Last week, I rode the emotional roller coaster with all Americans after the senseless bombings at the Boston Marathon. Anger, sorrow, shock, outrage. Finally, some relief when the alleged bombers were killed and captured.
I felt one more thing that did not hit most Americans: Ethnic pride and the desire to slap the Twitterati upside their collective head.
When some social media morons learned that brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were of Chechen descent, they lashed out at the Czech Republic, confusing a peaceful European ally for Chechnya, a region in the Russian Federation. Things got so bad that the Czech (not Chechen) ambassador to the United States issued a statement/geography lesson:
As many I was deeply shocked by the tragedy that occurred in Boston earlier this month. It was a stark reminder of the fact that any of us could be a victim of senseless violence anywhere at any moment.
As more information on the origin of the alleged perpetrators is coming to light, I am concerned to note in the social media a most unfortunate misunderstanding in this respect. The Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities – the Czech Republic is a Central European country; Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation.
As the President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman noted in his message to President Obama, the Czech Republic is an active and reliable partner of the United States in the fight against terrorism. We are determined to stand side by side with our allies in this respect, there is no doubt about that.
Ambassador of the Czech Republic
Other Tweeters corrected the imbeciles, but it was a sad commentary on the state of American education that so fundamental a mistake could gain traction.
It could have been worse, of course. Chechens in America now must deal with the accusatory, suspicious eyes of passersby. Their heritage has been smeared because two idiots did something terrible. All the Czech Ambassador had to do was issue a clarification.
For me it was personal. A century ago, my great-grandparents on my father’s side came from what is now the Czech Republic. My grandfather owned a Czech bakery in Cleveland, and my generation has embraced our heritage, especially in the kitchen.
Our last name confounds most American speakers. I grew up in an area where many (mostly European) ethnic communities came together. Italian, Irish, Jewish, Polish, Lithuanian and, yes, Czech neighborhoods bled into one another. Among all the interesting last names, ‘Trejbal’ proved persistently challenging. People just don’t know what to do with that middle ‘j’. (Hint: It acts like a ‘y’.)
When I was a kid, new teachers would get a chance to butcher it at the start of each school year. Things have not improved over time, and ‘Tredge-ball’ remains the most common mispronunciation.
Usually, they apologize and at least feign interest. “Oh. I’m sorry. That’s an unusual name. Where’s it from?”
The answer, repeated uncounted times over decades, comes readily, “Don’t worry; no one gets it right. It’s Czech.”
When you must declare your heritage so often, you cannot help but embrace it. These days I hang a Czech flag out front of the house for part of the year.
My flag is in storage after a recent move and so is my dumpling cutter. Seeking some small measure of solidarity and paprika, the other day I visited the Czech food cart in downtown Portland. As I enjoyed a schnitzelwich on a beautiful spring day, I tried to figure out what made last week’s geographic confusion so infuriating.
When people mistake the land of my ancestors for Chechnya, it’s insulting not because I don’t want to be associated with accused bombers (though I don’t) but because the Czech Republic deserves more respect than that. It has great food, great beer and thousands of years of history. It’s cool, and there are more than 1.6 million of its descendants in America. We’re Czech, and that’s more than enough.
The Broad Side’s newest contributor Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance, pursues a couple of book projects and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.