by Todd McKay
Joe Stalin once said ‘The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.’ To me, the story of a person is much more powerful than the history carried on the shoulders of a people. Take, for example, a small but notorious piece of Japan’s history—the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ordered by U.S. president Harry S. Truman on August 6th and 9th, 1945. Everyone knows that these events were utterly catastrophic; entire cities were destroyed and the overwhelming majority of victims were comprised of citizens. The number of dead in both cities as a direct result of the atomic blasts was roughly 220,000, not to mention the subsequent thousands affected by radiation exposure and loss of house and home.
While these statistics are enough to make any reader gasp, the horrific details of such an event or experience become more grotesquely shocking given a more personal account. Reiko Kajitani was a college student in Hiroshima working in a munitions factory 4.1 kilometers from the center of the blast making arms when ‘Little Boy’ was detonated. She recalls running home to her crying father who was in the ‘black rain’ of the explosion, seeing dead and dying people on the streets. To me, Reiko Kajitani´s story is much more moving than any historical overview a textbook could provide. Hearing her story allows me to identify with her as a person and not just a 1 of the hundreds of thousands affected, not just a statistic.
Stalin was right. It’s amazing how quickly our eyes can pass over a number like that. ‘Wow,’ we might mutter briefly to ourselves after learning that 70,000 refugees fled the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo to avoid being raped and physically mutilated and maimed. ‘That’s crazy,’ we might think hearing that roughly 550,000 Tutsis were killed in just over three months during the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, right before we order an Ethiopian drip for a buck fifty at the local coffee shop.
What’s the point. What I’m trying to get at is that statistics are a lump of human beings with the tears wiped off. Generalizations and stereotypes can be lumped in the same category. R.H. Grenier put it rather bluntly when he said ‘All generalizations are bad.’ Generalizations, stereotypes, and statistics are all on the same page in that they plagiarize humanity; statistics take away the scars while stereotypes and generalizations any personality or individual character. It’s natural though, isn’t it, to turn a blind eye to seemingly far-away tragedy and because we think, it’s easy to categorize and heap a group of people under a single umbrella. ‘To generalize is to think,’ said Hegel. Therefore, for most, there’s no escape.
Statistics help us carry out our day-to-day routines emotionally unhindered. Generalizations and stereotypes allow us to wade through a group of people with a sign on our forehead that reads ‘I know who you are and, no, I don’t need to get to know you on a more intimate level.’ That’s a big sign, I admit, but thank God for small font. It’s like taking a bus when you could just as easily walk and get some exercise. We want to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible with no ‘vias’ and no transfers. A direct ticket is both easier and lazier, like generalizations and stereotypes. If you see a Korean student, say, in the library who has been there for 10 hours studying for an exam in bio-mechanics perhaps, that’s to be expected because everyone knows Korean students are diligent and study round the clock. Who knows, though, maybe it’s an exam in Art History? Whatever you do, don’t stop and greet the bloke because that would be like flying from Salt Lake City to Paris and having to stop at Chicago O-Hare and, let’s face it, no one in their right mind likes ‘via’ Chicago on their flight itinerary.
My flight wasn’t from Salt Lake City to Paris, but from Salt Lake City to Vienna, and I did have to travel through Chicago O’Hare. I spent a few nights in Vienna where I did enough sight-seeing to justify several nights of drinking with a group of internationals. Among those I met and sipped a beer with were a Hawaiian by the name of Nick, two Aussies Joe and Philippa, and a New Zealander… Brian, I believe was his name. I approached the bar counter of the Wombat’s hostel with a couple stereotypes floating around and ordered a kleines bier. Nick had a couple tattoos, tribal ones, and blond highlights in his close-cropped, gel-ridden hair. Just as people ask me, a native Utahan, if I’m a member of the LDS sect, I ignorantly asked Nick if he surfed. ‘Never been,’ he curtly retorted. ‘Strike one,’ I thought to myself—all Hawaiians surf.
