I have stood in front of hundreds of students for more than 14,000 hours over the past nine years of teaching English in Brno. The students have been aviation engineers, teenagers, HR professionals, IT specialists, consultants, marketing experts, factory workers, graphic designers, office workers, and salesmen.
At some point during those hours of conversation to generate personalized and meaningful error correction and grammar explanations, every student asks a variation of the same question: How are Czechs different from Americans?
It is pretty easy to answer. There is less stress in Brno than in New York. The quality of living is better here. Less guns. Better beer. Education is about the same. Salaries are terrible here. Jobs are scarce there. People are friendly in both places. Idiots live in both places.
America had an interesting president not long ago. The Czech Republic has one now. There is free post-secondary education here. Americans graduate with decades of student loan debt. There is a social safety net here. America breeds a dog-eat-dog competitive environment where you can lose everything if you don’t pay to protect yourself.
My sister stayed home for weeks of maternity leave in America. My Czech wife will be home for years with our baby. Czechs have four weeks of vacation every year. I was an executive and the most I ever had was two weeks. America has better customer service. And Americans wouldn’t have the existential need to compare themselves to anyone because, well, they are Americans.
These are, admittedly, largely flippant answers. Another, more significant one, is complicated and perhaps controversial. The best way to explain it is connected to the all-time worst theme for a conversation lesson for Czech students: New Year’s Resolutions.
At one point or another, I have tried to bring up self-recreation with every student. Surely, I thought, people who spend an hour or more a week learning English would understand the desire to improve, to reinvent, to change.
No. By and large, they don’t. Simply asking students about New Year’s Resolutions produces a blank stare or a groan and, eventually, a short, noncommittal, polite answer. The difficulty to maintain resolutions seems to be the main disqualifying point. The symbolism of the calendar flipping isn’t interesting enough. And, it seems, that many Czechs are afraid to voice their personal promises lest they set themselves up for future embarrassment for not having fulfilled the resolution.
Personally, I have rarely fully fulfilled a New Year’s Resolution. Nevertheless, I feel that I always have to have something to document in the blank schedule book I get for every year.
Is this innate desire to reinvent oneself uniquely American? Do other cultures use the new year as motivation? Am I wrong or too harsh about the Czechs?
* Become fluent in Czech. (Theoretically possible; realistically improbable. Failed several times, although incrementally improving.)
* Read one book in Czech. (Read three chapters of Válka s mloky, by Karel Čapek. Good book, but finished it in English.)
* Learn a Czech word or phrase every day. (You could do a lot worse than 365 new things to say and understand; will try it this year.)
* Keep a daily journal of thoughts and ideas. (Regular resolution since high school.)
* Win an international creative writing contest. (Finished fourth a few years ago and finally got some money with a story based in my Brno-Líšeň apartment building, but no victory, yet.)
* Adjust to living with my fiancé and her mother after many years of living with guys and, for the preceding five years, happily alone. (Perhaps this resolution, which happened to coincide with moving in on Jan. 1, has succeeded: I married the fiancé and still live with the mother-in-law, albeit on different floors and with separate kitchens.)
* Lose one kilogram a month. (Worked well until this August, but . . . the summer beer gardens. Oh, those summer beer gardens.)
* Run 1,000 km. (Got to just under 850 as of this week.)
* Run a kilometer for each beer drunk. (Again, summer beer gardens).
* Run the New York Marathon. (This one worked, barely.)
* 10 pushups and 20 situps on Jan. 1, then add one and two, respectively, every day. (Lasted until April a few years ago, then just stopped. Probably because of a beer garden.)
* Complete numerous home-improvement and “Honey Do” projects. (Finished about half of the five-page, constantly-being-updated list this year, but those were quickly replaced by new projects.)
* Communicate on a regular basis with my extended family and friends from high school, college, and other parts of my life. (This, for some reason, is the hardest resolution of them all; I care deeply about all of my family and friends, yet I cannot seem to send a single email.)
* Eat two pieces of fruit each day. (Also very difficult.)
* Visit more museums, theaters, and musical performances in Brno.
* Go to at least one new Brno restaurant each month.
* Run in five fun runs around Brno this year.
* Shave every day. Dress better. Iron my clothes. Shine my shoes. Never allow clutter to accumulate anywhere. Say dobrý den to every old person in my neighborhood. Do all of my paperwork early. Shop early for birthdays / anniversaries / Christmas.
Easy. No problem. I’ll be the perfect person in just one year.
What are your New Year’s Resolutions? What will torture you for the next year (read: six weeks)? Provide some suggestions for the rest of us below.
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