Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Interview with a former Slovak au pair

I am pleased to host a former au pair from Slovakia. I have had the privilege to get to know her family.  The young lady preferred to remain anonymous.  We certainly are thankful for her candid and detailed replies.  Today she talks about national identity and gender roles in Slovakia.

MJN: You came to the US as an au pair to take care of teenage boy in Westchester County. Based on what you told me, your experience was very positive, and you are still in touch with your host family. What was the most rewarding part of the experience? I imagine, given the child's age, you had some free time during the day. What did you do to occupy your leisure?

Anonymous: Just being in the US was exciting enough to me, when I first arrived. I had always wondered how other people live, what their days look like etc. And being an au-pair, living with a real American family allowed me to do just that. I was lucky enough to be placed in the most amazing family I possible could have. We are still in touch. Each member of the family turned out to be a great support for me in a different aspect, and together they provided a wonderful foundation for me to jump off of and start my own life. I guess the most rewarding experience was the fact that I was accepted into their family as a daughter with a different cultural background, I was never treated like a help. They have always been interested in other cultures. Together we shared the opportunity to learn something from each other, be more aware, accepting and understanding, and this experience ultimately broaden our perspectives.

MJN:  You ended up meeting the man who became your husband. When you first signed up with the agency, did you think that USA would end up becoming your permanent home?

Anonymous: I had previously joked with my parents that I would find my husband in the US and not come back. Never had I actually thought that it would come true. I had plans of spending a year in US and then move to Germany and do the same thing. I spent many years learning English and German languages at school, and I wanted to perfect them as much as possible. I planned on going to a grad school back home and start my life there. I wanted to travel, live in different places and meet people from different cultures before I settle down. When I met my now husband, I fell really hard for him. That was 10 years ago.

MJN: After the split of Czechoslovakia, each country struggled to establish its own identity. You mentioned that the Czech are more urban and liberal and regard their Slovak neighbors as more rural, traditional, less affluent, perhaps. As time goes on, do you see the two nations drifting apart or finding more things in common?

Anonymous: I would not say that each country struggled to establish its own identity. We both have had our own identities, separate from each other, yet similar enough. In fact, throughout the history, we have been united and separated time and time again. The separation in the 1993 was mutual. The reason for the “divorce” was the centralization of power in Prague, making eastern parts of Slovakia falling behind economically. This is very typical of communistic regime. It was not fair to Slovakia to be playing the secondary role. Separation was the best decision at that time. There is no animosity between Czechs and Slovaks, however. We are both very peaceful nations. We are “brother” nations.

MJN: What always impressed me about Polish and Slovak women is their low-key matriarchy. I don't think Americans or Western Europeans realize that Eastern European women really dominate the domestic scene. They are expected to be breadwinners on par with their husbands and also keep peace at home while serving as advisers to their husbands, whom they often view as juvenile and in dire need of guidance. There seems to be this myth that Polish and Slovak girls are submissive. Can you talk about the family model that you grew up with? You certainly come across as a young lady who can hold her own ground.

Anonymous: Absolutely. I agree with the low-key matriarchy concept. Women in Slovakia are educated, work and have been providers along with men for a very long time. Slovak men acknowledge that, respect and support their women as their equal partners. I believe this is a true characteristic of a developed country. In contrary, in the US I feel the idea of women being equal to men is still in diapers. This is mostly due to such a diversity in population. I have noticed two situations. On one side, American men are providers while their wives raise families. This trend is now slowly disappearing as the economy does not allow for this and maintaining a certain life style. Slowly American women have been returning to work just to be confronted with men telling them they belong in the kitchen. Women need to fight to be accepted. Hence the glass ceiling. On the other hand, many South American women put their men (sons, husbands, brothers) on a pedestal. Men can do whatever they want while women need to respect them. They are unconsciously creating an inequality. I think that because in Slovakia women did not have the opportunity to stay at home and be housewives, they had more time to prime the culture into equality. Seeing the differences has been quite honestly shocking. In this aspect, I believe Slovakia is years ahead.

As for seeing husbands as juvenile, I don’t know. Women are nurturers. Men are genetically programmed to be more self-centered and less attuned to the emotional aspects of their surroundings. We can all be childish but then take responsibility when needed. But I know Slovak men look up to their wives for approval. This is not to have their wives permission to do something, it is more of a collaborative agreement on the topic. It creates a very special bond. Men don’t feel emasculated by it. This is basically what I experienced growing up. My parents have been married 31 years and they still hold hands when they go shopping. It works for them.

MJN: You are pursuing an advance degree in social work. I know that attitudes towards the mental health industry vary from country to country. What is the current climate in Slovakia? Your mom is a nurse, so it's not hard for her to understand. What do other family members and friends think when they hear that you are getting a Master's in Social Work?

Anonymous: My family has always been supportive of me no matter what I decided to do. Getting a Master’s degree was an expectation, not an accident. Social work in Slovakia is obviously very different from the work done here in US. Slovakia is still in transition from being socialistic, even though it’s been 26 years since the fall of communism. However my family understands the need for mental health practitioners. The field of psychiatry is well established there and people respect it. However, psychotherapy is still a pretty new idea that has a stigma of being for spoiled people who cannot deal with their problems. I believe that western movies have had an impact on the general opinion. Psychotherapy for less severe diagnoses is therefore less frequent. Slovaks tend to be raised tough, with physical punishment (not abuse) being an acceptable form of discipline. We don’t sugarcoat. Americans tend to be more sensitive. I think this is why many Slovaks may regard Americans’ as in need of therapy.

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