From Vienna, I caught a series of trains to the small town of Sušice in the Czech Republic where I was to teach for a month. Apart from the greener than green countryside, the town itself looked like most other European cities I’ve visited: sinuous cobblestone streets, a few pubs, a bakery every block, and the occasional homeless vagrant drunk on a much higher quality beer, possibly a Pilsner Urquell or a stout Kozel. I met my host-family on a Saturday evening following a commencement party at the Sokolovna. My host-brother Zdenda is 15 years old and a couple inches taller than me. Irena, my host-mom and Zdenda’s vigilant mother, is roughly 45, give or take, with medium-length hair with blond highlights and a squarish jaw. Irena speaks a little English, but Zdenda was opted official translator when conversation strayed from the simple present.
Pet’a, the host-sister, would come home on the weekends, leaving behind her studies in Economics at university in Cheb to do laundry and enjoy a home-cooked meal in the meagerly populated village of Kašperské Hory. If you have a map of the Czech Republic in front of you, don’t bother trying to find it. However, if you are of the stubborn type who insists on putting any given story on the map, locate Sušice in the southwest corner, then let your finger traipse a good millimeter SSE, and you’re squishing it. Pet’a’s 21 years old with dyed blond hair and an intoxicating laugh, one of those laughs that cause a chain reaction and ultimately result in sore stomach and Masseter muscles.
One Friday evening, I remember watching television with Zdenda, eagerly awaiting Pet’a’s arrival. Irena would drive to the train station in Hartmanice around five or six in the evening to pick up Pet’a once she got off the train from Cheb. I distinctly remember the couch that we were both sitting on. It was in the shape of the letter ‘J’ and had a variety of Egyptian symbols sewn into the dune-colored fabric. There were ankhs, scarab beetles, and a smattering of wedjats. Friday evenings at the Oudes residence are usually a celebration complete with klobasa bites, veggies, an eclectic of not-so-smelly cheeses, and champagne with strawberries or melon squares. This Friday was different. Pet’a had phoned ahead Thursday to invite me and a couple friends to a garden party, ‘party’ being the key word and ‘garden’ the not so key.
I had spoken with Erin and Maya earlier that Friday and invited them to come to the garden party. Pet’a and I left home around 8:30 pm after a ‘heart’-y meal, meaning fried cheese, fries, and good beer. We walked the two minutes to the Children’s Home at the heart of the little village where we met up with Erin and Maya. I don’t know how Maya and Erin were feeling as we walked the narrow cobblestone streets on our way to the party, but I, a tad self-conscious of the generalizations and stereotypes that our government and fistful of Americans have managed to perpetuate and lay at our feet like landmines, was worried about my overall acceptance by Czech people at this party.
Before I get into details about the party, however, I had better fill you in on a couple negative experiences I’ve had up to this point in the Czech Republic that put a hitch in my pre-party giddy-up. There weren’t many, but there were enough to put me on edge and keep my mind pre-occupied during the walk from the Oudes residence to the country smallholding bordering the town where the party was held. One night, Maya, Sadie, and I decided to grab a beer at one of the local bars. We swung into the Krusovice bar called Non-Stop between the hybrid café/bowling alley and grammar school. The ambiance was good, from what I can remember. We ordered a beer each and took a seat at the plain old nothing-special wooden bar table next to the entryway. It was just the three of us until another bar owner, Patrick, stepped into the bar and immediately walked over to the counter. Maya recognized him straight off as the owner of the bar next to the Children’s Home and flagged him down with a wave and a small. He took a seat on my right-hand side, but left 10-15 minutes later when a couple approached our table. Perhaps I should have taken Patrick’s self-excused leave-of-absence as a hint, but I’ve never been good at picking up hints, especially those really important this-is-your-chance-to-kiss-me ones that attractive girls sometimes send. They were both male, one was roughly 45 years old, and the other was 22. They were both bald, not that that means anything. The older bloke sat at the end of the table next to Sadie and Maya, talking with them, while I made what little conversation I could with the 22 year-old. At one point, the 22 year-old looks at me and says ‘Maybe problem,’ thumbing to the 45 year-old to his right. I didn’t think much of it then, but before we knew it, the older guy’s voice became louder and louder until he was yelling at the top of his lungs. He stood up, picked up the thick glass ashtray darning the middle of the table, threw it down, and yelled ‘Geficht!’, pointing to without the bar. A degree in linguistics can offer surprisingly accurate insight into a slew of foreign words. From what German I knew, ficken means ‘to fuck.’ So, the 45 year-old was saying something along the lines of ‘Get the fuck out of here!’, but managed to truncate the six-word phrase into a single word. We thought it high-time to leave the bar. Amid machinegun-like bellows of ‘Tat tat tat!’ from the 45 year-old, we hot-heeled down the sidewalk and took refuge behind a wall until we could calm down and recover from the initial shock of just having been yelled from a bar. Because the guy was speaking Czech, except for that choice German word, we couldn’t tell what the problem was. Was it something we said? Was it because we are American? Experience number one.
