Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

An immigrant rite of passage: A summer visit to the old country

For them, it was a wondrous cultural exploration filled with new tastes, sounds and smells.

For me? It was exhausting.

I just spent the past three weeks introducing my children to my parents’ homeland — the Czech Republic. Two American boys were plunged into a world of castles and cobblestones, of wild boar goulash and Czech-speaking cousins and our family’s ancestral village in Southern Bohemia.

I’ve been relishing the thought of this trip ever since I became a parent. And it’s a cultural rite of passage for millions of immigrants across America. That delightful and sometimes dreaded first trip back home, especially when you’re coming back with your American-born kids, where you will stand in judgment against the backdrop of Old World values every single day.

My friend, Thuan Le Elston, said she worried as their plane landed in Saigon with her children, ages 6, 5 and 2: “What if they hate my birthplace?”

They didn’t. It turned out that her children loved seeing the three-room house where her parents had raised five children.

“My family had escaped Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in 1975. Three decades later, walking the old neighborhoods with my two sons and daughter, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was so emotionally satisfying,” Elston told me.

“My son hated all the mud,” our cabdriver said, when he overheard our conversation on the way home from the airport, after our flight from Prague last week.

He is Ethio­pian and took his children — 5 and 3 — back home for the first time last summer.

In Ethiopia, he was berated by his family for spoiling his kids, which happened to me, too.

The relatives yelled at him for not teaching his children Amharic.

“I know people who teach their kids Arabic or Chinese. That’s useful. But what good is Amharic in America?” the cabbie asked.

Check. Every morning in Prague, the woman downstairs routinely upbraided me for not teaching the boys Czech.

“They’re learning Spanish,” I told her. “That’s much more useful in America.”

“Bah,” she spat.

We also got grief at restaurants for my boys’ manners, with their constant requests for ice and ketchup, when they interrupted grown-ups with endless questions, made fangs out of the table’s toothpicks or used all of the napkins at the restaurant to make origami boats.

My biggest “bah” came from my own family, when I hovered over the kids at playgrounds that were raucous fun, but with zip lines that wouldn’t exist in America.

“Just relax, let them play,” my cousin said.

But we don’t do that in America.

“We are used to never letting them out of our sight,” said a friend of mine who now lives in Maryland but makes an annual trip home to Sweden with her American boys.

“In Sweden, you don’t watch your child’s every move on the playground, on the beach, in the pool,” she told me. “I still tend to fall back on the American way of supervising, and my friends and family think I am nuts.”

Yes, a childhood with freedom is something we often mourn in America.

When I was pretty young and on a trip back to the homeland, my parents gave me freedom to go out with my cousins in my father’s ancestral village deep in Southern Bohemia. There was a fish pond, barns, the town square and church. What could go wrong?

There was also 12-percent beer and Sparta cigarettes. Freedom!

In this same village, decades later, the cousins and I sat at a long table in the orchard, sipping wine and eating wild strawberries, remembering the hulking man who tried to dance with the teen me on that beer-and-Sparta night. Our children chased frogs in the pond nearby.

“Freedom,” I swooned.

The boys were all muddy, rowdy, having fun. After a bottle or two, the mothers all noticed a silence near the pond. We scrambled to find the boys. No one appeared to have fallen in. We scoured the orchard, the chicken coop, the rabbit house.

Finally, we found them inside. The Czech boy had his computer open and my kids were bathed in the blue light of one of the gnarliest, bloodiest American video games I have ever seen, one I would never let my kids near and one that was a Czech favorite, apparently.

“We told him you wouldn’t let us play,” my 6-year-old said to me, busted and scared. “We only watched.”

“No more freedom!” I bellowed.

So much for all those Old World values.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

 
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