Prague: a City of History, Color…and Lack of Diversity

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, Prague, 14. Tips by Maria AlejandraLeave a Comment

I would recommend NYU Prague to anyone who is contemplating studying abroad. Although it is getting more exposure in travel blogs and the like, I feel as if Prague is still an unknown city to many. When I told people I was going to Prague, many people had trouble repeating its correct pronunciation. Others asked in what country it is found. And others asked me if it was in Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia ceased being a country in 1993! The Czech Republic (or Czechia) and Slovakia are two separate nation-states!

Prague offers an amazing opportunity to learn about recent world history through a European lens that is not appropriated by “the West”. Indeed, often when we think and talk about Europe, we only think of Western Europe: France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Germany, and maybe even Portugal. What about the other half of the continent? Central Europe was arguably more shattered by World War II and the Nazi invasion than was the West. It barely got a break to breathe because after being “liberated” by the Soviet Union, it was under its control for approximately 40 years. Some nations are still recuperating even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991!

Learning about all this history was so fascinating to me because I feel that if I had not decided to study in Prague, this knowledge would not have been made so accessible to me. For example, did you know that the Czech Republic really dislikes being considered part of Eastern Europe? It is located in the center—often it sees itself as the heart of Europe—but it is considered Eastern because it was once a part of the Soviet Bloc; and thus, it is misconstrued as still backwards. Ironically, the Czech Republic is one of the most stable economies in Europe with one of the lowest unemployment rates.

Prague is a European city, certainly, but sometimes it feels more like Disney World which partly has to due with its unique architecture—something I discussed in a previous post. Western Europe is more influenced by Renaissance and Gothic art and architecture, while Prague is more influenced by Baroque art and architecture. My favorite place to visit in Prague is Letní Letná Park because it is located on a hill, and therefore has one of the best views of the city: one can see the uniform red roofs, the Vltava River, some of Prague’s seventeen bridges, church towers, the top of the Žižkov Tower, the Petrin Tower, etc. The park is also quite large and one can spend the whole day walking around its green and orange foliage. Letní Letná is also home to a makeshift skater park which rests below the metronome that took the place of the largest Stalin statue (that unsurprisingly was quickly demolished after his death). 

Some people argue that they choose Prague as their study abroad site because it is so centrally located that they can travel easily to other cities. Others, myself included, like the fact that it is relatively inexpensive, as compared to New York. And others like that the beer is so plentiful (.5 liter) and cheap (about $1.50)—it is cheaper than water! You decide whether or not these sound incentivizing.

One thing I would liked to have known in advance is just the extent to which Prague lacks diversity. I knew it was to be expected precisely because it is not part of Western Europe but I suppose I just never imagined my brownness would interrupt the sea of so many white folks congregated in one place. I still get stares on public transportation (as I mentioned in one of my earlier posts). Granted, and thankfully, no one has ever said anything mean to me. I did have a young white Czech boy once mutter something under his breath and give me constant death glares but since I could not understand him, I chose to ignore him and hoped he just did not happen to like my outfit that day. The part that is most baffling to me, perhaps in my naïveté, is that Prague is considered diverse when compared to the rest of the country! I was prepared to go out of my comfort zone and be unable to communicate with everyone, and even somewhat expected not finding a Colombian restaurant but once one’s vague expectations turn into reality, well that is a bit of a different story.

I used to claim that Prague was very safe. Although pickpocketing is something that occurs here, I have never had anything stolen from me, nor have I ever been catcalled by men on the street nor have I been the recipient of a racial slur. However, the other day I was given a wake-up call by a dark Black Muslim friend—the only one in the program. She has not felt safe at all here. She has had her hair touched without giving her consent by numerous people. She has had her butt groped by men in clubs. She has had people pester her about her origins. She had to move into my dorm because she had a black male stalker by where she lived. Shortly after our conversation, my Indian friend came to visit me. Once I walked around accompanied by another brown women, countless men, white and colored (found in tourist areas), pestered us about our origins. Men are socialized to think they own women’s bodies, especially if the women in question seem to be of similar racial backgrounds. Thus, after having that conversation, I realized Prague is objectively a safe place for white folks, and to some degree, for non-black people of color. The same cannot be said for everyone.

I share these incidents not to scare prospective students but to make them aware that often, we are the victims of our own romanticized perceptions about certain places. Certainly right now, the United States is not the safest nation for people of color, immigrants, women, and members of the LGBTQIAP community, and so we may think that other places are infinitely better. I will not deny that I chose to come to Prague partially because I wanted an escape from the US. Unfortunately though, xenophobia, racism, homophobia, and sexism are global structures of oppression. Students of color must be prepared for some uncomfortable situations in Prague. What matters is how we choose to deal with these phenomena. Do we let it affect our entire experience? Do we try to learn from these incidents and grow as stronger people? Do we educate ourselves and others about privilege and diversity?

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