Strike a blow against bureaucracy: Freedom for multicultural names in the Czech Republic

My path to parenthood was a rocky one, slogging through infertility, an Eastern European adoption system and the judgments of many who felt a blind person shouldn't parent in the first place.

As well as those large boulders, there were some small, sharp stones on that road, not barriers but merely unpleasant jabs to endure. These were, for instance, lectures from bureaucrats about how wrong I was--wrong to think I could parent, wrong to adopt, wrong to accept children of another ethnicity, wrong in naming my child...

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt

That last was one of the final rocks in my shoes, but one that I knew about from the beginning. I had heard rumors about the Czech Republic's name czar, an elderly linguist with the antiquated opinions of the 19th century. 

You see the Czech Republic has a name calendar. Each day of the year has been given a name, sometimes two. These were originally the feast days of saints and the custom dates to a time when immigrants were few and knowledge of the world beyond the little valley of Bohemia and the hills of Moravia was very limited.

Name days are still celebrated by many in the Czech Republic. Friends and family members give flowers, cards, chocolate and alcohol to those named after the saint in the calendar. As a result, being given a name that isn't on the calendar could represent a distinct denial of small gifts. 

This may have been one of the motivations for appointing a linguistics expert to control all foreign and uncommon names given in the country. Another reason given was to prevent people from having to correct the spelling and pronunciation of others.

I will admit that there are some small perks to this rigid naming system, once you have learned to pronounce all 365 or so names--no small feat with names like Zbyněk, Wilhelmina, Břetislav, Otýlie and Zdesislava--just to name a few. If you are ever called upon to pronounce another person's name without help, you theoretically have no problem. 

But the most commonly cited reason is the fear that classmates will ridicule a child with an uncommon name. Those who wished to give their child a common foreign name like Doug had to apply for a permit, while one could cheerfully and freely name a child Bonifác--one extremely rare Czech name that sounds just as ridicule-prone in Czech as it does in English, but which—none the less—gets a day on the calendar (May 14 to be exact).

That's why when I went to name each of my kids and didn't want to choose either the 30-odd actually used names on the Czech calendar--which results in my children's classes having only three names to share between eight girls and the like--or any of the ridiculous ones not in general use, I had to approach the name czar with polite pleas of supplication and suffer through one last lecture about my wrongness. 

The name czar warned me that my children, named Shaye and Marik, would suffer terribly in school because of their odd foreign names. In both instances, the name czar originally denied my request and I had to document the common use of the names in other countries.

Beyond the fairly popular English name "Shaye", "Marik" is a Slovak variant of the common Czech Marek and it saves my son from sharing his name completely with two other kids in his year. But the name czar did not like my choices.

Exhausted from years of this kind of ordeal in the adoption process and still unsure whether or not the authorities could revoke our children if we were too disobedient, my husband and I bowed our heads, produced all the needed paperwork and stuck to fairly standard names even when applying for something different.

But not everyone is such a lightweight, thankfully. Another mixed couple--an American of Native American Indian background and her Czech husband--won their two-year court battle with the name czar this past summer. They had to go all the way to the Czech Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land.

Tthe court struck down the name czar and the power to intimidate and harass families of diverse cultures. The court decreed that the law says only that parents must provide documentation, such as a mention on a baby-names website or another registry of names or evidence that a name has been used in the past. Upon the filing of this documentation with a county clerk, the parents’ name choice will be automatically accepted. 

My children are well into their school years with their mildly unusual names and they don't report any major difficulties. My daughter has mentioned that mean boys will occasionally chant bastardized versions of her name, but they do it to all the girls. She is mildly dismayed that her name rhymes with so many things because this gives the boys a bit more fodder.

Still she is strong-willed and does not want to use her bland second name Hana (mostly given to her to ensure that she would not miss out on name-day treats).

My son, on the other hand, is slightly sad that his does not rhyme with anything in English or even that much in Czech. I have had to correct officials a few times when they heard his name and assumed it was the more common Marek, instead of Marik, but my son is happy with is little bit of uniqueness and that is what matters in the long run.

I am relieved to hear of this small victory for common sense over bureaucracy and grateful to those who fought the long fight in court.  

"Virtue signalling" versus "This is my life"

I go pick up my six-year-old son from kindergarten and he says a big kid from another class chased him and hit him repeatedly on the playground. Then he says another kid is calling him a racial slur.

I delicately ask the teacher if there have been any issues, and she explodes at me. "I don't want to hear it! I know for a fact that if there is any conflict, then your son started it. I don't care what anyone saw or what he says. He did something first. I know that. It's the way he is. It's in his background." 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I should have known not to bring anything up with this teacher. The other teacher swears my son is no more rambunctious than any of the other boys. She says they're all difficult. But mine is the only one not considered "white" by the standards of the country where we live.

