Gender and identity
Of two generations of Czech émigrés in Denmark: Analysis of the dominant narratives of the Babinec network

Lenka Škodová

Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen
Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, April 2002

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Historical and socio-cultural background
The '68 versus '89 generations
Sami sebe - Auto Anthropology
The narratives
The dominant narratives of the Babinec network
The '68 generation after 30 years in Denmark



The present paper is based on a multi-sited fieldwork that took place among Czech émigrés in Denmark and re-emigrants in the Czech Republic as a part of my master degree at the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. The general goal of my project was to map what influence the end of socialism in 1989 had on the lives, identities and migratory patterns of the Czech émigrés. I aimed to compare the strategies the émigrés develop when dealing with the reality of emigration. During the research I identified two generations of Czechs that came to Denmark in the 60´s and in the 90´s respectively, and collected their life histories.

First, I will shortly present both generations of Czech émigrés in Denmark in order to give a picture of the whole field. Since the material is rather rich in content I will concentrate my presentation on the younger generation of women, where the process of adaptation to the new country is most striking. I am convinced that description of such a group is rather unique due to its "invisibility" in the receiving country. At the same time they present a very typical response of young women to the transitional period in their sending country. I will focus on analysis of the dominant narratives circulating within their network called Babinec, compare them with the narratives of the 60´ generation, and show how the émigrés point of reference shifts with time from Czech to Danish.

Historical and socio-cultural background

The first wave of migration of Czechs to Denmark occurred in the late 60´s and was a result of a combination of more factors. The young people living in Czechoslovakia - a state which was building a socialism with a human face - were in the late 60´s freely travelling to western countries and also to Denmark. Western Europe was in economical growth and needed more workers. When the Soviet troops in August 1968 invaded Czechoslovakia many Czech citizens were on vacation or working abroad. In this uncertain situation some asked for permission to stay and work where they were, while others returned to their families. Many others started in waves leaving Czechoslovakia and asking for asylum. Some 500 Czechs came to Denmark where they were received with sympathy.

Czech women, who married foreigners (including Danes) since the 60´s, form another category. After the "Velvet Revolution" in November 1989, which followed shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Czechs were permitted to travel freely again and that gave rise to new friendships and relationships. The Danish - Czech couples, whose number grew rapidly in the 90´s, more usually settled in Denmark than in the Czech Republic. During the 90´s the Czech Republic (i.e. the successor state to Czechoslovakia after Slovakia declared its independence in 1993) was undertaking profound changes. It joined NATO and became a candidate country to the EU. Denmark, a long-term member of both organisations, has during the last 30 years developed a very thorough social welfare system as well as an allergy to foreigners.

As a consequence of the 1989 revolution, the Czech émigrés together with the Danish supporters of Charta 77 in the early 90´s set up Dansk-Tjekkisk Forening (Danish-Czech Association). At the end of the 90´s the young Czech wives who followed their husbands to Denmark formed an informal network called Babinec.

The '68 versus '89 generations

I understand the two generations of Czech émigrés who meet respectively in Babinec and in the Dansk-Tjekkisk Forening in Anderson's terms as two "parallel groups" (Anderson:1996: 188-192), who both refer to the "substantial group" (Ibid.188-192) in their country of origin (i.e. in Czechoslovakia and in the Czech Republic respectively).

Although I realise that it is impossible to generalise, I have tried to portray a "typical" representative of both generations: A typical 60´s generation Czech émigré is a 50-60 year old woman or man, speaking Danish with an accent and feeling at home in Denmark. She/he is a Danish citizen, who came to Denmark as a refugee, because of work or marriage. She/he was tired or afraid of the political situation in Czechoslovakia and might already have had a sibling in Denmark. At the time of my research her/his children had already left home. He/she has Danish colleagues and friends and is a member of Dansk-Tjekkisk Forening. A typical 90´s generation Czech émigré is a 20-35 year old woman, speaking Danish (still following Danish classes), who often does not feel at home in Denmark. She is a Czech citizen that came to Denmark because of marriage, has 0-2 children and contact with Danes mostly via her husband - i.e. with his family and friends. She meets Danes at work or at school. She meets with her Czech coevals in the Babinec network.

Sami sebe - Auto Anthropology

I am aware of the fact that the subject of my study - Czech émigrés in Denmark - is identical with my own personal situation. The potentially problematic lack of distance from my informants was outweighed by the very possibility of access to the field, particularly in the case of the Babinec network. My informants generally understood me as "one of them" and that allowed me to get closer. Although the traditional anthropological approach requires to conduct fieldwork among "the others," I have my predecessors in the studies of anthropologist as well as other social scientists. I understand my project in terms of Auto-anthropology defined as "anthropology carried out in the social context which produced it" (Strathern 1987:17 quoted in Rapport and Overing 2000:18). I was further inspired by Czech sociologists associated in a group called "SAMISEBE" (meaning: we (study) ourselves), who used qualitative autobiographical methods in order to study the process of transformation (Fafejtova:2001:107-113).

