The Permanent Foreigner

Sinclair Nicholas describes life as a foreigner Staff

Written by Staff Published on 26.01.2006 20:44:21 (updated on 26.01.2006) Reading time: 53 minutes

Written by Sinclair Nicholas
Re-published with permission

I needed to get some rolls of asphalt paper to fix my roof, and so I went where a lot of Czechs go these days, to one of those superstores where you can get everything- including the kitchen sink (I doubt this play on an English idiom will translate well to Czech, but I still couldn´t resist it). These superstores have huge parking lots which are usually quite full at just about any time of day, including on Sundays, which was the day I pulled into the parking lot. I could see immediately I was going to end up parking half a kilometer from the store, but then I suddenly spied one open spot next to where a large, older man was standing behind his old Škoda. He seemed to be just standing there, or perhaps he was waiting on something, but he had his rear door open on the driver´s side, so I pulled up to the empty slot next to his car and waited for him to close his car door so I could park, but he didn´t, instead he just stared at me blankly (after being here for so long, I´ve also become an expert in giving the Czech blank stare).

It just now occurred to me that perhaps he had his door open because some friend in the store was purchasing something that was too large to fit in the trunk, which is actually under the front hood of those old Škodas, so perhaps he had his car door open to discourage anyone from parking next to him so that he could then conveniently load his own rolls of asphalt paper or whatever into the back seat of his car. This may have been why, but perhaps not, and at any rate I did not think of all this at the time. I just thought it was peculiar that the guy had his door open and yet was standing behind his car and was obviously not going anywhere anytime soon. This did not bother me much, although I didn´t understand why he didn´t shut his door for me. I pulled in and parked as far over as I could towards the car to my left, a bit sideways since I had to leave room for the open car door to my right. I wanted no conflict and figured I would just have to squeeze out of my door while making a conscious effort not to scratch the car on my left as I got out. It was a little bit of inconvenience, but it meant nothing to me, and I was not angry as I squeezed out of my car. I figure live and let live, there is no reason to get upset and start insulting people over small things, which is a common trait among a lot of the more cantankerous Czechs.

As I am carefully climbing out of my car, the old guy yells at me, “Jesus Mary! What kind of parking is that? Don´t you know how to drive?” I look and he now has his rear door nearly shut, just open a crack, as though it were never open wide and he didn´t stand there for a prolonged period while I waited to see if he would be kind enough to shut his door. I didn´t even have a problem with the guy about his door being open, but I felt anger over the idea that this guy was insulting me when it was his fault that I had to park crooked. The American part of myself snaps at times- far less than when I first came to this wonderful country (that is not sarcasm, I really do love this country); once in a while the American half of myself has a cultural clash, which is what happened in this case. I used to bang impatiently on the glass ticket windows at train stations when the lady was not at the counter, but I slowly learned to wait until she appears since the train isn´t coming for half an hour anyway. Americans are less patient and a little more aggressive than Czechs; so, when a conflict occurs, the average American is more inclined to fight than the average Czech. In fact, I have never seen one physical fight at a normal Czech pub- except once, many years ago, when I knocked this Russian sitting next to me off his bar stool (I was drinking whisky, he was drinking vodka, and I think he yelled at me that vodka was a real man´s drink and whiskey was for women). In American bars, no one is surprised when a fight breaks out. Maybe the drunken inclination to bust up some furniture comes from America´s old cowboy saloon days.

Anyway, this parking lot guy is still yelling at me as I lock my car door, so I told him angrily in Czech, “Don´t start any shit with me because I am half crazy.” I meant to let him know he should just let it go because things could go badly. He didn´t let it go and things went very badly. I would also note here that I spoke to him in informal Czech to insult him a little further (I´ll deal with that topic later). He kept on about my not knowing how to park and informed me I should go to driving school, etc. I can of course express myself far more easily in English, which is perhaps part of my problem, I get frustrated that I can´t effortlessly react to people like him, so my pressured Czech gets sort of bottled up while I am trying to think how I want to express myself, and this guy is still insulting me as I stand there listening and thinking hard, first to understand everything he is saying and second to react.

I now wonder why he had to do that. Why would someone cause someone a problem and then insult and blame the person who has been inconvenienced? I can only think of two reasons, one which I could forgive and the other which I could not. At the time, I could only think of the unforgivable reason: he´s an idiot who has no right to insult me about my parking when he caused the entire problem by having his damned door open. The second possibility is that he actually felt bad about leaving his door open, but he was one of those typical old grumpy Czech men who just can´t admit they made a mistake and so their way of apologizing is to complain and grumble a bit so that you then play the friendly fool and a reconciliation occurs at no expense to the offensive oldster.

That is something with which I am familiar, the insult given with a frown mixed into a grin. Maybe he was trying to tell me, in his very strange way, that he was sorry about having the door open and now if I wished I could straighten my parking job out. That I could have forgiven, but at the time I didn´t think of that possibility and, looking back, it seems just as likely that he was angry about losing his convenient loading position, so he decided to insult me as a payback for being so rude as to necessitate him not to take up two parking spaces.

After all of this, what actually made me snap was that he started telling me I don´t belong in this country. I bellowed, “I DO BELONG HERE!” And he said, “Sure buddy, I can tell by your accent you belong here.” This felt so unfair to me, such ignorant discrimination against me, that I lurched to his car and yelled, “If you had your fucking door shut (I grabbed his door handle and slammed his rear door shut as I said this) then none of this would have happened!” Now, touching his private possession severely assaulted one of his principles. I saw it on his face as he charged towards me, he was thinking, “The very idea that some stranger thinks he can touch my car!”

He charged and we met head on like two rams butting heads and pushing into each other, I was holding his weight and he was holding mine, both of us pushing forward like two angry kids on the playground. I looked behind me very quickly and saw that I could make a quick turn and dump him between the two cars and stomp the shit out of him, but I didn´t do it because I didn´t want to go to that level of violence over a stupid parking situation. I decided to hold my ground, and he held his while he shook his fist in my face and said, “I´ll smash your face!” I looked at him fiercely and said, “Try it.” I think he knew that I meant it.

