I often sound disappointed in these blog post about the Prague I have encountered. And it’s true—I have been disappointed in several aspects, but I have to admit that the biggest reason lies in myself. I’m not one to venture out of her comfort zone for no reason, and I’ve always been an introverted person, more focused on improving myself than reaching out to others, so it’s only natural that I’ve become caught in my own bubble.
Visiting a country for a few months with NYU is obviously a completely different experience from coming here on one’s own. There is a set group of people to socialize with that you’re familiar with, or come from the same place, a living place is provided for you, a campus to call your own conveniently (and unfortunately) located in the tourist center of the city (in the case of NYU Prague at least), history and language lessons within the first week of arrival, and of course, endless resources and support for any difficulties you may encounter. There is so much support provided, in fact, that there is no particular reason to look outside one’s immediate circles, unless for some reason an assignment or internship requires it. Especially nowadays, when travel and globalization is so big that there are layers of protection in place just so that bubble doesn’t pop, so that travelers feel comfortable when they arrive, and everything can be accessible to them in the easiest way possible.
With this layer of security present, it is too easy to lose sight of the local color that ought to hit us in the face when we arrive. Instead, we enter and leave this city with impressions that begin with cheap beer and end with cheap gelato.
However, coming with NYU also provides an abundance of opportunities, resources, and often even obligations to learn more about the local culture and history. Studying in Prague has opened my mind up to the complexities of living in a post-communism democracy, somehow teaching me more about the two places I come from—China and the United States—more than I ever learned living there. Perhaps it is the encounter of the unfamiliar that helps me focus in on these things—unfamiliar narratives, unfamiliar approaches and ideas. Unfamiliar people with unfamiliar histories. It is particularly interesting to listen to professors and guest lecturers talk about their views, or read about a completely different life from the writings of past Czech authors.
Or perhaps it is the way Prague is constructed. It lies on a continuum of history that exists neither in the ultra-modern cosmopolitan New York, nor the quickly Westernizing cities of China, where the disjunction between traditional culture and the economic development require conscious effort to reconcile. As I walk along the cobblestone streets and feel the rocks press into the soles of my shoes, as I look up and marvel at the mix of architectural styles that occupy the streets, I am experiencing for myself the history that has laid its foundations deeply in everyday structures of the city. Maybe it is precisely because we are located in Old Town Square, the hub of tourism for Prague, that this sense of history is so well preserved. Indeed, not all bubbles are bad. Sometimes they preserve for us ways of life that deserve to be observed, whether it is artifacts of history or practices of the modern traveler.
Rather than slap me in the face , the local culture and history here seems to have slowly seeped into my life in a way that is much less noticeable, but perhaps just as long-lasting. Turns out it is still impossible to be immersed in a foreign country for so long and not change at all. Of course, I could still be stuck in a my own scholarly bubble where all this complicated history and politics matters more than they do in the daily lives of the locals. But then again, bubbles always exist. Who we are will always depends on where we are, who we talk to, and the things that we encounter. It is because of these bubbles that we can still be unique, and that the world doesn’t overwhelm us all the time with its vastness. Like most things in the world, they are both good and bad, complicated simply because they exist in a complicated world.