The narratives

I understand dominant narratives as stories about the tellers unique life experience that have the same themes and structures and are repeatedly told by individuals in a given social context at a certain time. Such dominant narrative themes (Rapport 1996:7 quoted in Mortensen 1999:17) were continuously reappearing at the Babinec meetings and consequently also dominated the individual life-histories in the interviews, where my examples come from.

Narratives generally allow the storyteller to make sense of his/ her life experience "in terms of pre-existing categories" (Rapport and Overing 2000: 288). When the storyteller - as is the case of an émigré - moves from one socio-cultural system to another, he/she understands (and narrates) the new experiences in terms of those pre-existing categories. As a consequence the narratives witness the confrontation of the two systems (the first present in the already formed categories and the second in the immediate experience) as well as the process of adaptation to the new one (when in a long term the immediate experience transforms the pre-existing categories).

The dominant narratives of the Babinec network

Moving to another country implies moving into another state system, which mechanisms dealing with various situations of the individual's life might be completely different from the state one came from. Such changes were often the main topic of discussion within the Babinec group.

The spheres where the state interferes with the private sphere of its citizens and people living within its' borders, are especially the domains traditionally understood as "women's" such as pregnancy, birth, upbringing of children and education generally.

The state can give assistance and help, but it can also via laws and practices attempt to indirectly control the bodies of its subjects. The basic philosophy behind the way the Czech and Danish educational and health systems treat its subjects (i.e. infants, children, to-be mothers, parents or patients) lies on different premises. While the Czech educational system is authoritative and based on sorting out the best, children in the Danish system have more freedom to do what they want and their teachers are preoccupied with assisting the weak ones. What is in a Czech health system treated by a gynaecologist, in the Danish system it is done by a general practitioner or more often a midwife. (The last practice often shocked my informants, since in the eyes of a Czech woman a midwife is something she heard about from her grandmother (if at all) and even in her worst dreams she would never be assisted by one.) To say it simply - the young Czech women often experience a radically different treatment of the same life situation by the health or educational system than they expected. As a result of such experiences the topics of health and education dominated the discussion within the Babinec network during my fieldwork.

Here are some examples of the dominant narratives that I have recorded during my interviews. The examples are arranged according to the informants' attachment to the Czech Republic or Denmark. The first one was recorded in the Czech Republic:


Drahomira compares her experience of giving birth in Denmark and Czech Republic:

Here (i.e. in the Czech Republic) if the child is not born two weeks after the term, they start the birth artificially. And there they kept telling me that I have to wait for nature, until I had terrible pain, I had it for three days and still they said: "wait, wait." Only after I came there absolutely exhausted and begged them to do something with me they gave me an injection (that started the birth).

About her second birth: The baby turned during the last week with head up, so it had to be the Caesarean section, and my husband was arguing with them because he wanted to be there and they would not let him. In Denmark he cut the umbilical cord and pulled the baby out, … so here he had a conflict with the doctor.


In the Czech Republic a child has to know how to go to pot before it starts going to a kindergarten (at the age of two), in Denmark it can still have nappies at four. Even what doctors say in both countries differs.

In a Czech kindergarten the upbringing is more authoritative. In Denmark they look after the child, but they let it be independent, e.g. let it wash the hands when it decides to. Which child would do that! When my daughter comes back from Danish kindergarten, her T- shirt is loose and her hair is messy. Of course she doesn't sleep there. My husband once witnessed that the teacher asked the children whether they would like to sleep. Of course nobody wanted to. They have lunch box from home. In the Czech Republic they have organised nap after lunch and the girls bring a paper home where it is written that they should have a comb and hair clasps, so they can be combed after the nap.


The difference will be there until they have the same education as here (i.e. in Denmark). And I do not know if it is a good one. My sister is in the fifth class (in the Czech Republic) and she can already an awfully lot, in compare with Regina's daughter, who is of the same age. They do not even know how to write in the written form in the fifth, sixth class now.

It is a big difference when I compare my sister with Regina's daughter. My sister can much more. They do not learn multiplication first in the sixth class. They have different norms the teachers. I do not know if it is good or not. I cannot even compare it.


I cannot chop vegetables and meat on the same board, careful, there are bacteria… but then I see children crawling on the trains' floor licking everything around, but that is liberal education, that is how it is and we cannot change that.

In these stories my informants express their experience of sometimes totally opposing practices they encountered in contact with the health and educational systems of the two countries. The pre-existing categories, in which they understand the socio-cultural reality, were built on base of their socialising in the Czech Republic. These categories are confronted and challenged by the difference of the Danish practice. In two of the stories concerning the educational system (kindergarten and school) we can trace that the Czech practice comes out from the comparison in a more positive light. The pre-existing categories influence the comparison in favour of the "known" and refuse the other practice as "strange." In the third example we notice that although the informant attempts to compare the two educational systems, at the end she describes them as incomparable.


