The AmeriCzech Dream - Foreword

Foreword to Sinclair Nicholas' "The AmeriCzech Dream" Staff

Written by Staff Published on 26.01.2006 14:22:26 (updated on 26.01.2006) Reading time: 15 minutes

Written by Sinclair Nicholas
Re-published with permission

Although I felt compelled to write this book, I am no longer sure I am going to find that many people who will agree with what is written herein. After writing several chapters I decided to conduct a small experiment to test a theory I had. My theory was that Americans would enjoy and appreciate chapters that analyze/criticize Czech culture and would disagree or even be offended by the chapters analyzing/criticising American culture. This idea occurred to me because I realized that most American readers were born and raised in America and, if they have never lived outside their own culture, then how could they understand my opinions about America or Americans from an outsider´s point of view? Would I have understood the Czech or European points of views about Americans unless I lived here in the Czech Republic for so many years? And what about all those Czechs who were born and raised in the Czech Republic and have never left, all those Czechs whom have not experienced living for many years in a country like the United States, how could they understand my outsider´s point of view about the Czech Republic?

This is analogous to the two different languages we speak. When I first arrived in Czechoslovakia and heard, for the first time in my life, a Czech announcement over the airport intercom, I think in some respects I heard the Czech language more clearly or objectively than a Czech hears his or her own language. I couldn´t understand one word of it, so instead I heard the actual melody and sound qualities of the language. It was quite unique, my best description is that Czech seemed like a cross between French and German, it was harder sounding than the French language, but not nearly so hard sounding as the German language. The “Ř” and “Ž” sounds were a bit Frenchy, as was the “Ch” sound, but I also heard a hard “R” that reminded me of German, as did the harder series of individually pronounced consonants with no vowels in between, like in the words “brčko,” “vlk” or “drb.” I was objectively hearing the language as a whole. As soon as I began to understand Czech words, I no longer heard the melody of the language because I was concentrating on understanding and speaking it. I have no doubt a Czech who does not speak English can hear more objectively the sound of the English language than a person who learned English from the time he or she could begin making sounds. A Czech infant probably hears Czech the way I heard it at the airport, but we can´t ask a Czech baby such questions. Does a bird hear its chirping sounds the way we humans do? Perhaps that bird doesn´t really hear itself and is simply saying, “This is my tree branch.” Which perception of the chirping is correct, his or ours? Surely the way we humans hear it, though the bird would disagree.

I once heard English objectively quite by accident. I had been in Czechoslovakia for a few years, and not very often did I speak or hear English in my little town, so I got used to hearing Czech. One day I turned on the television and there happened to be a film in English with Czech subtitles, but at first I did not understand the English, instead I heard the sound and melody of some language that I didn´t immediately identify, it sounded a bit Germanic but was softer than that, more melodious, I thought maybe it was a Scandinavian language, then suddenly I understood every word being spoken and realized it was British English. It was a strange experience to hear all those sounds, like an objective nonspeaker, and then become utterly fluent a few seconds later.

This objective hearing of a language is similar to having an objective perception of a culture. Nothing is taken for granted. I remember now that I did feel a bit like a child again when I first came to Czechia. A child notices things and finds interest in things that an adult never would because so much is taken for granted by the time we become adults. Every little detail of Czech society was fascinating to me until I became accustomed to it.

We are all ethnocentric to one degree or another; the best cure for losing one´s inescapable ethnocentricity is to live in another culture for several years. I know very well how Americans think and how Czechs think, I recognize the social differences and have tried to dig deeper to find the roots of the two societies´ ways of thinking. I understand how difficult it is to perceive one´s own way of thought- unless one learns to really perceive that thinking from a different but valid perspective. It is much easier to see the faults or weaknesses of others than in ourselves, if we could see our personal faults then we would of course correct them, but we cannot because our beliefs hide things from us. As nations the same holds true, our national perceptions make us blind to the valid perceptions of other nations about us. We are all cursed with a mental blindness, we can look inward only dimly. Becoming part of two cultures, understanding how a different nation perceives the world, makes one eye always see better than the other eye. The truth that Czech thought contains is often the blindness that American thought contains, and vice versa, meaning Czechs have better vision in the right eye and Americans have better vision in the left eye. I have been trying for years to look at reality through my Czech right eye and my American left eye.

Or another analogy to explain this:  I have two arrows to hit the bullseye of truth. One arrow has some torn fletchings but has a straight shaft, while the other arrow has perfect fletchings but a slightly bent shaft. If I may be forgiven for mixing my metaphors, this book is an attempt to put the good fletchings on the straight shaft for one good arrow with which to shoot at the truth. You must decide for yourself as to whether or not I am a good archer. If the reader is asking “What is truth?” I would offer the silence that a wiser man than me offered when asked this same question. If the question is rhetorical then no answer is actually being sought, if the question is sincere then I can only offer what I have said or will say in this book.

