There is an old truth that says you can find your own identity only when meeting other people. Only then, when you can compare your qualities with those of others, can you discover your own qualities. The same is true about culture. You cannot realise your cultural identity until you meet people of different cultural backgrounds and roots, who keep traditions and customs of a different kind. For instance, you cannot understand how strongly European you are unless you leave this old continent and spend some time in some "other" world - I cannot say whether that world is better or worse, it just has to be different.
After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, we got a big present - a chance to travel abroad. By travelling we can not only discover and visit different countries and meet people of various origins, but also search and find our own identity, which is based on things we have in common with others and on things that differ. This self-evaluation and identity-searching process is possible only when we keep our eyes wide open and are not influenced by prejudices.
My big school of life was my stay in the United States of America. There I could feel how different people in this world are. There I could feel what it is to be European and Slovak.
The first thing I noticed was that people in the United States keep smiling very often. In comparison, people in Slovakia and Europe are more serious. In this point, I can admit that there is a certain coldness in European people. Life in the United States thus seems to be more relaxed.
Next thing that seems to be very different is the way people dress. In general, Slovaks and Europeans care more about their clothes than people in the United States do. Maybe Europeans' clothing reflects their seriousness and formality. For instance, in Slovakia you can hardly find ladies in their 60şs and 70şs wearing jeans and trainers; in Slovak villages this style of clothing would be revolutionary. Just imagine an older couple in Slovakia going for a walk on Sunday afternoon wearing jeans, trainers and jackets of their favourite football clubs. That would seem unbelievable in Slovakia, but normal in the United States.
Another difference is that people ask, "How are you?" or "How ya doinş?" and do not wait for a reply. This would be a gesture of impoliteness in Slovakia, while in the United States people talk this way every day without thinking twice about it. It is not unusual to say "Hi!" to a teacher in the United States, but it would be a real disaster in Slovakia.
And what about drinking soft drinks, soda, pop, or whatever the American equivalent is for Slovak "nealko"? Americans cannot imagine drinking it without ice, and when there are some pieces of ice left, they usually crunch them in their mouth. This method of drinking was very surprising for me because people in Slovakia usually leave those pieces in a glass.
The last aspect of life in the United States that made me feel very different is the famous American "car culture" phenomenon. Sometimes I had a problem in the United States getting directions when I asked people for them. It was not because I did not know how to ask, but there was nobody to ask. Everyone drove everywhere. They did not have a problem even getting to the centres of the town, or what Americans call "downtown", because cars are allowed to go everywhere. I would call this "cars invasion" and do not find it as something positive. It is always nice to have places where you can find more people than cars, and that is why I like Slovak towns so much.
To sum it up, in the world there are people of different ages, races, religions and nationalities. We can see the differences between us, things we like as well as things we do not like. Our aim is not to judge and criticize others, but to see those things we like in the diversity and variety of people and their cultures, which can make our life better.
This essay won second place in the high school category in a recent English language essay competition. The contest, under the rubric 'Meeting of the Cultures', was run by The Slovak Spectator and the Sme daily paper.
26. Aug 2002 at 0:00 | Tomáš Valkovič