Based on the dominant narratives circulating within the Babinec network we can also see the changing life perspectives of the young women. The comparison of the two socio-cultural systems is not a long term strategy - it does not go on during the rest of the émigrés' life. Some of my informants were simply tired of the never ending comparisons. During the interviews they used the dominant narratives circulating within the Babinec network in order to distance themselves from the "beginners" perspective prevailing at the group meetings. By using the same dominant narratives they showed their opposite view. They realised their position "in between" and reacted to it by either accepting the Danish perspective (as we can see in the first case) or denying the possibility of comparison itself (in the second one).


Although I go to the meetings (of Babinec) it is not the same, I am not as interested because: "I came to Denmark, I am totally in shock from this and that … " I said it so many times.. it is no more fun to repeat it again and again. It even goes on my nerves when the newer ones start with how it is at the doctors, how they did not …. I do not say anything anymore. They ask: "What about you ? "and I say: "I do not have problems with my health," the only thing I need is anti-conception and I do not understand the ones who are 20 years old and when they are at home (i.e. in the Czech Republic) go to their doctor. So I started being intolerant.

(and she goes on telling a story about her positive experience with the Danish health system.)


But it will probably be more and more difficult to return to the Czech Republic and look at the things there objectively. When one lives here and see how life is here every day and then suddenly comes to the Czech Republic and… to say to myself OK it is how things are here. I think that I will also be sceptical after some years here as some already are … that people steal and swindle in the Czech Republic … I do not think about it yet, because I do not have a reason to do so. Or what is more expensive or cheaper there. Thank God I did not reach the point and I would be grateful if I never do to see the differences. And I do not like when some Czech girls who lived here maybe for 5 years say these things. I always show what I mean about it.

While on this stage it is still possible to identify two strategies, i.e. acceptation of the Danish point of view and rejection of the comparison, only one of these two strategies wins in the long term as we can see in the next paragraph on the narratives I have recorded with the 68´ generation.

The '68 generation after 30 years in Denmark

For the '68 generation the educational and health system do not present topics of dominant narratives. Anna Rasmussen, whom I interviewed during her summer holidays in the Czech Republic, talked about the educational system because she had been recently working as an interpreter for a group of Czech teachers, who attended a course in the Danish teaching methods. She compared the health systems of both countries only as a reaction to my question. Contrary to the 90´s generation she perceives both the educational and health systems from the Danish point of view. She refers to the Danish everyday experience as standard, and in her comparison describes the Danish praxis as better. This means that after the 30 years she lived in Denmark, she identifies herself with the Danish perspective.


… The economic school in Køge supported by the European Unions' program Phare and under the Danish and Czech ministry of Education organised a course for Czech secondary school teachers. … My companion and me interpreted. …

The lectors from the economic school in Køge taught a pilot group of Czech teachers from different secondary schools (technical, economical etc.) from the whole country. This group in the two years had to learn a different way of teaching, because it is old-fashioned how they teach here. The seminars took place in Køge, or in various Czech towns. In the autumn there was a conference in Prague, where the directors of the schools were invited, and the pilot group of Czech teachers for the first time taught their colleges.

It was interesting, e.g. the topics of conflict resolution, or qualification and competence… It took them (i.e. the Czech teachers) a long time to understand that it is not only about the teachers' competence or qualification, but also about the students' ones. Such psychological things. There was also work in teams etc…



(from my notes:) In the Czech Republic there is " Pan doktor" i.e. Mr. Doctor, and one addresses him in the formal way "vy", while in Denmark it is simply Fred and we use of course the familiar form of addressing "ty." In CR he wears a white coat, in Denmark everyday clothes. In the Czech Republic there is a certain hierarchy and the people position themselves within it. The doctors do not explain to their patients what they are undergoing. (compare with the teachers who can not understand that it is also about the students' competition and qualification.) In Denmark the nurses smile, because it is part of their profession and it helps the patients. In the Czech Republic they give orders and frown at the patients.


On their passage from one socio-cultural system to another the émigrés go through a "liminal stage - a zone of socio-cultural non-identity " (Turner, Gennep quoted in Rapport and Overing 2000: 230). The comparison of the two systems itself has to be understood in context of their passage. First, when the émigrés experience the different practice of health and educational systems, they compare the two from the Czech point of view. Later, on the very edge of the mental passage between the two socio-cultural systems, and deep in the liminal phase characterised by confusion, the émigrés come to the conclusion that the comparison of the two socio-cultural systems is absolutely impossible and irrelevant. Such a conclusion is "polluting" and "dangerous" for both systems and it turns the émigrés into "small philosophers," who are shocked out of the given and reconsidering the world. This "gap" makes space for the next step i.e. adoption of the new perspective. Acceptance of the Danish perspective is the only long-term strategy that allows the émigrés to keep a healthy mind. The individual passage can be more complicated since regardless of reality anything "western" is both in Denmark and Czech Republic generally accepted as "better." In this power game only the post-1989 Czech reality is legitimate in the comparison.


Generally, as we could see it in the narratives, the passage from one socio-cultural system to another is an adaptation in time. First comes interest in everything new (Danish), then a wave of nostalgia and strong emotional identification with the sending country (when the narratives comparing the health and educational system dominate), followed by giving up the comparisons and slow absorption and acceptation of the perspective of the new country.


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