Monday, July 16, 2012

Being Polish: Who we are

'”You don’t talk about being from Poland all the time” said a friend to me a few weeks ago, when she was telling me about a foreigner that she knows. She couldn’t understand how, after a person has lived in America for many years, being from somewhere else is still essential to how they think, talk and identify. To tell you the truth, the reason why I don’t talk about being Polish that much anymore is that I’ve run out of stories to tell.  At one point people around me were very interested to hear about my life in Europe, my education, our culture. To my American friends I often felt strange and exotic. Many of them never traveled abroad, some never even left the State. I told the same anecdotes over and over and over. It was difficult to keep track whom I told what story. So I stopped all together. Eight years later I don’t feel any less Polish than I did eight years ago. America is a melting pot. And there’s this strong tendency to think that we’re all the same and whatever brought us here, what we experienced is in the past and doesn’t matter. Call it Western culture if you will. We all dress the same, we all listen to the same music, we watch the same movies we all must be alike, right? Wrong. Poland to me is not just a place I came from. It’s a place that shaped me, made me who I am today.

 I was raised differently than kids in America. I was brought up on different literature, writers that would find great pride in Polish history. I’m very much aware of times of our national greatness, but also our historic  spectacular losses, wars, insurgencies and  patriotic movements. I grew up witnessing the fall of communism and great hopes for a change that came after.  We didn’t  have much. I still remember times when new jeans were a sensation and kids collected cans and bottles from the West. I didn’t grow up having 500 TV channels, but I read a lot. My parents’ generation was fighting for freedom and the type of life they thought we all  deserved. Many sacrificed a lot, but  it only shoved us that there are values that are worth it. Sense of patriotism and hope and great national pride was something that allowed  Polish people to find comfort in the pain. I doubt that the young Poles of today, raised on MTV and Cartoon Network can relate to some of those things the way that I do. Times change. I have a very dark, sarcastic sense of humor, that I don’t think many Americans can easily understand. The things that I saw and read, the values that my parents have given me, have formed how I think, how I see things, how I joke, what worries me and what I’m afraid of. I will always be very ‘Polish’ down to the core, in a cultural sense, not just in terms of geography. Decades ago, at the height of Communism, many  workers from Poland immigrated to America. Some did so legally, many did not. They were looking for a better life. A lot of  them didn’t speak the language or have any advanced education, so they ended up getting jobs based on their phy6sical strength in industries like construction. I used to think of them as tragic victims of the system, suspended between their old homeland and the new country they now called home. Years have passed, but to them I thought the time has been standing still and they would not recognize Poland today as the place the left behind. And the cultural differences  somehow stopped them from truly belonging. At first I thought it was the lack of skills and the language barrier that held them back.  But I feel like that sometimes. Not that I don’t belong, but…. different at times and separated from others in a way. Because it’s still a very important part of me, a part that I have no intention to ever giving that up. But then there are other important aspects that shape us as human beings. Americans seem comfortable talking about and accepting differences  in the ways we appear. Everybody understands the importance of race, color and gender, but we rarely talk about things in our psyche. Those friends of mine who suffered the trauma of abuse or poverty, grew up in broken homes are changed by those experiences for life.

The ‘American way’ seems to be to get over it. Because everybody grows up with something. We are all different, but just because you can’t see the things that make us that way does make them less important. Being Polish affects me everyday in a profound manner. Just like having a disability. Just like being foreign. Sometimes one becomes more evident then the other, in some instances those features act in concert. I couldn’t tell you where me being Polish starts and ends, just like I would not be able to tell you what my life would be like if I didn’t have a disability. All those things form who I am today. Because we all are black/white/Asian, etc. Male/Female, Straight/Gay/Bisexual/Asexual/Autosexual, of some national origin, with some talents and strengths and experiences that all shape who we are.

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