5. The Invisible Migrant: The (Im)Possibility of Getting Behind the Iron Curtain of Western Academia as an Eastern European Academic

Martina Vitáčková

I did a double Master’s, finished it in rapid time, and was awarded my PhD at the age of 28. Shortly after that, my PhD was published as a monograph. A bright career was awaiting me in academia, or so I thought. However, I did not consider that I did my PhD on the ‘wrong’ side of Europe. Even worse: I did not even do my PhD in Prague, which seems to be the only university in the Czech Republic that matters in the West. (Read: the only one they have heard of.) It made sense to me that I, even as a Prague native, would move to another side of the country. The Dutch studies programme was better in Olomouc than in Prague. And they offered me a full-time teaching position during my PhD, so it was the sensible thing to do. But I did not foresee the impact that this decision would have on my academic career. My PhD in theory of literature was part of the Bologna process, awarded according to the EU norms, with a former dean of the University College London as chair of the PhD defense committee, but alas! It was granted at a university located East of the former Iron Curtain. Around the same time, I fell in love and decided I wanted to live in Belgium. With the naïveté of a fresh doctor of philosophy, I thought the three letters behind my name mattered more than where I got the title. But in academia, just as in the housing market, location means a lot. Location and luck. Location and luck.

So I packed my books in cardboard boxes and relocated to Belgium, a tiny country crammed between the Netherlands and France, with three official languages and seven parliaments. The language would not be a problem, I thought, since I was proficient in one of the official languages and understood the other two. I did my MA in Dutch at Palacky University, Olomouc and wrote my PhD on Dutch and Afrikaans literature. I had also been teaching Dutch as a foreign language throughout my PhD studies to private and university students. I arrived in a country whose language, history, and culture I had studied at university level and had taught to many students. It was supposed to feel like coming home.

It did not.

I came to Belgium for the first time years before that. It was the summer of 2002, I was a first-year student, and I came by bus to attend a two-week summer school on Dutch language and culture, organized for international non-Dutch students who studied Dutch outside of the Low Countries (i.e. the Netherlands and Belgium). Part of the course was a home visit to a Flemish family for dinner. We went in pairs. I don’t remember my fellow home visitor, neither where she came from, nor what her name was. The only thing I remember from the whole evening is the vicious xenophobia of the host family and their attitude of cultural superiority towards the two of us. Twenty years later, I still remember the shame I felt when the other girl and I were marched to the bathroom to wash our hands before dinner. ‘That’s how it’s done here’, the woman said. Afterward, she gave us a lecture on flowing hot water streaming from the faucet, which she thought we probably didn’t have at home. We did. I recall being asked whether I knew what spaghetti was. I did. The lady never attempted to learn anything about ‘us’, so I didn’t get the chance to inform her that we ate pasta at home as well. I would not have dared anyway, I guess. I was paralyzed by shock, and shame. I was also puzzled by the other girl’s reaction to these humiliating utterances: she was smiling and nodding enthusiastically. Back then I was angry with her; didn’t she understand that we were being insulted?! Now, I think she actually did not understand the language that well, and tried to be polite. Later I became angry with myself: I should have said something, I should have defended our dignity against this horrible show of cultural superiority. Even now, after I have experienced thousands of such incidents—in private and work life—I still usually become muted by my own shame. I do not know what I’m actually ashamed of. Maybe I internalized the xenophobia I had been surrounded by for years.

Ten years later, I was willing to give Belgium another try, armed with perfect knowledge of Dutch and a university diploma. The welcome wasn’t much better. When registering at the city hall, I greeted the lady at the counter, explained my situation, and provided my new address. The lady at the counter, whom I just had a five-minute conversation in Dutch with, looked at my papers, looked at my name with raised eyebrows, looked back at me, and asked in a slow, loud voice, ‘Dooooo youuuuuu haaaaaaave a driiiiiiiving liiiiiiicense?’ while making driving gestures with her hands as if she were turning an imaginary steering wheel. I did. And again, I didn’t stand up for myself.

A few days later I was meeting a professor with whom I wanted to apply for a post-doctoral fellowship. While he really liked my research idea, he was worried about the quality of my PhD and wondered whether it was the same ‘as the Belgian one’. It should be—Bologna, you know. But in practice, it isn’t. My PhD diploma carries the name of an unknown university somewhere in Eastern Europe. Also, I had to have a full-time teaching position in order to survive financially during my PhD studies. Logically, I didn’t publish as much as Belgian PhD students, who have employee status and a comfortable salary. So I tried to do another PhD in Belgium or the Netherlands. The problem was that, since I already had an EU PhD, no one would fund another one.

