Thursday, April 29, 2010

Is It That Obvious?

I was listening to the most recent episode of This American Life, at the point where refugees are talking about the most ridiculous things they had heard about America but could not believe, when I realized I was out of sugar. After being sick for days, I finally feel like my head is my own and my stomach is no longer revolting. In celebration, I decided to bake brownies. The chocolate was melted, flour reserved, eggs cracked. But I had no sugar. I paused the podcast and my baking to run down to the corner store.
The corner store in my neighborhood, which is referred to as Zalabi and seen in Kolín as the equivalent of living in Jersey, is much smaller than any I've experienced in Prague. It's a lot like the shop across the street from my flat in Daegu, except there's no pampered yappy-type dog to step over. There's barely room for one person in each stretch of the U of shelves. But at six-thirty, after the local grocery has closed for the night, the place is usually packed. There are weary workers buying frozen foods for dinner. An old woman is buying bread. A boy pops in to grab a candy and drop a crown on the counter without waiting in line. I listen to the Czech all around me and feel content with my understanding. "How many here?" the shop keeper asks the worker about a bag of rolls.
"Seven rolls and three buns," he replies.
I realize, suddenly, that as far as most people know are concerned, I look the most Czech of anyone in the shop--being neither Romani nor Vietnamese. I am thinking about the refugees on the radio show. Half of these people might warrant asylum because of the way this government treats them while the other half came here in the past in search of a better life. I am not a refugee of any kind. I did not escape the oppression of my government. Yet, I came here seeking something, too. Adventure, maybe. But I have also come a great distance to find happiness. We speak about the same amount of Czech, you and I, Mr. Shopkeeper, I think. This feeling of being an outsider, it's something we share.
As I place my sack of sugar on the counter, I begin to count out eighteen crowns. He asks,
"Vere you from?" in English.
Thoroughly taken aback, I say only, "New York."
"Ah."
I wonder how he knew. Did I look at my coins like a puzzle in my hand? Did I pause somewhere I shouldn't have? How did he know? And while it may seem irrational, a small part of me believes he felt my sympathy and understood all that was going on in my head while he rung up the customers ahead of me in line. This feeling of being an outsider, it's something we share. I thought it so loudly, he heard it.

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