East – West … is Home Best?

Andrea Krawchuk

Meet Marie. Marie is a 58-year-old petite yet energetic woman who moved to the USA nearly forty years ago. Like many others, she and her husband left Czechoslovakia for a so-called “better life”. The journey took them a while before they reached their final destination – a large metropolitan city where they have lived ever since. They have three daughters and now five grandchildren, too, a source of great enjoyment to them.  Marie and her husband left their entire family behind, including their parents, not knowing if they would ever see them again. An ordeal that is extremely hard on and unfair to all people who decide to leave their home country.

“At first, you don’t think about that, really, you focus on building your life, finding a job to make a decent living, and besides, I wasn’t able to communicate with my parents much at that time,” Marie explains. It took them years to get over the culture shock, and she thanks her busy and hard-working life for helping her overcome it. It was way later, after the revolution, that she was at last allowed to make the trip back home and visit her ailing parents, something she now does every couple of years. Like most people who live far away from their parents, she constantly regrets not being there for them and feels helpless as they grow older and need her help. “This could be the last time I see them, I keep thinking every time I board the plane,” she says over a hot chai latte at her favourite Starbucks down the street from where she lives. “I hate feeling that way, but there is nothing I can do.” She doesn’t hide the fact she would love to move back to Brno, where she grew up. “Life is easier there, none of my friends work as hard as I do,” she confesses with a sigh. She admits she has missed her home ever since they arrived, and while she has tried to build a little Czech oasis for herself and her family some 6000 km away, it hasn’t been the same.

So what keeps her from going back? Her children, of course. Although all proficient in Czech, having been exposed to the language from the minute they were born, grown up with Czech music and books and maintained all the Czech traditions their parents loved so much, they are still very much Americans first. They understand the language, but they use English even when replying to their mom’s questions in Czech. Their children – Marie’s grandchildren – have only a basic knowledge of a few words, which Marie sees as inevitable. “I love my family and I know that this is the place I have to stay, no matter what.”  She is happy if they manage to save enough money for the trip every couple of years. “I am constantly worried I will not make it in time,” she says quietly.

Sabina’s story is quite different. In her early 30s, she has always been a restless soul and an adventurous type. She travelled a lot when she was younger and always dreamed of moving abroad. She has always been drawn to Greek culture and has visited Greece numerous times. Eventually, some 10 years ago, she joined a Greek online dating site and met a wonderful man. He was Greek, but instead of living in a beautiful sunny seashore house on a Greek island, he lived in the USA with his second-generation-Greek parents. Sabina got not an island home but a crowded townhouse in a city with a population of  3 million. She was in love and happy, though, and soon they got married and had two children together. At first she didn’t miss anything Czech. Quite the opposite in fact – everything about her old country irritated her and she couldn’t understand why she hadn’t left earlier.

But life with her new family got off to a rocky start. Her husband’s family started giving her a hard time as soon as they tied the knot. “They never accepted me, from the beginning,” she says. “Everything I did was wrong, and living with them was very hard on me. They were the only family I had and they made my life hell.” Sabina is still visibly upset by the memory of those days. Life has not been easy for them when it comes to work and the cost of living, either. She is a stay-at-home mom and her husband works long shifts with extra overtime, which has affected his health drastically. They struggle to afford a small house of their own and they max out their credit cards regularly, just to make ends meet. Their monthly costs are high, but no higher than those of the average family. She constantly compares her life to those of her friends back home, with whom she keeps in constant touch. The difference is astounding. Like many others, she cannot really afford simple things like after-school activities for her kids, skiing trips and dining out.

Her relationship with her husband is slowly deteriorating. “The only thing that keeps me sane is the summer holiday,” she laughs. “I use my credit card to buy tickets and we fly back home for two months. My husband joins us for two weeks at the end, so that way we have a family vacation as well.” In 5 – 10 years, they plan to move to South Bohemia, where she has inherited from her parents a small house in which they spend their summers.  She seems to be pretty sure it will happen, despite the fact that her kids will be teenagers by then. “I will just force them to go, they are young,” she says with confidence and the foresight of someone who came to realisation a bit too late. “They have no idea what’s best for them.”

How Sabina’s friend Lucie wishes she had the chance to spend her summers in Czechia! Being a young single mom with joint custody of her only daughter, life has not been easy for her, either. She came to the States a few years ago with the idea of staying for a year or so. Before long, however, she met a man and became pregnant by him. The relationship didn’t last and they now share custody of their small daughter. Being a single mom with a single income is hard enough as it is, but being a complete stranger in a foreign country is another matter entirely. There have been times when she has worked three jobs and experienced poor living conditions, large debts, court hearings and being laid off – all this has contributed to Lucie’s poor mental health. She has fought depression for years, and she has never stopped wishing she could go home. “I was even considering just taking off without telling him,” she almost whispers, referring to her child’s father. But she knows very well how severe the consequences of such an act would be. “I’m trapped in a country I don’t want to be in, but there’s nothing I can do,” she says matter-of-factly. “I get angry every time I hear someone back home telling me how lucky I am to have left the country and how great living abroad must be. They have absolutely no idea what it is like. Those are always the people who have never left their home but always complain about it.” She shakes her head. “I’m thankful to have friends here, though. We support each other, and just knowing we are not alone helping us tremendously.”

When a new girl – “a new arrival”, they call them – joins their circle, she is welcomed with open arms. “There is no judging anyone. We’ve all been there, you know,” says Sabina, as she puts on her coat. She has to run to pick up her daughter from Saturday’s Czech school.

(All the people and events depicted in this article are true, although the names have been changed at their request.)