Nov 232014

After encountering several important differences in the basic aspects of American life—think inches and gallons—I found it reassuring that the hour here has sixty minutes, the day twenty-four hours, and the week seven days. Then I found the American week starts on Sunday. Being the first day after the weekend, my week has always started on Monday. There’s a reason for Saturday and Sunday being called the weekend; as the week’s final day, Sunday is reserved for rest before another work week. In my Slovak mind, the sequence of […] Continue reading >

Sep 172014

It took some time getting used to tipping in America, and I still have a problem with it. Over the years, Lindsay and I have had many a healthy and heated argument about my resistance to the automatic 20% tip, our cultures and personal experiences clashing like pot lids being banged against each other. No need to go into the details because in this clip from Quentin Tarantino’s movie Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) outlines some of my arguments. After all the back and forth, Lindsay and I […] Continue reading >

Aug 272014
Tipping in America, Hand to Hand (Part 1)

When I travel one of the first things I look up about a country is restaurant tipping customs and etiquette. This wasn’t the case when I came to the U.S. 11 years ago, chiefly because I didn’t have the money to go out much, not to mention tip. After returning from the yearlong round-the-world trip and changing my tipping habits (and currencies) every few weeks, I was reintroduced to tipping in America with something close to a jolt. Tipping in Slovakia In my native Slovakia tipping isn’t a strict […] Continue reading >

Apr 132013
Stereotypes: How to Combat Negative Perceptions

Rather than getting into where stereotypes come from* or how stereotyping operates, let me tackle the problem of dealing with negative stereotypes, since positive stereotypes are much less detrimental to optimal immigration experience. In addition, rather than just coping, which implies an internal, psychological process, let me examine how to combat negative stereotypes. Three basic strategies come to mind. Anti-stereotyping strategy #1: Ignore Ducks spread a waxy coating on their feathers during preening that ensures their underlayer remains dry at all times. Likewise, you the immigrant can build a […] Continue reading >

Apr 052013

Foreigners frequently master the grammar of a language better than its native speakers, the better, perhaps to hide their difference, their diffidence, which also explains why they are so tactful, almost ceremonial, when it comes to the language they adopt, bowing before its splendor, its arcane syntax, to say nothing of its slang, which they use sparingly, and somewhat stiffly, with the studied nonchalance of people who aren’t confident enough to dress down when the need arises. —Andre Aciman in “Shadow Cities”, in: Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, […] Continue reading >

Mar 252013
Stereotypes: What Americans Think of Eastern Europeans

Kay Deaux’s To Be an Immigrant (review) devotes considerable ink on stereotypes that Americans hold about immigrants. Some immigrant groups have it worse than others, e.g. Haitians or Mexicans vs. white Europeans, but every immigrant regardless of their country of origin, nationality, or race experiences some form of stereotyping. Coping with with such simplified perceptions affects the immigration experience. To confirm and expand my idea about natural-born Americans’ perceptions of Eastern Europeans, a more familiar category for the locals than Central Europeans, I posed this question on Facebook: Eastern Europeans Are… As is […] Continue reading >

Mar 032013

An accent is a tell-tale scar left by the unfinished struggle to acquire a new language. But it is much more. It is an author’s way of compromising with a world that is not his world and for which he was not and, in a strange sense, will never be prepared, torn as he’ll always remain between a new, thoroughly functional here-and-now and an old, competing altogether-out-there that continues to exert a vestigial but enduring pull. An accent marks the lag between two cultures, two languages, the space where […] Continue reading >

Jan 132013
One Foot in Each Culture

A common metaphor for an immigrant is that of a plant, uprooted from his country of origin and replanted in another land. Anchored in the place you are born, you become rooted in it. The longer you’re there, the deeper the roots. When you leave your country, you yank yourself out of the land. To begin a new life in a new country, you put the old roots down in the new soil but you must also start new roots to survive. The metaphor finds expression in a synonym […] Continue reading >

Oct 172012
Great Difficulty in Translating Observations

What he refers to as the “stupidity” of the American masses, who are satisfied by the purely material advantages of this new civilization, is exceptionally irritating to the Eastern intellectual. Raised in a country where there was a definite distinction between the “intelligentsia” and the “people,” he looks, above all, for ideas created by the “intelligentsia,” the traditional fermenting element in revolutionary changes. When he meets with a society in which the “intelligentsia,” as it was known in Central or Eastern Europe, does not exist, he has great difficulty […] Continue reading >

Oct 032012
It's "Banned Books Week" in America. Let's read!

It’s middle of the Banned Books Week, “the national book community’s annual celebration of the freedom to read.” Throughout the country, “[h]undreds of libraries and bookstores draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events.” Banned Books Week highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community—librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types—in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those […] Continue reading >

Apr 252012
Dick Clark and the Death of an Unknown Celebrity

Dick Clark passed away last week and the news left me unmoved. But as the narrative of Clark’s cultural impact unfolded over the next few days, once again I found myself scrambling on the acculturation treadmill. The NPR news segment identified Dick Clark as the TV host of "American Bandstand" and the New Year’s Eve countdown at Times Square; later I learned he had been the first American "television personality." Having seen the music show, which ran from 1957 to 1987, precisely zero times and the "New Year’s Rockin’ Eve" only for a […] Continue reading >

Mar 192012
American Euphemisms and Evasive Thinking, Part 2

In his 1965 essay "On Evasive Thinking", Václav Havel bemoans a degradation of language from being "a means of signifying reality, and of enabling us to come to an understanding of it" to being "an end in itself". Havel saw the "verbal mysticism" or "ritualization of language" cause the word as such to cease to be a sign for a category and instead gain "a kind of occult power to transform one reality into another". Havel discussed this shift in the context of 1960’s Czechoslovakia, but the similarity with American […] Continue reading >

Mar 172012
St. Patrick's Day and Immigrant Holidays

Official, or federally recognized, American holidays derive from historical events (Independence Day/Fourth of July), religious traditions (Christmas), and national heroes (Martin Luther King Day). Among the unofficial but widely recognized and celebrated holidays, which include Mardi Gras, Easter, and Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day holds a special place: it celebrates the culture of an immigrant group.  Every March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day commemorates Ireland’s patron saint and the arrival of Christianity to Ireland in 12th century. About 12% of U.S. population, or more than 36 million people, reported Irish ancestry in 2008; the Irish diaspora […] Continue reading >