The cold shower of unacceptance is, oddly enough, connected with my knowledge of the local language and culture. It is also the thing that will get commented on the most in my everyday life. I am regularly complimented on how well I speak Dutch, usually in a voice of a parent whose kid just used a potty for the first time. After years of disbelieving and/or confused staring back, I am now able to reply that it would have been strange for me not to speak the language, given that I study Dutch and Afrikaans literature. Almost as often, people (and that includes colleagues in academia as well) point out that I still have a bit of an accent, don’t I. In the eyes of these commentators, I do not fit the common image of an (academic) immigrant who still has to learn the language and customs of their new country. While it is completely acceptable for Flemish academics to be experts on British, German, or Japanese literature, the fact that I, an outsider, could have sufficient knowledge of the Dutch language AND literature seems to be beyond common understanding, even in academia. Perhaps if I studied Russian literature, since that is also in the East, or Czech literature, since that is written in my mother tongue… But the truth is that I know much more about Dutch and Afrikaans literature than about Czech literature. I try to follow Czech culture and literature from a distance. But my new Dutch/Flemish home culture and my specialization—Afrikaans literature—just take up too much time, and there is no space left for another culture. I am always happy when my Czech friends give me a book by a local author they personally liked, and that is just about all the cultural input I get. I am OK with that.

People are born, grow up, work, live, have families (sometimes), grow old, and ultimately die (always). Each of the stages can, however, happen in another country and/or culture. I, for example, was born in Czechoslovakia, grew up in the post-socialist Czechoslovakia, and after the 1992 split in Czech Republic (which since 2016 has used the official short geographic name Czechia), and had lived in Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, and South Africa before I finally settled in Belgium. All these countries, spaces and cultures formed the ‘me’ that I am now. And frankly, I felt much more at home in South Africa than I ever felt in Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic. After the years abroad, I now experience anything Czech with an uncomfortable mixture of longing, recognition, and unhomeliness. While I am Czech, and Prague-born, I cannot give you tips on good restaurants in Prague. I don’t know what the most popular music is in the Czechia now, what the average salary is, or what the general opinion on global warming is. I do not know. I was born there, and my parents still live there. I know what my parents think and what those few friends I still have there think. But that is about it. I am as much a representative of the Czech Republic (pardon: Czechia) as Arnold Schwarzenegger is of Austria, or Jean-Claude Van Damme—the famous Muscles from Brussels—is of Belgium. I would fancy being called Brains from Bohemia, though…

And while we’re at it, here are some more things I would really like to get off the table: I do not like Kundera. At all. I really wish people would stop asking me about Kundera. I don’t know. See, I am a Dutch and Afrikaans literature scholar. And while The Unbearable Lightness of Being might be representative of Czechoslovakia back then (1984), it does not say anything at all about what the country and culture look like now. In fact, Milan Kundera writes in French these days, claiming he is a French writer now.

I do not speak Russian. I was supposed to learn that at school, but then the revolution of 1989 happened, the Soviet bloc collapsed, and the Berlin Wall fell. Learning Russian in a freshly freed post-socialist country was a big no-no, so I never did. Instead, I started learning English from a teacher whose English was hardly better than the students’. In fact, she was in the textbook exactly one chapter ahead of us. It is a miracle that this bumpy start did not discourage me and that I eventually mastered that language.

No, I do not know the Polish woman whom you are friends with. We immigrants do not all hang out together like members of some sort of a cult. Also, Polish and Czech are two separate languages, and speaking one of them does not necessarily mean you speak or even understand the other. Actually, I speak Dutch with most of my Polish friends because they are, just as I am, scholars of Dutch literature or language.

I am not a spokesperson for all Eastern European immigrants. And no, you cannot complain about your Polish plumber to me. And no, I won’t feel any pride if you praise your Romanian cleaning lady in front of me. It sucks to hire a bad plumber, and good for you if you have found a good cleaning lady. The fact that we all come from the other side of Europe does not create a holy bond between us. That other side of Europe is not one country: it actually consists of many countries with their own languages and cultures that are not interchangeable. I would hope that university-educated people know that.