If he had punched me I am sure I would have attacked him, I knew this, that if he hit me I would have reason to take him down, and I would explain to the police that he punched me so I fought back. Yes officer, I slammed his door shut, but he punched me. If I damaged his door I would have waited and filed the report with the police, if he so wished, but he punched me which meant it was time for self defense and it is his fault that he got a royal ass-kicking. This was my immediate instinct and the reason that I angrily dared him to hit me. Of course he didn´t. I had the advantage, I know this kind of angry old Czech character, so I knew instinctively that he was bluffing. Besides, shaking one´s fist in someone´s face is just a silly threat, either use those fists or don´t- but, if you are going to use them, then don´t be stupid enough to give a warning. He backed off and returned to standing behind his car. He called me a goddamned foreigner once again. I don´t wish to come off as some tough guy here because in reality this entire incident severely upset me, made me feel like crying, and I think he heard that desire to cry in my voice when I said in an anguished voice, “I was kind enough to park sideways because you had your door open! You are truly a disgusting, ugly human being.”

I turned and walked to get one of those shopping carts for which I never seem to have the correct coinage, then the thought occurred to me that he might scratch my car up or bust out the windows as soon as I went inside. So I stood by the carts in front of the superstore and stared at him. He was staring at me. I looked at him like I might return and beat the shit out of him after all, then I pondered going back to at least write down his license plate number in case he did damage my car, but then I decided he was more shook up than me and would not damage my car, and if he did I would just have to make an insurance claim. Forget it and go on with life. I went in and got some change for the cart so that I could load my two rolls of asphalt roofing paper. When I came out with my load of asphalt paper, his car was gone and my car was not damaged.

That was the first time in fourteen years of living here that I had such a physical confrontation with a Czech, although the foreigner line I have heard countless times, and the foreigner treatment I receive about once a week, on average. Why am I telling you all of this? Because I wonder whether or not this arose from a clash of cultures. It seems likely that if I spoke perfect Czech, or he spoke perfect English, things would not have occurred the way they did. I would have quickly been able to respond, then we might have traded a few insults, but he wouldn´t have shunned me with the foreigner treatment and I wouldn´t have become furious. What does my being a “foreigner” have to do with anything, and why do so many Czechs have to view me as a foreigner, like it´s a bad word?

It seems that it is something similar to a dirty word in this country. If we look at the semantics of the Czech language it clarifies the attitudes of Czech society. This is going to be very tough to express between the two languages, but it´s worth the attempt. It is exactly the difficulty in translating the following words and ideas that will make Czechs have difficulty understanding my point of view. The Czech word “cizinec” isn´t really equivalent to the English word “foreigner,” though it is of course the accepted translation since the other option is to use the second word that is meant by “cizinec,” which is “stranger.” In English a “stranger” is no longer closely related to the word “foreigner,” but in Czech a “stranger” and a “foreigner” is the exact same word: “cizinec.” In English, there is something negative and creepy about the word “stranger,” it sounds like the Boston Strangler (just remove the letter L and you get stranger instead of strangler) who follows people down foggy, ill-lit streets. Just yesterday I noticed a film listed in the Czech TV guide called “Cizinec” which was a scary American thriller originally titled “The Stranger.” So I think the context for stranger is the same between the two languages, but in Czech the word “foreigner” has something negative attached to it since the same word is used for naming films about insane strangers who break into your house at night and strangle you. Americans do not use the word “stranger” very much. I am quite sure that the average American would much more frequently say, “Some guy I didn´t know knocked on the door,” rather than, “A stranger knocked on the door.” We might say “A stranger knocked on the door,” if we are telling an eerie ghost story. Czechs don´t much care for strangers, and that word is exactly the same word used for a foreigner, so the very language a Czech uses causes a subconsciously negative association through semantics. There are many more similar negative semantic associations.

In the comprehensive Czech-English dictionary, the word “cizinec” is further clarified with this sentence: by naturalization an alien becomes a citizen, though he may still be a foreigner. This means that even a Czech citizen can still be a foreigner. This makes complete sense to Czechs, and I do understand the meaning of this, especially since my mind works quite well in the Czech mode of thought, but I do not believe that an American dictionary would have a place in its pages for a sentence such as this. Americans cannot consider a fellow American citizen as a foreigner. If that person is an American citizen, then how could he possibly be a foreigner? An American citizen, whether naturalized or not, we perceive as a “fellow American,” and it seems like an oxymoron to say a “foreigner American” since an American cannot also be a foreigner. In English, the word “foreigner” has an inherent subcontext of noncitizen, so that the word foreigner we associate with tourists or foreign students or perhaps people holding work permits. But the Czechs distinguish, even in their dictionaries, that a Czech citizen could still be a foreigner, and in Czech there is nothing positive about the word for foreigner.


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Let´s dig even deeper into semantics for a moment:
The word “cizí,” which is the root, or base form, from which comes “cizinec,” and which means both “foreign” and “strange,” has various sub-meanings, but none of them are anything positive. The various shades of meaning are translated as “incompatible,” “incongruous,” “cold” (another irony, Czechs use “foreign” to mean cold when it is they who are cold towards that which is foreign); with “cold” is also associated the idiom přejít koho cize or to “give someone the cold shoulder.” It more literally means to treat someone like they are a stranger, though the fact that “foreigner” is the same word means they could be treating you like you are a foreigner. Even the words “unfriendly” and “hostile” can be found as a translated meaning of the word cizí. Then there are added prefixes like “odcizit” which means to steal, pirate or pledgarize. The literal equivalent in English would be to say, “Someone stranger-foreignered my car!” Unlike Czech, in English there is no single word for an unwelcome foreigner- probably because not so many generations back all Americans were foreigners, thus foreigners have a long tradition of being welcomed- in fact, at the very beginning Americans even had to welcome themselves since no one was there to welcome them except some Indians; from the American citizen´s point of view, these foreigners are merely people who have not yet become fellow Americans. Americans couldn´t make a distinction between themselves and foreigners for much of American history since America needed immigrants to help settle an immense American wilderness.