Experience number two was even less decipherable. Sadie and I, having a few hours between classes at the grammar school, usually met at the blue coffee shop at the west end of the main drag, if you can call it that. There were usually five or six holey silver tables on the outside patio encircled with fewer chairs topped with blue cushions, possibly to match the paint of the building. Sadie was sitting on the corner of the patio, and I was standing on the gravel on the perimeter in front of her. She noticed the blue, red, and black bracelet on my right wrist, the one I bought from a Quechua vendor in the Olpin Union building. As she was rotating it on my arm to get a better look, an old man walked by, visibly graying and wrinkle warped. He reached out, almost touching my wrist, and barked something in Czech that could’ve been a phrase or a word exaggerated into multiple syllables with a disgruntled look on his face. He continued walking, leaving Sadie and I shocked and befuddled in his dusty wake. Did we stick out as Americans like a sore thumb? Experience number two.
While both of these experiences left a big question mark hanging in the foreground of my thoughts, I wondered as to whether our being chased from the bar and the barking were due to our nationality or perhaps our socially unacceptable behavior. Whatever the cause, my thoughts tended toward the former and this made the prospect of a mostly-Czech, few-American party much more disconcerting.
I carried these experiences with me like my over-stuffed travel pack that I hadn’t completely shrugged off. Walking the trails and cobblestone streets to the party, I imagined walking into the party, into groups of Czechs. Would they be like the 45-year-old at the bar and chase us from the smallholding with up-turned bottles of Bozkov, their hands tightly around the neck? Or would they, like the old man at the blue coffee house, spit venomous phrases that neither Erin, Maya, or I could understand, and only on the basis of our nationality? Sure, both these scenarios may seem over-the-top, but my mind involuntarily prepares for the worst in most situations.
Speaking of the mind, stereotyping and generalizing can have incredible psychological impact on an individual. One particular study comes to mind conducted by a pack of lab-coaters from Penn State. I won’t take the plunge into details, but the results of the study inconclusively showed that, when picturing violent crimes, many unconsciously recall images of African-Americans indicating the mnemonic power of racial stereotyping. Perhaps then Czech people, by dint of hundreds of Hollywood films inaccurately portraying a bevy of Americans, have in some way or other formed a negative miasma that unconsciously guides their attitudes towards and interactions with Americans.
Tired of wondering, I turned to Pet’a one night and asked her what American stereotypes churn in the collective unconscious of the Czech people. She put a fist to her chin to think for a few minutes then responded with an eclectic of broken sentences tantamount to ‘war-mongering, McDonald’s-eating capitalists.’ I got a similar response from Zdenek, excluding the bellicose and fast-food bits, when I told him how much I made over the course of the summer to pay for tuition. Neither of these untoward adjectives was new to my ears, but it struck me at that moment just how adhesive negative ones can be. Apparently, they are just as elusive and slippery as statistics-damn them.