One last analogy:  A fish that is born and lives all its life in a fishbowl with water of a certain temperature can´t really understand what that temperature is (how can it know anything more than what it knows?), but if the fish is put into a different fishbowl of a different temperature (as a person placed in a different society and culture) then it can use the two temperatures to measure against each other and thereby understand the temperature of each environment much better than a fish who never left his fishbowl. I have come to the conclusion that neither water temperature is necessarily better; there are both advantages and disadvantages in the cooler water, and the same can be said of the warmer water.

Most important is the new awareness of those water temperatures through the comparison, which is the fascinating opportunity that cultural relativity presents to the thoughtful immigrant. I am a person I would never have become (it would be impossible) if I had not lived in the Czech Republic for so many years. There are many things I would not understand about life and the world if I had remained in America all my life. If one never leaves one´s country, then reading widely and seeing foreign films and documentaries greatly helps, but this is like that fish reading about the warmer or colder temperatures; one can get a basic understanding about it, perhaps even more than a basic understanding, but one has not directly felt the difference. There are certain things, some of which I shall try to express herein, that can only come from living in a different culture. I hope I do not seem elitist by writing that, I hope that this book demonstrates that I am no elitist and respect all people; and anyway, there is a price to be paid for becoming an immigrant in another country, as only another immigrant knows, although it seems to me that the personal gains (not in dollars or crowns) make it a fair price.

So my question was, “Would Czechs understand my outsider/insider point of view on their culture, and would Americans understand my outsider/insider point of view about their culture? Here was the experiment: I sent a chapter that was largely analyzing the Czech Republic to a few friends in America, and they immediately e-mailed me back that they thought it was fascinating and that they found much humor and insight in it. Then I sent them a chapter that analyzed American society and, when they next wrote me, they did not even mention the chapter and were eerily silent on the subject. They did not say so much as one word about the material that I have no doubt they had read (although I think what I wrote to be true, some of the analysis was not flattering). At first I felt hurt, but then I realized that they just couldn´t see how being American wasn´t perfect, and so they followed that good old American proverb, “If you can´t say something nice, then don´t say anything at all.” At times, while writing this book, I have followed my own proverb, “If you can´t say something in a nice way, then try to say it as nicely as possible,” which may not be nicely enough for some American or Czech readers.

I gave a few Czech acqaintances the chapter that the American friends had remained silent about, and the Czechs said they loved it and found it very interesting. Then I gave them the chapter that the Americans had liked and my Czech acquaintances clearly did not like it; they got defensive, gave me reasons why they thought my thinking was wrong, then I began showing them why I didn´t agree, but in the end we appeared to be in an argument and I yielded to their truth. After I yielded, one Czech said she was a “vlastenec,” meaning a Czech patriot, which also meant she didn´t like hearing me say anything bad about Czechs or the Czech Republic. I am sure those American friends, had we discussed the chapter they did not mention, would also have ended with telling me they are patriots, meaning they don´t like to read criticism about America or Americans. I completely understand this tendency towards feeling offended; but, regardless of whether some piece of criticism is about an entire society or about me, personally, I try my best to listen with an open and objective mind to what others say. Perhaps their criticism is accurate, and could help me to change for the better. I also try to perceive whether a person is criticizing me in an earnest effort to be helpful or is criticizing me just to be mean. Most of the time it seems to me that people offer me constructive criticism, meaning it is offered with good intentions, so it is my job to be wise enough to take advantage of that- and even destructive criticism could be helpful to one´s self improvement.

I am also aware that many Czechs will probably feel offended that some foreigner thinks he has the right to criticise their country and their society; a Czech can criticise all aspects of life in the Czech Republic, but a foreigner does not have the right to do so (exactly this idea was even stated as though unquestionable fact recently in a major Czech newspaper). I would ask any offended Czech readers to please bear in mind that I have lived among them for many years— in fact for so many years that I sometimes have trouble remembering how to act and think like an American, thus I end up making cultural mistakes when I travel to America because I think like a Czech, as you shall see.

So my theory seems correct that Czechs who have never left their culture will have trouble understanding or agreeing with my criticism of Czech society, and Americans who have never left America will have difficulty understanding or appreciating my criticism of American society. I am now fairly certain of this. When I think of a statement like “Americans are very talkative and a little too friendly compared to Czechs,” which is a statement with which I believe many Czechs would readily agree, I know that I would never understand or believe that statement to have any truth to it whatsoever if I hadn´t become part of Czech culture (or if I had not learned how to look out of my right Czech eye). If I think about who I was just before I came to the Czech Republic, I am certain I would never have agreed with that statement and would have argued about it forever without ever being capable of seeing the opinion from a Czech point of view. It would be, quite simply, impossible for me to understand. I appreciate that American friendliness, but I also recognize it can cause cultural conflicts if practiced in a culture that is more socially formal. So I do understand and easily forgive the negative reactions of my American and Czech guinea pigs, and of you the reader. I will not dislike you for disagreeing with me and hope you feel the same towards me. I have tried to write this book so that it feels like an open dialogue with the reader sitting on the other side of the table from me.