Americans couldn´t create that “us” and “them” mentality necessary to make foreigners the pejorative “them.” Actually, they did try once, long ago, but failed. The first attempt in America was the British making a pejorative slang term for the Dutch settlers in New York (or New Amsterdam, depending on when in American history). The Brits didn´t like those damned cheese-eating Dutch trying to take over the town, so they called them, mocking their Dutch language, “Jan Kees” (John Cheese), an obvious solution— give them the most common male name they possess and pin some attribute onto them that they all share, such as making and eating cheese. A bunch of cheese-eating Johnnies.

The great irony of this is that, over time, Jan Kees mutated in its spelling and extended first to mean Americans from the north, then came to mean Americans in general— A Yankee. How ironic, we tried to name “them” and ended up naming “us.” This is why a foreigner for us Yankees means something closer to a tourist and an American citizen cannot be considered a foreigner. We don´t believe in the concept of a foreigner-citizen since, historically speaking, we Americans are all a bunch of cheese-eating Johnnies.

Czechs had quite a different historical situation and were more successful at creating a “them.” The word “slave” in English has its origin in the word “Slav” because the Romans captured Slavs up north and brought them to Rome as Slav(e)s; Czechs and many other Slavic tribes have been getting conquered or occupied as a people or nation for a very long time, many centuries, and this relates directly to Czech society and national character to this day. Thus it was much easier for Czechs to create and maintain an “us” and “them” mentality since the “thems” would invariably conquer the Czech “us”- or even drag their kindred down south to scrub a wealthy Roman senator´s chamber pot. Understandably, they have tried to keep “them foreigners” linguistically and psychologically excluded to this day. The single word Cizák means something like a “damned foreigner.”

Czechs don´t immediately make much distinction between foreigners, either, and some of them are pretty quick to let you know. Recently, I was on a crowded Prague subway car with an American acquaintance and we were talking. The car lurched a bit harder than usual when stopping, and I inadvertently bumped into an old man standing next to me; before I even had time to apologize (I had drawn a breath to do so), the old man grumbled loudly, “Jesus-Mary, first it was the Russians and now it´s the Americans.” I don´t think he knew that I understand and speak Czech fairly well. Not so many Americans do, most of them are excited tourists- and even the majority of those Americans who think of themselves as expatriates can´t speak Czech very well- a fault about American expatriates I´m sure I´ll hit on later.

So the old man on the subway had good reason to think he could slide me a quick insult with no peril. But I just can´t seem to let these statements go. I end up slamming car doors shut, as you already know. It was an insult I might have forgiven easier if it weren´t for the fact that everyone heard this, and then they all sat there silently giving me that blank stare while apparently agreeing with him. I suddenly felt that “us” and “them” atmosphere on the car. I had been isolated by the old man´s insult and there was not one smile or look of kindness from that row of people sitting there staring at me. I couldn´t let it go, a matter of principle, and this time, for some reason, I was able to express myself quickly and well. I said with this friendly, matter-of-fact tone that the smart Czechs use with a smile (similar to the Soldier Švejk attitude except you don´t play it dumb, but sarcastically):

“There´s a basic difference you are forgetting, kind sir: the Russians came with tanks and we Americans came when you finally had the freedom to paint one pink. And I would like you to understand something more: My friends and longtime neighbors are Czechs, in fact my wife and my three children are Czech. I guess I am fortunate they don´t think about me the way you do.” As I said this everyone on the very full car was listening in complete silence. He looked at me in surprise and said nothing. All those blank stares seemed to change into a look of mass respect, which felt good. The tables had turned, he looked like the idiot. No one talked and the car drove on in silence. My acquaintance didn´t speak Czech and was very curious about what had just transpired. The old man´s comment was meant for people like him, all those powerless foreigners who don´t even know when they are being dealt with unfairly. Language, and the ability to communicate, is a basic form of power.

When I got off, something happened that quite surprised me. The old man smiled and said, “na shledanou (formal goodbye).” I smiled and said the same. I felt respect for him as I told him goodbye. He had at least picked himself up off the ground with dignity by admitting his mistake. He had done a good job of apologizing without actually having to say the words, we both knew he meant he was sorry and that was enough. If I had insulted him after that then I would have been the one in the wrong, and I had no intention of insulting such a pleasant man. I suddenly liked him.

An old man like that actually gives me hope for this nation, hope that an idea can be like a sword that slays the xenophobic dragon. Why didn´t I politely explain to that man in the parking lot why his notion that I need driving lessons was laughable and absurd? And if he tried to push me into the category of one of them “damned foreigners,” why didn´t I tell him I am lucky my Czech friends and neighbors, my Czech wife and Czech children don´t think of me the way he does? And let it go at that. Perhaps he would have given me a formal goodbye and we would have departed with mutual respect. If I had yelled at that man on the subway, “Don´t start any shit with me because I am half crazy!” I don´t believe I would have gotten a respectful farewell, maybe he would have punched me and then I would have kicked the shit out of him. Then the police would come and arrest me, and I would be on the evening news, a criminal in handcuffs being led into the courtroom, this time an evil crazed foreigner who beat a poor, defenseless old man.

I have a theory about that Russian who killed a policeman and stabbed some old man on the subway. He was on all the news stations, the foreigner who went crazy at the Muzeum subway station. Czechs all thought he was crazy, which I suppose he was, but I have a theory as to what drove him crazy. My theory is that he went insane from the frustration of constantly being treated like a foreigner. It can be a mighty cold country if one is a foreigner (especially if you are an Eastern foreigner) and one has no contacts, friends or family in Czech society. The stranger becomes isolated, which can cause insanity, especially if alcohol becomes one´s only solace. Someone told me, though I could not verify it, that this crazy foreigner tried to get permission from the Foreigner Police to allow his wife to come and stay with him here in the Czech Republic, but the Foreigner Police refused his request, and then his wife was (accidentally?) killed shortly thereafter in a mafia shootout back in Russia. They also denied him renewal of his own residency permit, possibly meaning he was condemned to death back in Russia since he was an army explosives expert and might have fled Russia for good reasons. There was no way out for him, and I think he was so frustrated, heartbroken and full of despair that he gave up; he went mad and took revenge against Czech society by an act of terrorism.

