*Please welcome back guest blogger Polish Mama On The Prairie. She was born in Poland, but has spent most of her life in the U.S. She’s a mom of two, married to her high school sweetheart and is equally passionate about America and Poland. Here’s part III of her story:
Even though I threw myself wholeheartedly into becoming as “American” as I possibly could, there was always someone every single year who would call me a “Polack”, make fun of my name, my nose, and what I would eat. So, I guess, no matter how hard I tried, I was still a “foreigner.” Forever. Taken away from family, lost my ancestral language, but still not allowed to wear the new identity.
Sometimes, I would tell such ignorant people that the word was a racial slur and it was as bad as the “N” word. To which I would be told that there was a place called “Pollock Johnny” so it couldn’t be racist. After all, other “Polacks call each other that.” First, “Pollock Johnny” spells it like a fish and uses a racial slur to describe themselves, so they must be ignorant and stupid as the word means. And frankly, I blame a large amount of the unapologetic use of that nasty word on that “restaurant” and people who use it like they do.
Second, I never ate there and never will, nor do any Poles straight from Poland. Third, some Blacks call each other the “N” word, but many consider it a racial slur anyway. And true Poles do not use that word to address one another. Honestly, if someone asks about my name and I say I am Polish, and they say “Oh, I’m a Polack, too!” or “Us stupid Polacks” or something else like that, I actually physically walk away from them. I don’t even want to discuss anything else with them. At all.
It is how the person who is the target of the word feels about it, not how you say it or mean it. I could call someone an idiot with all the sweetness in the world behind my words, I still just called them an idiot.
Every year, on the first day of school, the teacher would call out a name and you would acknowledge it. After a few years, I got used to the same routine. A pause, a stumble on the first syllable, another pause, a weird look as though the name has the plague (of course, everyone else in the class is a John, Amy, Jamie, Michael, and other one or two syllable mainstream names) and then, some sort of remark that embarrasses me, such as “I’ll just spell it” or “Who would name their child that?!” or, rarely, a kind attempt at saying my name.
After a while, I learned to just raise my hand before the last step of the embarrassing “she’s different” routine and I would say “That would be me” with a smile. The teacher would either say “What’s a nickname I could call you?” or “What sort of name is that?” either with a genuinely curious smile or a nasty smirk (I swear, I still don’t understand how some people become teachers).
Or, once, the equally embarrassing “Excuse me! How do you know I can’t pronounce it? You didn’t even let me try!” To which, I shrank back into my seat and mumbled “I’m sorry”. Of course, that man butchered my name completely. Then, when I corrected him, “It’s —– but you can call me —-“, he said “Why the h— would your parents name you that? And your nickname isn’t any easier! I’m going to call you [insert American name that is nothing at all like my real name]”. I told him I was Polish and he said “Well, you aren’t in Poland anymore”. Every time that man did role call for the first month, I didn’t remember that in his classroom I was not me, but some random American girl name, so I would not answer “Present” and would anger him considerably.
I don’t want people to read this and think “Oh, kids are so mean!” No, it’s not the kids. Children don’t learn this by themselves, this is always taught by an adult. You know we all have conversations at home that end with “This conversation doesn’t leave the house.” Mine tend to be about our finances, how dirty a person’s house was, etc.
After all, if it was children only, then why would some of those teachers I mentioned earlier behave the way they did?
Another example of what it is like to live in Two Worlds, as some people call it, would be when I would talk to some people who I think really enjoy my company and eventually, the topic of Immigration comes up. Sometimes, the comments that hurts are “All foreigners steal American jobs!” or “Foreigners need to stay in their own country!” When I point out that I am also a foreigner, I get told “No, I don’t mean you. You aren’t a foreigner! You [were born here, learned the language, don’t have an accent, are like us]”. My own In-laws sometimes still say comments like that in front of me. Even my now-deceased Grandmother-in-law who was Polish by heritage would say it. It hurts but I still forgive them and love them the way they are.
And when I talk to an adult about American politics or society, if it isn’t all beams of sunshine, unicorns and roses, I get told “then go the f— back home if you hate it here so much!” The point is, I don’t hate it here in the USA. I love it. I genuinely do. Americans are very open, some of their food is amazing, there are a lot of job opportunities here, I can buy anything I want here. Heck, I would never have married an American man if I hated it here. And if I didn’t like Americans, I wouldn’t love him as much as I do.
After all, I can move back to Poland or to another country anytime I want to. I was just raised that you should be open to change, and try to make everything you can better. And in order to make something better, you have to acknowledge what needs improvement. And everything and everyone could improve in something. This isn’t Heaven. Nowhere on Earth is Heaven. It’s Earth.
And on Earth, I feel like I don’t belong 100% in either culture. I don’t speak perfect Polish, I don’t have a Polish accent, I dress like an American, I get told that living in Poland would probably not work well for me, and why don’t my children speak better Polish? I also get told that I have a funny name, I “look Polish/foreign”, I don’t dress like an American, I should accept the fact that I am not Polish anymore and that I am American and not speak Polish or about Poland ever, and if I mention anything I wrote about earlier in this article, I am unpatriotic and un-American.
Several years ago, I started to shake loose from a gradual depression that I couldn’t talk to anyone about because nobody could relate to how I felt. I didn’t want my parents blaming themselves like they caused this feeling in me of being a ship without a harbor.
I decided to blend the two worlds together the only way I knew how. I learned Polish again. Actually, it was more like, I listened to a CD teaching Polish and started listening to Polish music and got a job dealing with people from all over the world who were well-educated. And a light bulb switched on. My Polish language skills came back. They aren’t perfect but I can get by fairly well. I started cooking Polish foods. I started traveling to Poland every other year.
I’m much happier now. I don’t waste time on people who say stupid comments anymore. The funny thing is, until I started writing this, I didn’t realize how hurt I was growing up. And when I started writing today, it all came back in a painful, drowning wave. I had a couple of moments when I had to walk away from this just to cry. But I’m glad I did. I feel stronger. After all, I did something many people will never do. I left one world for another and never quite fit perfectly into either. And I figured out that it’s OK. Because they are both a part of me.
*This is the last of a three-part series from Polish Mama On The Prairie. The first installment is here and the second is here.*