming to a new country with a different language and making new memories filled with experiences.
My story begins in the years after World War Two specifically the year of 1948, a turning point in the history of Czechoslovakia and my family. My grandmother and grandfather where living in (name of town) along with their two young boys, Karel and Jan. My grandfather worked for the Democratic party, an attache to the Chairman of the party. The communists did not Karol Vaculik escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1948 because of the Communist takeover. My father Jan was two years old in 1948 and uncle Karel was eight. My father and his older brother Karel along with my grandmother moved to her hometown of Hluk, Czech Republic. She became a single mother raising two young boys. All of these things, which happened in the past to my family, have greatly influenced me and my life story. My father, who is the typical Moravian, did not like to move, caused me to live in West for all of my life. I have lived in the same town and house all of my life. The Czech people in general have this habit of not want to move from place to place. I have visited Czechoslovakia several times and everyone stays in the same place.
My first visit was when I was eight years old in May of 1990 soon after the Velvet Revolution. I was starting to speak more English than Czech so my family decided I was old enough to travel to Czechoslovakia with my grandmother Vaculik. This was the first time I had seen my family in Europe. Sometimes they would come and visit us in the United States but that was rare under communism. Another reason I was able to visit my family was the end of communism. My family would not have let me visit until the country was a democracy.
We spent about two months living at my grandmother's childhood home in Hluk. Staying at a hotel is unheard of so you always stay with friends and family. The home was built in 1928 by my great-grandparents Jan and Marie Simickovi. My great-grandfather was a butcher and owner of a hospoda. Their house was the first two-story on the block and my grandmother would say that from the attic you could see miles around. After that the neighbors also started to build a second story, not to be out done by the Simcik's. Another thing I have also noticed as a child, was this habit. If one neighbor plants roses in front of their yard, everyone notices and fixes up their flower garden. If someone gets new windows, everyone gets new windows. A family paints their home so everyone paints their home too. The ancestral home goes from one generation to the next. My father lived in the house with his grandparents along with friends of the family. It was always the center of activity then as it is now because it is across the street from the City Hall and post office and just a block from the secondary school. Across the street is the elementary school and store.
When my father would come home from school someone would be there. The second story of the house was passed down to my Uncle Karel and Aunt Kvetuska who raised their two children, Karel and Sarka in the house. Now my uncle has his own house and my cousin Sarka with her husband Karel live in the second story along with their two children Sarka and Martin. The first story belongs to my father's first cousin Zdenka Simcikova Krapkova and her husband Frantisek. They raised their family and converted it so that my Aunt Anna, Zdenka's mother would live with them since she was unable to take care of herself.
My grandmother and I lived in the second story of the house on my first visit to Czechoslovakia with my aunt and uncle along with my first cousin Sarka's family. This is before by uncle Karel renovated his house. He currently lives in Hluk. He lives at house number 48 and my cousin lives in house number 55. Turn the corner, go a few houses down and there it is. Sarka's children have interaction with their grandparents since they do not live far away.
During my first visit I was not allowed to stay at home but to go to school. I was forced by my grandmother to go to school during my vacation. Children in the Czech Republic go to school until the end of June and a month later than American children. So I went to school for a month. School in the Czechoslo-vakia at that time was very different from what I was used to. When you entered the school building students had to take their shoes off and put on slippers. Luckily for me I had my cousins who helped me during this time otherwise I would not have gone if I had not known anyone. I had four cousins with me while I was attended third grade in Hluk. They were a year older than me but it did not really matter. I did the same schoolwork as the other students. The teacher would give me math problems to do or to read out loud in Czech as well as the other students. Most of the time I observed and listened.
First of all, the students have great respect for the teacher. As soon as the teacher walks in every student stands up and says "Dobry den" (Good day). The teachers have control over the class and are very firm. When he or she says to be quiet then the class almost always stop. During the there are several 15-20 minute breaks in between class for svacina (snack) that is a different story. Kids running in the halls, laughing, playing a quick game of soccer outside, and talking with their friends. It took me awhile to get use to the school.