The next day there was a mass round up, a hunt for all foreigners who had no legal right to be here. The police went to all the construction sites and other places where Ukrainians and Russians are known to be working illegally, they arrested hundreds and shipped them back across the border. Czech society was saying, “We knew we shouldn´t trust or accept all ‘them´ damned foreigners, round up and get rid of as many as you can find so our country is safe again!” The police of course didn´t round up any of the Ukranian or Russian mafia members, or any foreign prostitutes, they just rounded up all those poor, honest, ditch-digging foreigners who are forced to pay part of their salaries to the mafia.

I understand that crazed foreigner more than most Czechs because I came very close to running my car into the Foreigner Police building one day. I was so close to blind rage that I almost could have done it, especially as I watched the director lady peek at me through the window shutters. I am speaking of the woman who runs the Prague East Foreigner Police headquarters which is over on Invalidovna street. I may be asking for trouble to write specifics, but I am not afraid since I am telling the entire truth about everything.
The first time I met her was in 1992 when the Foreigner Police were located between Florenc and Křižikova subway stations. I was trying to get a permanent residency permit and they had so many various documents and stamps and signatures from various departments that I was running all over Prague, and the various offices I needed to visit would have odd office hours on odd days, so I had to go at least twice everywhere. The bureaucracy was quite formidable, especially for a person accustomed to filling out his own W2 tax form in a matter of minutes back in the states. The U.S. has no culture of bureaucracy of which to speak, and we don´t have a tradition of using bureaucracy to extract bribes, etc. I did not realize it, but the Foreigner Police were probably waiting for me to offer them money in order to make a residency permit quicker and easier, but I was too naďve to know they were waiting for a bribe. So they tried to make me miserable by constantly requiring additional documents, stamps, and signatures.

I would learn after several trips to various offices that I needed, for example, a special government stamp, but they did not sell this stamp in the office where I needed some document signed and stamped, so I would go in search of the government stamp, but would inevitably return too late to get the bureaucrat to stamp and sign some document, so I would have to return a few days later between certain hours when they were open. This sort of paperchase went on for several weeks and consumed a lot of my time.

I suppose I am explaining this more to my American readers since they have no experience with this sort of bureaucracy. It´s all relative; of course Americans complain about bureaucracy, but they don´t know what real bureaucracy is, whereas Czechs know very well what the word bureaucracy means. There are now a few forms that can be obtained from internet websites, and I think the government is trying to deal with its own bureaucracy, but this is difficult when one has a long, well established history of bureaucracy. This sort of officialdom actually goes back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, perhaps even earlier, and not from forty years of Socialism as one might think, but certainly bureaucracy flourished tremendously during the Communist era.

The director lady at the Foreigner Police office could have given me some printed list of all the requirements, but this would have made it too easy for me. Instead, I would bring a bunch of paperwork, she would act contemptuous and tell me I was missing some document, and then she would quickly kick me out. After several incidences such as this, each time with her scolding me because I was missing a signature or a document or a stamp, I had had enough. I was still perhaps too American at that time, and hadn´t been trained by the authoritarian-minded culture to shut up and take the abuse. I had a shit-fit right there in the office, was raving mad for a moment yelling loudly the only few words of Czech I could think of in an attempt to express my utter frustration: “Papir, razitko, Papir, razitko, Papir, razitko! (paper, stamp, paper, stamp!)” accompanied by a lot of wild gesticulations of rage. This policeman came running out of some hole and got in my face and I got in his; I didn´t give a shit about anything anymore, I had had it with the bureaucracy, and the fact that these officious bureaucrats used it like a manipulative game; it seemed they enjoyed playing with me, using the bureaucracy like a power over me, and this made me furious. The strange thing is that my explosion of anger worked: they issued me the permanent residency ten minutes later, I suppose to get rid of me. I do wonder if I could have avoided this with a quick bribe, even if I do find it morally repugnant.

So I didn´t have to go back for five years, and five years later they were located at Invalidovna near to Hotel Olympic. I failed to notice when exactly my residency expired, but I had in my mind what year, so one day I remembered and checked and realized I was a month late with getting my renewal. I went to the Foreigner Police and found that they had a new scam working there, or at least one I hadn´t noticed before. A person would drive up, walk through the main door and stand in the hall outside the waiting room, then the director would open the door and call a name as though it could be any one of us sitting there, but it was always the name of an Asian person who had been waiting a few minutes in the outer hall. They must have had phone contact, perhaps through this one Asian man who disappeared behind the door and never came back out. He was likely paying under the table to arrange easy access for all his clients, then he kept some margin in between.

The rest of us “contactless” foreigners sat patiently in sullen monotony, but by then I had become Czech enough to wait fairly patiently in long lines for long amounts of time. That is something for which I am thankful to the Czech Republic. We Americans need to learn that we are not, each of us, the center of the universe, and we need to learn patience. We´re a bit like impatient and spoiled children, but that´s just how it is when kids have everything they want and have never known danger or want. Americans have a culture of service, which is actually a good thing. I do not begrudge Americans their good fortune to be born in what I think is one of the best countries in the world with respect to living standards for that great mass of the population in any developed country, the middle and lower classes. Americans expect service now, and they can be quite egotistical, assuming, and even insolent when they don´t get good service quickly. They will bang on train station ticket windows to find out what is the major malfunction. I was no longer that way, I was more Czech and had gained a little patience by living here in Czechia for five years.

I no longer minded the bureaucracy as long as it seemed fair. And Czechs are that way, they will wait in long lines, but they hate it when someone cuts in the line or otherwise gets around waiting like the rest. Under Communism, I don´t think Czechs even complained about that- if you happened to know the bureaucrat and brought a bottle of rum or a bag of coffee to help you save time, then you were just lucky, that´s all. It´s all about contacts, and this is how so much corruption and tunneling has happened in Czechia. Over the years I have been to a lot of other government offices and they have all improved greatly during the decade since the revolution, but it seems to me the Foreigner Police are one of those last bastions of the former Communist / Socialist system. I doubt much has changed, certainly this director lady had been there since before the revolution; for her, time had stood still.
The problem at the Foreigner Police is that we are all foreigners waiting in that room, mostly from further east like the Ukraine, and we don´t complain when things like this go on. Ukrainians feel lucky if they get to stay in the Czech Republic at all, so they don´t cause trouble and they are accustomed to the same or worse bureaucracy back in the Ukraine. I waited from morning to evening and watched that director open the door, call a name, and strangely it was always some person who had just pulled up in a car and was waiting in the hall. This person would quickly go in and, after the door closed, everyone in the waiting room would look at each other and mumble about all the people who weren´t even having to wait in line in order to go in and get their paperwork.