He hides behind the shelves in the kindergarten boot room, eyes wide and mouth trembling. That night we have the discussion I've been dreading. Sex? Are you kidding? Imagine being afraid of discussing the birds and the bees!

Parents of black boys in America know this discussion though and I wonder if they dread it as much as I have. It goes like this: "I know it isn't fair, but for your own protection, you must never ever hit back. They will judge you more harshly because of the color of your skin and eyes." 

Again. this is kindergarten.

After the kids are in bed, I get online. It's work but it also involves blogging and discussing issues with people around the world. One of those issues is the ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries entering the US. And someone throws the accusation of "virtue signalling" at me because I express support for refugees who are affected by the ban. 

Initially I didn't even know what the epithet meant, I've been out of the country so long. But I looked it up and the gist of it is that I'm white so there is no way I could really be against racism and Islamophobia. I just say I am in order to "signal" how "virtuous" I am in an attempt to avoid anti-white backlash. So goes the logic of smug white commentators.

The absurdity of the past two weeks is staggering. I pride myself on being able to engage "the other side" with compassion but, dear goddess, how do you communicate across this canyon? 

If I tried to explain my day to the "virtue signalling" slinger, I might as well be speaking Urdu. 

I don't claim to know what it is like to be Black or Muslim in America. But I do have this little window into the issue of race because of the fluke of weird Czech attitudes toward ethnicity. I get enough of a window to know that I'm not experiencing the full extent of it by far.

And here's what my week is like:  

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

A gay lawyer friend and I helped a disabled immigrant with housing and paperwork the other night. After all, he was one of only a handful of people who stayed on a tough job with us one time. Then I go downhill skiing and I steer primarily by the sound of skis scraping on either side of me. I miss the days when I had a guide for blind skiers.

Then I come home and my good friend born in Syria who I've known for fifteen years and who ten years ago married an American and moved there is worried about whether or not she'll ever see the rest of her family again. (Oh, and her family is Christian, as are more than 20 percent of Syrians). I wish I could hug her long distance. I wish I could do anything but feel helpless.

I plan to go for a weekend to the home of the transgender friend with kids who I didn't used to know is trans. I have a short and pleasant Facebook conversation with a colleague I once went through a war zone with, who is also a Muslim and a former refugee. I'm glad to know he and his family are safe and well. Then I go out in subzero temperatures to feed animals and water overwintering plants in the urban homesteading that keeps our carbon footprint low.

When I say I am against racism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry and when I say I care about humanitarian and environmental issues, I'm only standing up for myself, my friends and my family just as you would if the storm troopers were at your door. 

Now I hear that there are protests in airports against the immigration ban for people from those seven countries which have lots of Muslims but oddly not nearly as many terrorists as the countries not banned. There are crowds of people standing on guard while Muslims pray in US airports.

I'm glad there is this outpouring of support for people who have had it rough for many years and who have generally suffered through it in silence and alone, trying to be nicer and less physical than everyone else, even while they were attacked, so that they wouldn't be labeled as "aggressive Muslims."  

I can't help but remember a trip back to the US five years ago. I was standing in an interminable security line with my kids--then no more than toddlers. I finally reached the point at which we were to enter the machines and checks and I noticed a family standing near by outside the line.

"We'll miss the flight," the woman said quietly but I heard. I am legally blind but I also made out the scarf around her head, wrapped in that way that I know usually means a Muslim. Her husband and two small children stood pressed near her, but he said nothing. All of their faces were a deep golden brown, likely with Middle Eastern or South Asian background.

I thought I understood. They had been held up and knew they didn't have time to stand in the line. Many other people would have begged to be allowed to cut in line, and with small children most would have been allowed. But they were too terrified to draw attention to themselves. 

I made a quick decision and stopped inching forward. Then I beckoned to them to join the line. The man's head jerked up and I thought he must be amazed, even though I couldn't see his expression well. The woman pushed him forward a little and the slid into the line in front of my kids. I heard a rumble behind me, coughs and someone pushed me roughly from behind. There were some coughs but nothing overt, yet.

My heart hammered in my throat. I am not a coward about most things but I have had plenty of reason to be afraid of public judgment and crowd disapproval. I whipped around, ready to defend myself and thrust my white cane, which I carry in confusing environments like airports, even though I can walk without it out to the side and demanded of the people behind me in line, "Have you got something to say?" 

The crowd stilled and I turned back around, the back of my neck and head burning as if their gaze could light me on fire. Still I felt a thrill inside. I had managed it. The Muslim family moved off quickly with only mumbled thanks. I gained no public approval or virtuous status that day. I did gain a bit more courage to act on my conscience, even when I may be publicly judged however.