The school I went to was three stories. The cafeteria was in the basement and no elevators. Towards the end of the school year, especially in the elementary school, students go on field trips. I was fortunate enough to go with the students as well. Going to botanical gardens, castles, a large greenhouse was so much fun and allowed me to learn many things about the Czech culture. To learn a language I believe is better to totally immerse yourself in the culture. To be in a position of having to use the language in order to communicate with people this is what I had to do. Everyone knew I was from the United States and fascinated by me. They wanted to learn anything and everything they could about the culture. This was in 1990 so they where being bombarded with everything. The floodgates opened after communism fell. I also was able to witness the first elections and campaigns of the democratic Czechoslovakia. Fliers of the many candidates on the streets, candidates speaking about what how they will lead the country and make it better. I was a popular girl and I was asked to say things in English. My Czech at eight years old was not all that spectacular. Until I started kindergarten I spoke the language very well, a perfect Moravian dialect according to my father. My parents did not speak to me in English so I learned it on my own. All of my life we have spoken nothing but Czech in our house. Once I started to attend school my Czech skills slipped. I understood it but answered in English or English and Czech mixed together. My brother and I had this habit throughout childhood. My parents and grandparents still spoke Czech to me no matter what. One of the reasons my parents sent me to Czechoslovakia was to improve my Czech.
Two months to an eight year old seemed like an eternity but once I got home I started speaking the Czech language 100 miles an hour. My grandmother always tells this story about coming home from the airport. I was telling everyone in the car about my great time all in perfect Czech. Ever since then my Czech language improved and I have not forgotten. During the one month of school, I made many friends and write to them often. Writing in Czech was not one of my strong points so it took me forever to write a letter. There is one girl, Maruska Hanackova which I have written to for close to 12 years.
I was also included in field trips and in their class photo. In the subsequent years at the age of 10 and 12 I attended the same school and with the same people. Each year they were not as interested in me as they were the first time. They all knew about America. At the age of 14 I only attended one day of high school and it was not as modern technology wise as the one I attended. Every two years in Hluk there would be a festival, which I was able to be apart of the festival at age 8, and will remember it forever. There would be a parade which citizens of the surrounding towns dressed in authentic costumes and musicians. There would be booths with all kinds of items for sale: clothes, electronics and crafts. I walked in the parade with all of the rest of the people from Hluk. In the town, people all know each other and know each other's business. Old ladies on the way to buy fresh rohlycky from the bakery would go see whose obituary was posted. On the way to the post office these older ladies would stop and talk to other ladies, what part of their body was hurting, the garden is not growing, and the past. Since my great-grandparent's house is right on the corner on people's way to the post office, store, and bakery, my grandmother during our visits would sit on a bench in front of the house. People she had known before coming to America would stop and talk with her and tell her what has happened, who died since her last visit. People are born and pass away in the same house because Families in the Czech Republic live and then die together and the family is very important to them. To me it is almost suffocating at times. The closeness sometimes makes you feel trapped and can not get away. But I will always know that my parents will always welcome me and I will have a place to come home too. It seems the American culture is all about moving. Moving to find an education, moving to a better school district, moving to find a better job. Stability is hard to find. Growing up in a three-generationhousehold has taught me to have great respect for the older generation. My younger brother Jon and I were raised in a very traditional Moravian home. My nonconforming father with the help of my mother and grandparents raised us in this upbringing. My father always told us we were Moravians not Czech. We spoke Moravian not Czech. The father is the head of the household and waits for the food to be put in the table while all the women scramble to get everything ready. What the father said was right, was right. I did not always agree and was not afraid to speak my opinion but I always new what my father thought about my opinion. I was born as a first generation Czech American and as with everything there are both good and bad things. I always felt the pull of two cultures: American and the Moravian. I woke up every morning to the Moravian culture with my mother in the kitchen making breakfast and sending my brother and I to school. Once I got to school was an American for eight hours and then at home I was swallowed up by the Moravian culture again.
I never felt a sense of belonging to either culture. I was different enough in the American culture to not be accepted. Then I was too American for the Moravian/Czech culture. My cousins did not think I knew anything. I was helpless. It reminds me of the parable about the Country and City mouse. They did not know my family ate the same foods, wore authentic costumes, and had a garden in the backyard. My family in Europe had the impression that just because my family moved away that they did not keep the culture alive. We forgot and become Americanized. I might not have experienced the same things but I knew something. Of course I would not know what it is like to live under communism and they do not know that life in America is not filled with hard work and determination to meet your goals. The only things we have in common are that we are family and speak the language.
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