It was nearly by appointment only, but no one had told us normal stupid foreigners this. I finally got in that evening when they were about to close, and the director lady tore me up one side and down the other for being a month late. She yelled at me, as though I were a child, “Jak to že jste tady na černo!” (“How come you are here illegally?”) Actually, “na černo” literally means “in the black” which is a bit too colloquial for an official to be using. And the way she yelled at me shocked me, subdued me into submission. I had been in the Czech Republic too long, I didn´t have that American, customer-is-king attitude any more, my sense of individual rights had greatly weakened from becoming Czech. I had waited in too many lines and had been abused so many times that I was just used to it. I felt deeply hurt that I was being treated like a dirty foreigner; at that time I had two established businesses, a home, two children, I paid my taxes like every other Czech, and already felt partly Czech, so it made me feel like crying that I was being treated this way, as though I might be thrown out of the country if she so desired, but I politely explained that I hadn´t noticed the expiration date until that same week and I came as soon as I noticed it was expired. She yelled at me some more and then made me pay a thousand crown fine, but I finally got my renewed residency and was happy to get out of there for another several years.

The last time I went, I experienced another change; I decided to fight against my basic Czech nature and stand up for my rights the way many of the younger, smarter Czechs are beginning to do. Actually, I do not believe that many Czechs these days would tolerate what we foreigners were tolerating in that Foreigner Police office. Czechs have learned very quickly to at least complain and raise hell when things are not run right at the post office or other public places, but they never have to go to the Foreigner Police for anything. Americans have a strong tendency to stand up for their basic rights as individuals and human beings, so I eventually rediscovered that feeling. I originally tried to become completely Czech in my thinking, but by doing this I had taken on some characteristics that were negative. Now I have been trying to develop and maintain all of the more positive Czech traits, but keep all of the positive American traits as well. My last visit brought about that change.

I arrived at the Foreigner Police building in the morning, maybe around nine a.m., I walked in and the waiting room was nearly empty, just a few other people waiting. I was immediately happy because I thought I wouldn´t have to wait long. I tapped on the door (lightly, fearfully, as is the Czech habit) and someone opened the door. I poked my head in and softly explained I needed my residency permit renewed; a man sitting behind his desk asked, “Today?” and smiled at me strangely. I looked again at the nearly empty waiting room, then back at him and said, “Yes, today.” He sent me out to wait, and wait…

They had gotten worse with their by-appointment-only system. The door would open and the police lady would call some name and an Asian person from the outer hall would go in immediately; this continued for many hours until one Czech girl, whom had accompanied her foreigner friend to help him, finally forced her way in when the door opened and complained loudly about people cutting in the line. She was Czech, so the door shut behind her and a few minutes later she left with her foreigner friend in tow; they had gotten whatever they came for. Some very pregnant Ukranian woman who had been waiting many hours, and who just wanted to hand in some document, was supposed to be the next in line, but she had to wait, and wait.

All of us (the room had grown to be full of us stupid foreigners by afternoon) complained and talked about all the people driving up in cars and sliding through the door, but we all felt powerless, like there was nothing we could do about it. It was understandably frustrating since the system was very unfair, but it was the Foreigner Police; how can one battle against a force like that? You are the Foreigner and they are the Police. That feeling of powerlessness is insufferable to Americans, it rubs against their very nature. Czechs have a tendency to shrug their shoulders and say, “What can you do about it?” Meaning we must accept our powerlessness and perhaps make some black joke to make it easier to swallow, whereas Americans believe more strongly that they have the power, as individuals, to fight against anything that is corrupt or unjust. And fight they do. That is why American citizens actually face far less situations in which they feel powerless. Governmental or social situations of powerlessness, in the daily life of Americans, have repeatedly been beaten back under the rocks where they belong. Each American started out with a musket, and plenty of gunpowder, just in case our new government forgot who was boss.

Later in the afternoon, I finally managed to get in the door, but the man who had spoken with me in the morning gave me a form to fill out and kicked me back out. I asked if I could just fill it out then and there, but he was very impolite and said loudly that he had lots of other people to see and don´t waste his time. The form took about three minutes for me to fill out (a form that should have been available along with helpful instructions in the waiting room), but he didn´t have time to wait for me, so I was stuck in the existential waiting room once again. More hours went by. My anger slowly grew and grew. I thought to myself, “This is why that sonofabitch asked with that wry smile, ‘Today?´” I fluctuated between fighting back tears of despair and blind rage. The director lady opened the door, at nearly closing time, and started counting heads like we were cows or sheep (dehumanization all day), then she sighed with disdain and said, “Jesus-Mary, twenty-three of them out there.” She started to shut the door again, and that´s when it happened, my fuse finally blew. I simply snapped. I jammed my foot in the doorway, violently pushed the door back open with her standing there staring at me with surprise, then her face quickly changed to one of contempt and annoyance. I wadded up that form into a ball and threw it at them all. She screamed for me to pick it up and informed me that I was in a police station, but I turned and walked out with her yelling, “Frajer!” Which means something like “Mr. Hotshot!” To hell with them, I thought to myself, I am not going to play this game ever again in my life as long as I live in this country. My American side is worth something after all, I get a feeling of dignity out of it.