If you disagree with some of my opinions or ideas, it is entirely possible that these disagreements are justified, maybe I have misconstrued reality, though I sincerely hope I have not done this often; or, perhaps if we could have our open discussion, we would discover that your disagreement is simply a misunderstanding, or perhaps I could give you more details that make you see the truth of my statement. Maybe you could give me details that would make me see error in my statement. In any case, I have tried to write in a way that keeps a spirit of open discussion and dialogue.

After conducting that little experiment I felt a bit frightened, and I have been hesitant to publish a book that may try to communicate to two audiences (Czechs and Americans) and in the end fails at communicating with either. It seems that I may get a bad reaction from both nationalities that are discussed herein. My Czech and American friends alike will perhaps never mention this book to me and pretend I never wrote it. Perhaps they will politely omit this publishing error in my life as though it were some birth defect that shouldn´t be mentioned. But then I realized that I am, and am not, writing this book for American and Czech readers. Or, perhaps only Americanized Czechs and Czechified Americans will appreciate the ideas and opinions herein. I wrote to this imaginary reader who is a friend of mine and understands where I am coming from, which is like writing to myself.

This reminds me of my book American Thang. That book also I could not write if I thought too much about writing it for an audience. I wrote the little stories in it for myself. I was of course pleased that a lot of Czech students wrote me letters telling me they enjoyed the book, I felt relief, and happiness—because of course a writer writes to communicate with others. It´s the fundamental paradox of writing:  if I were in a spaceship heading into space and was guaranteed anything I wrote would be burned into the sun a hundred years after my death, if I had no hope whatsoever that not one other person would read my writing, then I don´t think I would bother to write anything. What would be the point? Yet when I write, I write to myself. When I wrote American Thang, I was in some way writing for myself. I hoped there would be lots of other people like me who would enjoy what I wrote, but I had to discover and develop confidence in my own voice as I wrote. Thinking too much about writing to an audience, or a reader, can deform the writing.

In writing this book, I came to suspect that my English might have become a bit twisted occasionally because of my speaking knowledge of Czech, so that at times the grammatical structures in my English might seem odd to the native English reader, like my word order might sometimes seem strange, or my tense usage slips because of perfected tenses (or the nonexistence of it in Czech), but I also know that I am writing very fluently, so I decided to just write and not concentrate on tense or word order to the point that my meaning gets disrupted. It is much easier to just make note of it in the foreword than to painstakingly deal with every suspected instance of this phenomenon in the text. Besides, such quirky mistakes make my translator´s job easier since the hidden grammatical structures might at times fit better with the Czech language (from which it may have originated), which reminds me of yet one more problem:  this book was written in painstaking English, every word and thought pondered upon, though I wanted a Czech translation to also be in print so that I could communicate with many more Czechs, but if you are reading a Czech version of this book, please be aware that translating the book to Czech so that it carries the exact meaning and tone of my English seems like a very difficult task. Thus, if you read anything herein that seems illogical or insulting, it is probably a mistranslation and is my translator´s fault.

I felt fear and a strong sense of risk as I wrote this book (that very well may be the reason I decided to write it), emminent danger with every opinion or idea, it has been a thrilling turn after every comma. I hope such risky writing will be the reason I like this book a decade from now. For the present, I can only hope for a few readers who will enjoy reading this book. I also recognize, from my experiment, that maybe all I shall succeed in doing is to offend readers from the two nations that I love the most in the entire world. I am irrevocably tied to both nations until the day I die, so of course I do not wish to offend Americans and Czechs. I have only endeavored to show you what I see out of my two nation´s eyes and, in the process, discover my own AmeriCzech self.

About the Author:
Sinclair Nicholas washed up on the right bank of the Vltava as part of that first and biggest expat wave that was driven by the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution. In "91 he began teaching Czech children to speak English at an elementary school. At that time, due to so many questions from some of his teenaged students (questions like, "How is different, Mr. Teacher, between "fuck off," "fuck up" and "fuck over?"") Sinclair began writing scurrilous phrasal verbs in a notebook, which evolved into his first and most infamous book, Wang Dang American Slang. The book was printed in 1992 with a first printing of 40,000 copies; He used the royalties from American Slang to start his publishing house, WD Publications, and spent the next decade writing and publishing many more of his own books ( has all titles as well as an online ordering system).

His latest book, The AmeriCzech Dream, is currently available only as a Czech translated version (you can get it at Luxor), but he will publish the original English manuscript sometime this year (likely this fall). However, we have some of his original, as-yet unpublished chapters available right here at– in fact, these original English chapters are not available anywhere else except at this website, so we hope you enjoy the unique reading opportunity.

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