I Feel Like I’m Cheating

I’ve always prided myself on my loyalty and integrity in relationships. These days, however, my faithfulness is coming into question but not in the way that you’re probably thinking.

Sometimes, it feels like I’m cheating on my native language.

Yes, you read me right. Sorry, not sorry for the click-bait title.

Call me crazy but, as a student of the Czech language, I sometimes feel like I’m being disloyal to English. It’s a strange feeling to articulate and I’m trying to understand it better. Because language is culture, I suppose what I feel is more so a detachment from my native culture.

The psychiatrists probably call it “cultural dissonance,” not an abnormal thing for an expat to experience. To an extent, I’ve become acutely aware of my otherness over the past year of living in the Czech Republic. Yet, only recently I’ve felt this inconsistency in my cultural identity. So, what changed?

In a 2016 TED Talk, linguist John McWhorter explained that one reason for learning a new language is to transition from being an observer of a culture to a participant in it: “To go into a culture and to only ever process people through that kind of scrim curtain is to never truly get the culture.”

When I first came here, I experienced the culture passively because I had to expend most of my energy on assimilation. Now that I’m settled, I take an active role in experiencing Czech culture, especially by using the language, even if I’m “hrozná.” And it’s because of this that I don’t feel like a visitor anymore. I understand cultural nuances that can’t simply be translated and this deeper connection to the culture is gratifying beyond measure.

Amidst this exploration, my own cultural identity has felt more transient. By living abroad, I’ve learned that cultural identity is pliable. In architecture school, I learned that even structurally-sound components in construction experience distortion. Whether I want it to or not, my cultural identity is going to warp. (I just hope not like “Gallopin’ Gertie.”)

Bridges are a good analogy for language learning because, by learning just a few words of a language, you build a cultural bridge that’s founded on respect. That’s the biggest change I’ve observed since speaking more Czech. To greet someone in their native tongue is, ironically, a rare courtesy in an increasingly globalized world. (Gotta love a good lingua franca.)

This week, I challenge you to reach out to someone whose native language is different from yours. Greet them in their mother tongue. Ask how to say something. Build your cultural bridge.

Speaking of bridges, here’s a shot of Charles Bridge from my trip to Prague this past weekend.

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