I walked out with the decision I would never, ever go back. To hell with it, I´ll live in the Czech Republic illegally before I´ll suffer that kind of humiliation and dejection ever again, and just let the bastards try to throw me out of the country. I´ll fight with them like they have never seen someone fight, because I have the right to feel pissed off at how they operate. I´ll fuck them up and make them shine my shoes, by God. I got in my car and felt this warrior side of myself emerge. It had been hidden for years, pushed down by daily existence here in the Czech Republic, conditioned by the Czech system to fawn and beg politely, but another side of myself was back and it was very pissed off, totally fearless— yes, crazy. I raced the car engine wildly and contemplated driving through the wall of the foreigner police building, it was one of those cheap wooden prefab kinds of walls that trailers are made of, I would definitely end up behind the bitch´s desk; I could maybe even push that desk through the next wall and out the other side. She heard my engine racing and was peeking out the window, looking at me through the shutters, then said something to that guy with the depraved sense of humor, he stood next to her and peeked out the window at me as well. I wildly raced the car engine some more.

I was only a very small fraction away from releasing the clutch and stomping on that gas pedal, I mean a very small fraction, maybe one with six digits in the denominator. I knew it would feel very good to crash through their flimsy walls and show them the dangerous reality that can result from pushing these powerless, stupid foreigners around; I would show them what happens when a real man gets cruelly toyed with; I didn´t have the least bit of fear, but they did as they peeked at me through the shutters. I was a terrifying tornado and they were the fearful little cowards who seemed to be wondering if their shelter would withstand the storm; but, I still had a weak hold on this rational side of myself that told me, “Don´t do it, please don´t do it, think of your children, they won´t see you for years if you go to prison, the kids need you, you are a good dad, think of your family.” That crazy Russian had no children to go home to and he blamed the foreigner police for his wife´s death, plus his sense of reason was clouded by alcohol- those were the only differences between him and me in that moment. No doubt the foreigner police were also very demeaning towards him as they rejected him.

I´d forgotten about it since I have become accustomed to the name, but years back when I first came to this country I did not like the sound of their organization at all, The Foreigner Police; it sounded like I am already a criminal when I walk in the door, and they certainly always treated me that way. Also, the fact that “foreigner” and “stranger” is the same word, as I mentioned before, means they are like police who control all those suspicious, non-Czech strangers. There is no concept of an immigrant in the Czech Republic; rather, there are only foreigners who need to be expelled. In America, the same organization is called Immigration Services, which sounds like I, as an immigrant, am going to be served; and it´s true, immigrants who are in the U.S. legally and need renewals etc. are treated much better by the U.S. Immigration Services employees, who behave like civil servants. I know from having talked to many emigrant Czechs about this, and they all claim the Immigration Services representatives are never rude and are even kind towards them, helpful. Plus you can get the appropriate forms with instructions from the internet or in the main lobby of the building. The Immigration Services employees are public servants. But the Czech system starts with the premise that you are in a police station, and proceeds to show you that indeed you are in one and that you just might be criminal, and quite possibly need to be thrown out of the country. Then they abuse you and expect you to kiss the ass of their power. It should enrage any self-respecting person, but I think they are fairly used to foreigners easily relinquishing their feelings of self-respect. This is how far the Czech “system” can push any sane person.

If you push someone to despair, that despair can explode outwards as an act of violence, or sometimes inwards as a suicide. They turned that Russian foreigner into a giant dying star, first he exploded and then he imploded, a black hole of sorrow. He committed suicide in jail, although I would not be surprised if he were actually killed. Regardless, I have a strong feeling that his treatment there was probably torturous, even if it only involved sleep deprivation by beating on his cell door every five minutes, though I would bet he got regular beatings while in jail. I bet the world seemed so cruel to him that it seemed far better to leave it, and this helped him find the will to do so. The only picture I ever saw of him was one in which he was badly beaten, then once in jail you could beat him more since no one would know the difference. I would bet the police did those things to him because they felt he deserved it for killing one of their brothers, a policeman who evidently was a very nice man and whom the other officers had nicknamed “Sunny” because he was so optimistic and dealt with people as nonviolently as possible. I am sorry he is dead, I am truly sad because Sunny did not deserve to die, I wish he and the Russian were both alive this day, but I think I understand what happened to that Russian because I was close to being the Czech Republic´s evening news entertainment on televize Nova: “A crazed American today drove his car through the building of the Prague East Foreigner Police headquarters, instantly killing the director and her assistant. He is now in custody.” The next day the police would go out and try to round up and deport all the dangerous American foreigners who are in this country illegally. Perhaps I could be driven to suicide just like that Russian, and what really started it all? Humiliation and abuse from the Czech system. If I don´t like it I can just go home? Damn it, I am home. So I must at least try to do something about it.

So I decided to complain about it to a human rights protection organization connected to the Czech government. Americans are not familiar with the term “Ombudsman,” but basically an Ombudsman is the government´s man in charge of protecting human rights and investigating any suspected human rights violations in the Czech Republic. I wrote a long letter explaining everything I have just written about and, surprisingly, I got a quick and personal answer from a woman well-known for defending human rights. I was impressed because I thought it likely my letter and my case would be thrown into some bureaucratic waste bin; instead, the head of the human rights organization called me a week later and offered to go with me back to the Foreigner Police, she would go incognito to make a report to the government. I suddenly felt much better, I no longer felt so helpless and alone. I suddenly felt like even if I am a stupid, unwanted foreigner, I do have basic rights that should not be abused, and I have the power to change things. I can do something about how foreigners are treated, even if those producing the abuse are the omnipotent Foreigner Police.

Unfortunately, our meeting was scheduled the week of the great flood, and the water flooded the Foreigner Police out of that building (like rats, I prefer to think). They got combined into the Foreigner Police building for Central Prague and had two windows there. I went there to see if it was the same bad conditions, and it wasn´t. Foreigners wait in lines, but the line moves because the bureaucrats don´t have some closed door with an attached waiting room. They can´t be like the all-powerful Wizard of Oz behind the magic curtain. It would be too obvious if they acted the way they did when they had their own building. At this new location it was more like they were on display, sitting behind a glass window like at the post office or the train station or the bank, which is where bureaucrats should be placed so we can suspiciously watch what they are doing. I was amused that the Foreigner Police lost their pretence of being criminal investigators and suddenly looked like what they actually are: immigration servants.

