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I speak Czech with an accent. Even as a young child, I noticed a distinct difference between my choppy pronunciation and the smooth, oblong consonants of native-born speakers. While the speech of my extended family is peppered with idioms, slang, and unique expressions, I simply struggle to conjugate my possessives. Seeing as how I have been surrounded with the twangy tones of English my entire life, such a development isn't a surprise. Nevertheless, I would be lying if I said I was expecting a complete stranger to see through me in an instant. We had laid our towels near each other on the gritty beach of the swimming hole by my grandfather’s house, and I had barely managed a simple greeting before he began marveling at my quirky American accent. Though I tried to laugh it off, I couldn’t quell the shame burning bright in my cheeks. Was I so separated from my culture that a single word was enough to mark me as an outsider? I didn't grow up in the Czech Republic. Though I did muddle my way through nine years of Czech education, memorizing the seven cases of declension and the nation's path to independence from the Hapsburg Empire in pursuit of a primary school diploma, I never once sat in a classroom and clamored along with the other students. I was never able to collect buckeyes when the trees blazed a brilliant orange or burn my mouth on sizzling carp at my grandparent’s house on Christmas Eve. The glossy celebrity faces I see plastered on tabloid covers are unfamiliar, I can't keep up with the ever-changing slang, and when my family begins to debate current politics, I feel about as oriented as a rowboat adrift at sea. What right do I have to call myself Czech? Am I simply trying to masquerade as a shoddy knockoff of the real deal? Whenever these thoughts worm their way into my head, I take a moment to imagine why I feel so at home in a country I have never once called home. Perhaps my reason can be found in the dormant volcanos that rise up behind cow-spotted fields, obscured in a thick blanket of fog. Maybe it lies hidden deep in the ancient spruce forests where I went mushroom hunting as a child, or by the muddy banks of the Elbe River, covered with tiny rain boot-clad footprints. It could be in the colorful cartoonish faces of my favorite children's comic book characters or the steaming rohlík-wrapped sausage that I am handed by a vendor on the shores of Lake Lipno. It might even take the form of my smiling grandmother, holding my hand as she shows me the proper way to stroke the goat's snout at the petting zoo in my father's hometown of Decín. These thoughts stir a sort of comforting nostalgia, reminding me that I need not be a born-and-bred Czech to be able to weave a few of my own threads into the nation's rich tapestry. No, I didn't grow up in the Czech Republic. But this doesn't stop me from tearing open a raisin-studded vánocka roll on Christmas Eve or wishing my brother a happy Name Day. And isn’t that enough? My Czech culture may not run deeply, but it does run strongly—and I know I will be able to rely on its guidance as I make my way through life. I balance precariously with each foot in a different continent: the waters between may be rough, but I have learned the importance of knowing how to rise and fall with the waves instead of trying to battle them. This acceptance of my incomplete self instilled in me a steadfast surety that will serve me well in college and beyond. Though my words are still laced with an accent, I have learned to laugh it off.
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