As a woman originally from Eastern Europe (because let’s be honest: the term Central Europe is only used in Central Europe), many Western Europeans would expect me to be a cleaning lady. Or maybe a sex worker. That is just gendered xenophobia, and it needs to stop. When I moved in with my partner, many people, including some friends and acquaintances, made half-jokes that I was a mail-order bride. No one laughed. Many have insinuated that I was a gold-digger. At that point, we considered putting a house number plate out with Dr in front of my name and Mr in front of my partner’s name. We have not done that. Yet.

Me speaking Dutch and being seemingly well adjusted to Belgian culture and society does not make me an ally to your xenophobia or racism. I would appreciate if I were not supposed to support the omnipresent Western European outrage about ‘the immigrants’. It causes me outrage when I have to listen to that. And it hurts. Once I had to listen to a hairdresser complaining to me about all the immigrants at her child’s school. There were too many of ‘them’ (read, ‘us’!) to her taste, so she finally ‘had to’ put her child in another school. She wanted her child to learn Dutch properly. She expected me to understand and approve, as if I, of all people, would understand her concerns. But there it was again, the paralysis. So I just sat there, squirming uncomfortably in the chair, waiting for the moment when I could leave. I never came back. But I do come back to that situation in my head a lot, beating myself up that I should have said something, should have done something… Rush out with my hair half-cut, the hairdresser’s smock flapping behind me like a superhero cape. I did not.

In Europe, whiteness is not homogenous, there are many shades of white, and not all of them are as privileged as it would seem from the outside. In fact, it took moving to South Africa to realize that I was white myself. I did not know. In Belgium, I am white, and my otherness stays hidden behind the fragile façade of my whiteness in many ways. I am the other, but not the visible kind. Neither my skin nor my hair are commented on, my clothing (even though sometimes frowned upon) does not disclose my origin… On the street, I am invisible, and my otherness stays hidden for as long as I don’t make myself known. It only takes people finding out my surname or hearing a few words I exchange with my child for the façade to break into pieces. And there I stand, exposed in my otherness. My day-to-day experiences in the public space and in academia resonate so much with those of my fellow migrants who come from further away than Europe.

People hardly make an effort to pronounce my surname, some chuckle uncomfortably, some just call me by my first name. I am constantly asked about my ‘home country‘and culture. At the same time, people question the information I provide them in an act that can probably be coined as Westsplaining. I grew up there, lived through that time, the historical changes, but still, an average Westerner tends to think s/he knows better than I do. Because they went there on a city break. Or maybe read some Kundera. Some days the emotional labor of keeping my wits together and not reacting to the never-ending microaggressions just consumes all my energy. My right to occupy the space, despite my Belgian citizenship (which I was finally granted after many years of living in Belgium), keeps being questioned. ‘But you are not from here, are you?’

Even after having lengthy discussions with people, some just can’t make the switch in their brains. They keep talking to me in LOUD, simple words, and short sentences, with lots of gestures. Checking whether I understand the most basic words. After all, I taught Dutch as a second language for years; I have multiple certificates to prove my proficiency in the language; I have written numerous articles in Dutch and on Dutch literature; and both my personal and work life take place almost exclusively in Dutch… But still, that question keeps coming back, haunting me, stirring up the good old feeling of shame for what I am. ‘Do you know what spaghetti is?’ ‘Dooooo youuuuuuu haaaaave a driiiiiving liiiiiiicense?’ I still do.

The imaginary Iron Curtain is still dividing Europe, and even the European Union is very much comparable to the wall of ice in Game of Thrones. It is so difficult to get behind, though not in the physical sense of the word. And once you are in, you are still considered a wildling without ‘proper’ schooling—someone that people should be mindful of. I would like to be able to say that the caution and cultural superiority that you are treated with stays outside academia, but that is sadly not the case.

I still have it easy: not being called out on my skin color, my hair, or what is covering it. My diplomas are, at least on paper, accepted. I can come visit my parents and my country of origin, if money allows, anytime I feel like it. I can fly to Prague, just waving my Czech or Belgian ID, walk into a bookshop and buy a Czech translation of Kundera. My parents can always come to Belgium and see their grandchild. But my ‘easy’ is also relative. While I am spared many microaggressions due to my ‘white’ looks, I also share the precarious state of migranthood, and migrant otherness. The feeling of never really belonging, of never being fully accepted. Even with my EU education, I am not always considered equal to my Western European colleagues. It makes me wonder if I ever will be.

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