Those bureaucratic waiting rooms should be eliminated from every government organization in this country, or they should at least remodel the offices so that the officials are all sitting behind a glass window like at the bank. The only waiting rooms in America are private ones, like at the doctor´s office, where they play pleasant music and there are plenty of interesting magazines to read. They often have free coffee, too. The American viewpoint is that, if an improvement can be made at the expense of a tradition, then throw out that tradition like it is a dried rat turd. That´s how we came up with the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. I suggest that the Czech government dissolve and reorganize the Foreigner Police into an organization called Immigration Services, and get rid of all those unnecessary doors behind which all those corrupt officials hide (and probably play poker or otherwise neglect their duties). Best would be to get rid of all those corrupted and tainted officials, just fire the whole lot of them, but that will not happen, so they should at least be retrained and forced to comply with a new set of standards that does not include working with mafias or trading favors for money.

I would have preferred that the flood never hit the Czech Republic, but all that water certainly helped me get my residency renewal much more easily. I understand from the human rights organization that, after the flooded building was fixed, the Foreigner Police for Prague East moved back in; I suspect they have returned to their old tricks, but they are being watched (for what that´s worth). That autocratic tyrant queen bee of the Foreigner Police doesn´t know it, but she is being watched. I also heard from a high government source that the political parties have been aware of corruption in the Foreigner Police for a long time now, and they have been watching them closely, though I don´t put much stock in a positive change since the Czech political scene is mostly sluggish and corrupt, too. But there was recently a TV news scandal that an Asian mafia has ties into the Prague East Foreigner Police. Now that might force some changes. Public scandal is quite effective. She may even lose her job if she doesn´t start treating those foreigners more decently. She consistently abused me, and now I am writing about what an evil cow I think she is. I must say, I do love freedom of the press. It prevents me from driving through buildings as a form of self-expression.

This gives me hope that change and improvements in Czech society, even if very slow, can be achieved. The first step is to remove all the corrupted individuals who are running these government offices. Of course the political climate in the Czech Republic does not allow for this to happen very quickly, but I believe things have and will continue to slowly change for the better. Being part of the EU is going to force some improvements. Czech citizens need to keep raising hell and demanding more personal accountability in their public officials, and demand resignations. Czech society would do well to start assuming their democratic government is for serving its citizens, which is the American point of view. It serves us, we do not serve it- unless it helps to serve us. Americans inherently believe in fair governance, thus the American government has been forced to work, at least domestically, quite efficiently for Americans. Czechs have a lot of political awareness, but then they don´t take action (except to make great, morbid jokes). I greatly desired to vote in the recent EU elections, but the town hall informed me I cannot because I am a foreigner. Czechs could vote, yet two thirds of them did not do so; that upsets me because that is how the Communists keep getting a little stronger each year. It isn´t that there are more Communists, it is that there are less non-Communists who care to even vote. I have no doubt that if a large majority of Czechs went to vote, at least the Communists would not have so many seats in the European parliament (how embarrassing) and they would stop looking like a legitimate and growing phenomenon. I wish Czechs would feel the shame of this so that they would go to the polls and do their duty.

At present, I don´t have to get my residency renewed for eight more years, and I learned of a way to change things that doesn´t involve terrorism- though that is every isolated and powerless man´s first impulse, his way of saying, “Now I am not so insignificant, am I?” I survived my own impulse and am grateful I withheld from driving through that building, but I hope Czechs understand that other foreigners out there, when they suffer feelings of despair and isolation (caused by abuse from the Czech system), they may attack like that Russian, and I believe some responsibility for this belongs to the Czech Republic and Czech society itself. I don´t even care if my viewpoint angers Czechs. It should be obvious why I think Czech society is responsible for some of these problems with foreigners since I nearly committed an act of terrorism myself. Too much injustice or degradation of an individual can have quite negative results for the entire society. Czechs will have to learn to live with us foreigners. We permanent Czech foreigners live our little Czech lives every day like the rest of Czech society. Looking at us as foreigners is to not know us as individuals. Likely I will always feel like a foreigner. I admit this is partly from the foreign personality I possess, but I maintain that we foreigners feel like foreigners more because of the foreigner treatment and natural feelings that so many Czechs have towards us as foreigners. With its general feeling towards foreigners, and its legal system, the Czech nation actually forces people like me to remain foreigners indefinitely. Often it successfully forces a foreigner to leave because he or she just gets tired of it. But I won´t be going anywhere until I am damn good and ready. In the meantime, I will fight for my individual rights whenever and wherever necessary.


I heard a joke on some entertainment show on Czech TV and it made me think. The joke was that one man was telling the second man that he used Ukrainians to make his wall. The second man clarifies, “You mean Ukranians did all the brickwork?” The first man replies flatly, “No, I mean it was cheapest to build the wall out of Ukranians.” The audience laughed uproariously while I pictured dead bodies piled up to make a wall. It is cheaper to build a wall out of Ukrainians. This idea represents a loss of all respect for individuals. I understand how the Holocaust could happen; it is through exactly such dehumanization of outsider races or nations. I bet these kinds of jokes about Jews were publicly laughed at in Germany before Hitler came to power. Pretty soon Germans took the next step which was to humiliate Jews in public, make some rabbi sing and dance foolishly for their amusement, and no one stopped it. If anyone disagreed with it they were not brave enough to step forward, then things spiraled out of control. Step one is to discriminate between the insiders who belong and the outsiders who do not (“us” and “them), step two is to persecute those outsiders.

This kind of joke- let´s say about Mexican migrant workers- could never be told on American national TV and, if some comedian were dumb enough to tell such a joke, the audience would be eerily silent or perhaps even boo the comedian offstage. He would feel embarrassed and foolish for telling the joke, it´s just too politically incorrect for Americans to laugh at- and the TV station would get sued anyway. But here in Cz we are still laughing about the idea of piling up cheap Ukranians to make a wall. I think they are probably viewed as foreigners first, and Ukranians second. Even if I live in this country for more years than I lived in America, even if I feel at home here, I believe I will always be considered a foreigner by Czech society as a whole. Czechs may not realize this, but it is true. I experience discrimination regularly, but I choose to live with it, or get around it if possible. I try not to dwell on it and feel quite happy in this society most of the time. Besides, I can always write a book about it.