Nonetheless, I should not be so quick to point any fingers nor take any offense, because I must admit that I come to the table with what little I know of Czech people. Most of what I know I learned in the few months preceding my departure. The first thing I learned concerning the Czechs was that they drink a lot of beer. This, however, is not necessarily a stereotype, but more a facet of the culture. The Irish would not be offended. They would flex their muscles and flaunt their hollow legs before letting any alcohol-related comment nettle them. The second thing I heard about Czech people (and it’s no coincidence that food is the brunt of Czech stereotypes) is that they eat a lot of meat. Not just the occasional ‘we’re having chicken for dinner’ meat, but a full-fledged, seven-course, turn-you-to-a-solid, meat-at-every-meal kind of meat.
My point is that stereotypes and generalizations are like indoffable clothes: whether or not the brand name is sewn in garish seven inch letters across the chest, everyone wears them. I wore those few negative experiences as we approached the chain-link gate barring our entrance, and exit, from the smallholding while packing what little I knew of Czech people and culture in my mental knapsack. When I saw the group of Czechs surrounding the bonfire, I immediately thought to myself ‘They’re all Czech.’ This could be misconstrued as stating the obvious, but if you’ve grasped the gist of my stereotype/generalization argument up to this point, you’ll understand that this four word sentence is a layered cake. While ‘They’re all Czech’ explicitly means that the dozen of men and women surrounding the fire are of Czech nationality and speak the Czech language, it also means that they eat a lot of meat, drink a lot of beer, and potentially exude a subtle enmity towards Americans. ‘The whole idea of a stereotype is to simplify. Instead of going through the problem of all this great diversity – that it’s this or maybe that – you have just one large statement; It is this’ said Chinua Achebe, and that’s exactly what I did. I took all the identifying characteristics, the nose, the eyes, the chin, off the Czech face and reduced a party’s-worth of individuals to ‘They are Czech.’ ‘We are American’ and all that that entails in the Czech mind: war and fast-food loving party animals that have one-night stands and are very loud.
I kept quiet while Pet’a introduced us. At first, I wandered aimlessly among Czech strangers and new acquaintances holding a bottle of chilled Havana Club as though it were a white flag that would carry me from one end of the night to the other. Like any newcomers or strangers, we attracted a lot of looks and had to shake a lot of hands. Péťa was outstanding, introducing us to people and helping to get conversations started.
The names came first, but I can’t remember them all. I met a man named Michel who has a small son almost a year old. Michel is a Czech soldier whose English is pretty damn good considering the last time he spoke English was ten years ago when he was stationed in Yugoslavia. Talkative as all hell, Michel taught me a few Czech words and helped me with my pronunciation. We hit topics like the Russian alphabet and the Czech public school system in our conversations.
Zdeněk, our host, is 25 years old and wore a white straw hat and Hawaiian shirt for most of the weekend. He worked for three months in a processing plant in Alaska during the darker part of the year and is proficient in English because of it. He is a student in Prague where he studies hard and lives in the dorms like many of my friends do at the University of Utah. He taught me that ‘having windows in your head’ is the same as ‘blacking out’ in English. He had windows in his head for the better part of the weekend.
Zdeněk’s father is almost 50 and dreams of going to Alaska one day. In one part of his property, he built a small kennel where he keeps his seven ‘mushing’ dogs, as he calls them. Luna is 11 years old and the oldest among them. Little does he know that his son is planning a trip for him to Alaska to celebrate his 50th birthday.
Verča is Zdeněk´s younger sister. She´s 22, I think, and I have never met a younger sister who cared so much for her older brother. She had her arm around him half the party and would constantly pry a bottle of rum from his hands whenever it was obvious he had had too much to drink.
These are just a few of the people I met at the party-people, as in a group of individuals and not a collective embodiment of inaccurately biased abstractions. It’s incredible how, when dealing with generalizations and nothing genuine with which to compare them, roughly 10 million people can be crammed into a single effigy that drinks beer, eats meat, and dislikes Americans. Conversely, one good encounter, one good experience or cheerful morning ‘Jak se mash’ can dispel years of compounded misrepresentation. Once you get to know a person, some of the nitty-gritty about who they are, you come to realize that despite the language barrier, words are transparent and you have more in common as humans than you originally thought possible. Labels are peeled back and all that’s left is the fruit, brandless and priceless. They are not Czech and you are not American. Rather, you are you and he is himself, plain and simple.