This isn't "virtue signalling." This is my life. These are my people. You slander and malign them or you threaten to take away our basic rights, you ban people of another minority faith even if it isn't the exact same one as mine or you mock someone who shares a profession AND disability status with me, and you are much more likely to see my not-so-virtuous side. 

A "strange mama" and the freight train of racism

A few years ago, I was interviewed by a parenting magazine in the Czech Republic where we live most of the time. You might think that this would be an honor, and it was… sort of.

The topic of the article was “unusual parents.”

That’s me. The strange mama. I merited an interview because my children are trans-racially adopted… and bilingual… and I’m an American living in the Czech Republic… and I’m legally blind.

That was quite enough to be going on with. I didn’t actually even mention that we partially homeschool, I make our own medicines out of herbs and we’re wild, tree-hugging Pagans.

That was the year we started what has become an annual celebration of our oddballness as a family. We went on a litter collecting expedition.

Okay, a bit of background is necessary here. The Czech Republic is a nice, quiet little country with a good standard of living, great universal health care, free university education and lots of other reasons to rejoice and relax. It does have a few knotholes, however.

One is litter. Czechs hate litter and they are extraordinarily judgmental about other nations who litter, which is ironic because they are champion litterers themselves. There is also a little, low-level ethnic conflict in this country between the Czechs and the tiny (three percent) Romani minority, sometimes called Gypsies.

For one thing the Roma get blamed for lots of things, including the country’s litter problem. In reality, there are no Roma in our town, and its a litter disaster. Roma have also been, until very recently, systematically channeled into sub-standard, segregated schools. The school segregation issue is slowly and painfully improving by inches. Romani people in the Czech Republic remain among the most marginalized groups in a developed country with unemployment as high as 90 percent and racist remarks against them common in the media and among the country’s leading politicians.

That was one reason the magazine considered me to be a unique parent. My husband and I adopted children and refused the prolific advice of social workers who advocate that adoptive families restrict their adoption applications to non-Romani children only. The choices on the official, state adoption application form are “Majority ethnicity only” “Non-Romani only” and “No restriction of ethnicity.” It’s that overt.

My husband and I didn’t necessarily want to be activist about it but we had no reason to limit which children we might adopt by ethnicity, despite the pleas of our case workers on both the local and regional levels. Fate being what it is our kids are of Romani background but they don’t look stereotypically Roma, so we’re still “flying under the radar” in terms of small town racist politics. A few people in town know the “dreadful secret” that there actually are Roma in our quiet bedroom community but most don’t make the connection.

So, the ironies are multiple when my kids bug me to pack rubber gloves and garbage sacks on the way to preschool. I promised them that we could pick up trash on the way back. Yup, my kids want to pick up trash so bad that they pester me about it.

They aren’t really perfect angels. Far from it. They can be brats to each other and their friends, and they throw tantrums with the best of ‘em.

But they do have this one angelic trait. They seriously don’t like to see litter and when the snow melts and the ground is bare and muddy in the early spring the litter is extra visible. So this is the time of year that it comes up and ever since I taught them about picking up litter, we have our early spring pick-up sessions.

This is the kind of town where you will be stared at for being the slightest bit out of the ordinary. So, when my two preschoolers and I pick up trash, people a block away tap each other on the shoulder and walk backwards they stare so hard. What they see is the woman with the long white cane holding the garbage sack while the tiny children with rubber gloves pick up trash. I have no idea what they think but I know they’re perplexed.

My daughter once asked, “Mama, why are those people looking at us so much?”

I told her, “They’re probably surprised that someone is picking up the trash.”

“But why are their mouths open like that?” she continued.

“Possibly because of Mama’s stick, honey.”

People are weird. My kids have proof.

My daughter’s six now and she knows she’s Romani. She loves Romani music and dance. She says Romani girls are the classic princesses. The teacher at our Romani culture camp is her real live hero, second only her choir teacher.

The day is coming when she will learn that Romani people aren’t treated as equals in this society. I can feel it coming like a freight train bearing down on us. I can’t stop it.

Up until now, my daughter has always thought we were “just like everyone.” She loves it when she discovers that she has the same color jacket as another kid or the same cartoon character on her toothbrush. She isn’t going to like our oddball status all that much, when she finally learns what all those open mouths and staring eyes really mean.

For now, I don’t tell her every gruesome detail.

“Mama, are you laughing or crying?” she asked as we walked away from the Pedagogical Psychological Advisory Office after she was tested for “attention problems” and “motor immaturity.”

“Mostly laughing,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“That I’ll have to tell you later, honey, when you’re bigger.”

The official at the meeting had tried to have my daughter sent to a segregated, inferior “special school.” She hadn’t even been mean about it. The special schools aren’t officially only for the racial segregation of Romani children. They are supposed to be for kids with developmental delays and disorders.