To get around legalities about my being a foreigner I had to have my wife (a Czech national) be the general director of a company I started because it was much more difficult for me as a foreigner to be the managing director of a company that I myself started. That strikes me as ironic. The first demand the business court made was that I hand over proof that I have no criminal record in America. Evidently, one can be an American mass murderer and live among Czechs as long as one does not start a business. The American embassy could not help me with this strange document that the Czechs demanded, so I was left with trying to get the F.B.I. in the United States to issue such a document, but they had no idea what the hell I was talking about since they do not operate in harmony with the Czech bureaucratic machinery. “You want what?” They asked me. In the end it was far easier to make my wife the company director, although I still constantly have to have signed and notarized power of attorney documents from my wife in order to run my own company. What a pain in the ass this has been, besides the fact that it degrades me as company owner. It feels like I need my mommy´s signature on everything.

Foreigners cannot buy real estate, and they cannot buy a house to call their own in this country (except for the Russian KGB/Mafia, who own much of Karlovy Vary). I think the mafia gets around this law by creating some company which then purchases and owns the buildings. A reliable secret service source informed me that these Russians were from the KGB and received a lot of money from the IMF loan made to Russia shortly after the Russian Revolution. The richest ones (those who were at the top of the KGB) own buildings in New York, while those lower on the KGB ladder own buildings in Karlovy Vary. So it is OK for gangsters to own property in the Czech Republic, but not even Bruce Willis could buy a house in Prague, try as he did. This of course does not bother Czechs, rather they are happy about it since they fear their entire country will end up in foreign hands; however, a foreigner who lives many years in the Czech Republic, and has obviously decided to build a life here, deserves to have the same rights as other people in this country. He should have an equal chance to get a job and buy a home, especially in the case that he has a Czech family to care for. Instead, I end up taking care of most legalities by having my wife sign things. In other periods of human history it was slaves who faced these problems, at other times women. I understand how they felt, powerless and frustrated, like they had less rights than other people around them.

Recently, I went to this Prague computer store where they advertised “lease to own” in the window. For tax reasons, leasing seemed to me a better arrangement than purchasing in cash. So I went in and discussed for a long while all of the specifications of the computers I wanted, the salesman calculated the price and it seemed reasonable, then I asked to do the leasing agreement. The salesman immediately informed me he cannot lease to me because I am a foreigner. He said it was store policy. I asked him why he didn´t instead check my finances because he would see I can easily pay the monthly lease. Why not look at my assets and bank statements? Do the words “credit rating” mean anything in this country? Not if you are a foreigner.

I told him I have been living in this country for well over a decade, am a permanent resident and pay my taxes just like everybody else. He said this did not matter in the least because I am a foreigner. The reason I am still a foreigner is that the Czech nation has forced me to remain a foreigner, and then I am discriminated against because I am a foreigner. There are many more such catch-22´s for foreigners in this country.

I almost envy Czechs who emigrate to the USA. They move around in life with absolutely no external daily reminders that they are foreigners, and so they forget and become Americans. They are accepted by the American government and American society. If a Czech has the money he can buy a house in America, or he can even get a loan to buy a house, he can lease to own computers or anything else if his credit rating merits this, he can become an American citizen and vote in elections, he can even run for state governor and win. Now that´s a successful immigrant. I cannot imagine a foreigner entering Czech politics—firstly because he would not be allowed to enter politics to begin with (though the Czech political scene could desperately use some less Czech politicians) and secondly because he would never get voted into office even if he could enter as a candidate.

All these people like me, who are living in the Czech Republic for many years, are not really foreigners, nor are we expats. We are immigrants; but, I have to live here indefinitely as an expat foreigner. I have accepted this even though I do not feel, within my soul, like an expat or a foreigner. The word “expatriate” (etymologically it comes from the concept of leaving one´s fatherland) sounds like I no longer love America or no longer feel patriotic, as though I left the American way of life as a political statement, or because I no longer wanted to belong to it, but this is not at all the case. I have a global view of my citizenry, but the Czech Republic maintains a far narrower view. I do not feel like a foreigner since I have lived my daily life in the Czech Republic and feel quite at home. In English we say, “Home is where the heart is.” My heart is of course with my family. My wife and children are at home here, but I am a foreigner. That is where the line is drawn in this country, whereas if a Czech were in this identical circumstance in America, he or she would not be considered a foreigner, and would not be discriminated against. The Czech immigrant would be an American citizen in half the time that I have lived here is a permanent foreigner.

Perhaps Czechs are afraid of losing their national identity; Europe in general has a much stronger tendency towards nationalism. Czechs exist as a nation because they had a language and culture that was different than other nations or languages that passed through the Czechlands over the centuries, and eventually the Czechs forcibly ejected those people who spoke other languages, so I understand the source of this anti-foreigner sentiment. Also, Czechs have always had the feeling of being a small fish, one that has repeatedly been swallowed, choked upon, and spit back out by larger fish. Most recently that little Czech fish started causing the Russian shark some severe stomach cramps, so he spit it out. For Czechs, joining the EU may feel a bit like voluntarily swimming into the mouth of another large fish. Czech national identity is based on NOT being German or Russian or Slovak etc. America does not have this strong aversion or resistance to people from other nations; it has always taken in immigrants and is based on that. Were I to extend my fish analogy, America would be Moby Dick. The great white whale does not fear other fish. America assimilates foreigners, it swallows foreigners and is historically made of nothing but foreigners. It is too big to fear getting swallowed by some other nation. But Czechs wish to repel foreigners. Foreigners are considered a problem, but stealing each other blind and then venting social frustration onto Gypsies or foreigners is the wrong road to take, it doesn´t lead to a good future for Czechs.

I wish that the Czech Republic, as a society, treated me with the same respect given to normal Czech citizens. My neighbors, friends and acquaintances grant me this, but the rest of Czech society, just outside my small circle of neighbors and friends, doesn´t want to grant me that, and that is my single largest frustration in living in the Czech Republic: I am the permanent foreigner.

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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