The glowing neon sign pierces the icy air beckoning to passersby. Its glowing greenish sign plainly states its status as a store while it leers at you from down the street. As you approach, a couple Czech men and their dogs sit on the ledge to the right of the store drinking beers, smoking cigarettes, and talking shit. They act as gatekeepers to the little shop that smolders against the crisp night, their dogs pulling at their leashes as bundled people quickly walk past on their way home. The bell rings as the door to the store opens, alerting the ubiquitous cashiers of a customer’s presence. Glittering bottles of assorted alcohol teeter on towering shelves that line the store. Fresh produce labeled zelenina a ovoce has become noticeably more sporadic as winter approaches. Variety and freshness varies greatly as the bananas are green and the potatoes are sprouting. Mountains of Haribo, stacks of Czech cookies, and cornucopias of ramen fill the back walls. Little nooks and crannies hide everything from a dusty pack of birthday candles to a stale pack of different flavors of chocolate molded into women’s backsides that are supposed to represent different races. The odd variations of goods teeter in different corners and always provide a strange new discovery or comment on Czech society.
One person, from the family that runs the store, is always at the cash register. Oftentimes it is the young fellow with his message tees or the older bearded, sage looking man. A wise older women often hovers in the back of the shop, but will run to help if no one is around or another member of the store is unloading product. A couple times a younger lady juggling a baby in one hand and my cash in another has even rung me up. We do not converse besides a polite “thank you” and “good evening” as they seem tired and annoyed that I usually pay in coins and my Czech is still deplorable.
I am unsure if they are a family and I am unsure if they are Vietnamese, but a large percentage of Vietnamese people reside in Prague despite its generally homogenous, white population. A lot of the Vietnamese immigrants came before the fall of the communist regime, as Vietnam’s communist government was close with the USSR. The shopkeepers seem to operate as a family unit because one of four of them is always there and you can hear people arguing in the back through a thin curtain and the baby usually makes a weekly appearance in one of women’s arms.
At a recent visit to Southern Bohemia University in a more conservative, small area of the Czech Republic, my discussion with one of the students turned to race. Racism against the nonwhite population is very prevalent because so much nationalism and patriotism in the Czech Republic is tied to ethnicity. She, a Ukrainian woman, explained that her job was making a selection and she and another Vietnamese girl were the only non-ethnic Czechs in the pool. After the interviews, she explained that the Vietnamese girl lamented that while the white Czechs will always be prioritized, at least the Ukrainian girl was white and that would undoubtedly help her. The Ukrainian lady agreed with this wholeheartedly and was saddened by the situation of nonwhites in the Czech Republic. As ethnicity continues to remain a barrier to acceptance in Czech society as espoused by the mainstream, the larger society continues to refuse to serve the people that often literally serve them. The presence of this shop, while still quite strange and full of strangers, remains a stalwart provider of the needed bottle of wine or chocolate bar no matter the hour as well as a testament to how hard non-white Czechs have to work in society.