My daughter’s in kindergarten. She does appear to have some difficulty with attention and anxiety, and like many left-handed kids, she struggles with clutching her crayons too tightly. She’s also the only kid in her class who can read, and yet they tried to send her to “special school.”

Why was I laughing then?

Because I’m not a Romani mother living in poverty who can barely read, facing a phalanx of overconfident bureaucrats steeped in prejudice. I know my rights and, given the civil rights struggle that is going on here, this isn’t even a hard fight to win. There will be no segregated schools for my kids. The law has taken the teeth away from the officials at the pedagogical psychological office.

But I was also crying a little.

Because this is still happening. Because my daughter doesn’t want to homeschool and I can hear that freight train coming. I’ve seen the crushing force of racism break many a kid’s spirit, especially those who are sensitive to issues of “being just like everyone else.”

I don’t want that freight train to flatten my brave, bright daughter. I want to show her that different isn’t bad and when society calls something “strange,” it’s their problem not ours. I hope I can… but it feels an awful lot like standing up to a freight train.

How not to get mad

I might have been annoyed this week. But I wasn’t.
I live in the Czech Republic and the president is Milos Zeman. I’ve been watching his political career for nearly twenty years, since I was an intern at the main English-language newspaper here in the mid-1990s. I’ve always noticed that he has some sort of muscle anomaly in his face. I don’t agree with his politics most of the time but I did think it was refreshing that a politician with such a physical difference became president.
Then this week he did something very, very, very… irritating. He went to lunch in a small town and before he got there his event team went in to check out a nice restaurant. They liked the space and everything about the place, except for two of the employees. One had a visible physical disability. The other was clearly developmentally disabled. Both are regular employees of the restaurant, serving customers and earning wages and tips. But the president’s staff said they couldn’t serve the president. The restaurant was required to give the two employees mandatory leave and hire temporary workers from a hospitality school.
Now as many people know, I’m legally blind. So... I found this news item disturbing.
My husband pointed out to me that one doesn’t have to be directly associated with the irritating news of the world to be affected. He was similarly disturbed by listening to a radio program which made a case for why same-sex spouses in a legal partnership are not allowed to adopt children, including the children of their legal spouse. So, if you are gay and you are married and your spouse has a child, you are not allowed to adopt the child to ensure that the child has a parent in the event of the death of your spouse. The reasoning? Children must have both male and female influences. They apparently forgot that single women and single men are allowed to adopt.
Okay, our children are adopted from orphanages where many other children wait for parents who are open-minded about ethnicity. So I guess we feel associated with that issue too, but is anyone really unassociated with these sorts of issues? If you don’t have a family member who is affected, you surely have a friend who is.
The world can be disturbing.
And so it is good to have a sanctuary, some place where the world can’t intrude. Even if that’s just a corner by a window that’s well-suited to reading or a spot under a favorite tree.
I have always made a sanctuary for myself, even when I traveled. I’ve lived out of a backpack for years at a time and I kept a candle, a handful of pretty pebbles, some tea, a tin cup and a alcohol burning mini-stove tied up in a scarf. This I could spread out anywhere – and did – on a rock in the Himalayas and on the floorboards of a shack in the Amazon jungle. It made a place of peace.
Now I have a larger sanctuary. I am lucky to have a little house with heated tiles on the floors and a warm fireplace. I even have a garden outside full of maturing trees and herbs. And these days I have the luxury of being alone in this place to write for several hours a few days each week. That is a great privilege indeed.
And so, I really wasn’t all that irritated this week, even though I was tempted.
Instead I listen to my children playing in the other room. I can hear them playing with their collection of letter stamps. I can hear the soft sound the stamps make as they push them against the ink cushion and the “thunk, thunk” as they stamp them onto pictures they are making. I can hear the whack as one child hits the other with a stamp and the yowls of protest. I call a truce, backed up by Mama-power, and they sit separately for awhile until they are calm. Then they resume their pictures. All the while I am making apricot cobbler and I don’t have to turn my head to “see” what my kids are doing.
So, the Czech president can have his bland lunch. This time I’m not irritated because he’s got nothing on me. I am sorry that he doesn't know about the richness of all the senses of the body and all the uniqueness of the mind. I'm sorry for him. There will be days when my ire is raised but not today.
The peace of my writing sanctuary has brought me to the half-way point in my first draft of the Kyrennei Series Book Four. Don’t get too excited, if you’re an avid reader. It is still a rough draft. But it is coming along and the computer demons have been largely appeased.

Being a rebel with a pen is a lonely job but someone's got to do it. We're here to support each other. Keep in touch. Write a comment below and tell me what you do to keep from getting mad. I love to hear from you.