12 January 2011
My Feet in Two Worlds, The Brutally Honest Truth of It
Don't get me wrong, I love America. I love living here. But if your name is something like Jane, Jessica, or Amy, and your great grandparents were born in the USA, you look like the typical American girl next door, and you've never travelled outside of your home country's borders, your grandparents were always just down the street and present for holidays, then you don't understand what I mean.
My husband came from that same background, an easy to say American name, grandparents always a huge part of his life, his accent and speech were never different from anyone else's in school, etc.
I wanted him to see who else I was. No, I needed him to see. Or else, I didn't think our relationship would truly work in the end. So, I took him to Poland for our honeymoon, amidst many protests from him and his family.
So, who am I? By now, it's fairly clear what my background is. I was born in Poland to Polish parents. We fled Communism and it's oppression. We waited to get legal papers all in order to become U.S. citizens, came to America, and all was peaches and cream. Right?
Not exactly. For one thing, we had no help. None. There was no neighbor, friend, or relative to call on when someone had an emergency. Whether that emergency be that someone had to go to the Emergency Room and my parents needed a babysitter or money for the medicine, or someone was sick, so that we had a roof over our heads or food on our table, or even just so my parents could reconnect on "Date Night".
For work, my father grabbed whatever he could as quickly as he could. Because, apparently in the USA, they didn't care that my father has a Masters Degree from Poland. If it wasn't a Masters Degree in the USA, they didn't care. In fact, one place even told my father that he was lucky they considered him to even graduate his high school. The same went for my mother, who also had a Masters Degree back in Poland.
So, he ended up getting some minimum wage work working as many hours as he physically could (he still works well over 70 hours a week) while my mother tried to find a babysitter she could trust with me. She found one, went to work also making minimum wage, until the babysitter took me outside in the dead of winter in just a onesie and I got very, very sick. This was according to a couple of other neighborhood eyewitnesses. So, it looked like my mother couldn't work because we couldn't find anyone trustworthy to watch me without potentially killing me.
So, since there was only one income in our house, we ate boiled white rice, split a can of vegetables and each ate one boiled hot dog. Every. Single. Day. For well over a year. Because that was all we could afford. There are pictures of my parents during this time and they were so skinny. I, however, was not, because my parents made sure I at least ate enough. To this day, I hate boiled white rice. I hate canned vegetables. And I especially hate hot dogs. And when someone makes a comment that I am a food snob or eat weird food because of that, it boils my blood, because they didn't go through what we did.
Why not apply for assistance, perhaps, you ask? Don't even make me laugh. We couldn't get it because we were not born here. While my father walked home from work everyday in the scorching summer heat through the miserable neighborhood we lived in, he saw houses where nobody worked and they had air conditioning units blasting and were cooking all sorts of food for dinner.
As soon as my father got a better job and we could afford to, we moved out of that area, filled with litter, cockroaches, and drunks, and into an apartment in a decent area so that I didn't have to worry about gun fights on the way to school. The apartment where I shared a room with my sibling.
I never did my first Holy Communion because of several reasons. Some churches wanted my Godparents there for it. Ummm, they are in Poland and can't get Visas to come over? "Then you can't do it". Some churches didn't understand why I didn't speak good enough English to understand the Bible at the time, never mind that I was learning English. And, as my mother said, "If you do your First Holy Communion, you will have only your father and myself there". My vision of a party afterwards would not happen, because what family could come to the party? They were all in Poland. I would again be the weird kid who only had parents there supporting them during a childhood event.
For Birthdays, I grew up having small gifts because we had just come to this country, you don't get rich overnight, and no family giving me presents. Not a big deal until you go to school and other kids brag about the hundreds of expensive toys they got. Then, the inevitable "What did you get from your parents/grandparents/aunts/cousins, etc.?" And, "Oh". The same was true of Christmas.
Thanksgiving and Easter were also lumped into the same category by the question "Who came over your house/Who's house did you go to?" My answer? "Nobody. It was just us. At our house. Because my family is all in Poland. Thanks for reminding me. Again."
I remember playing with cardboard boxes and one little doll I had as a small child. I never really thought that I didn't have a lot. Until I went to school.
I also didn't think I had an accent, until it was pointed out to me by several children in front of a teacher who didn't say anything to them. It was then that I found out what "Polack" meant. It wasn't a word in Polish. It was only a word in English and apparently there were many nasty jokes involving that word. I hated school.
I also found out what the "N" word meant. A girl, who apparently thought it was funny, told me to walk up to the black boy in our class and say "Hi, N-----!" She told me that it meant friend.
Apparently, it did not because I got in a lot of trouble for it in school, even though I was just beginning to learn the language. And of course, the girl who told me to do so didn't get in trouble, because, as I was told by some big angry adults (I still have no idea who they were but could you imagine being in kindergarten how big they were and small and vulnerable I felt?) that I "should have known better than to repeat everything someone tells you!" Never mind that I didn't even know my English alphabet or colors yet and was eager to learn. The lesson I learned from that, don't be quick to learn things from people. Don't trust anyone.
I started taking ESL classes to learn English. I remember getting very frustrated with the teacher at times, who only spoke English and had no idea, not even one ounce, of what I was going through. I finished it early because I wanted to fit in so desperately. While taking ESL, I was still expected to take all the other classes that the American kids were taking. There was no leniency for the fact that I didn't speak the language which the lessons were given in. I got exceptional grades in English and Spelling. I was proud of myself for it. I, the little girl from another country, the one with the funny accent, the "stupid Polack", was getting better grades than the American kids were. But to them, I still talked funny, and nobody discouraged their harsh words.
At first, for lunch, I brought food from home, as many kids did, but my bread was different, my sandwiches different. My mother packed, heaven forbid, vegetables in my lunch, which, heaven forbid, I ate because, heaven forbid, I liked them and grew up eating them and wanted to grow up to be big and strong. Until I noticed other kids would ask too many questions about my food.
Once, a little girl asked, "Why don't you eat peanut butter and jelly on white bread like us?" I answered "What's that? I never had it before". She told me that all American kids ate it and that maybe I should "Go back to where I came from if America is so bad that you can't even eat what we all eat, you stupid Polack". I was 7 years old. It wasn't the first time I was told to go back to wherever I was from because I did things a little different (never mind that I desperately wanted to fit in and never said anything nasty about what they did). It wasn't going to be the last time I heard it either.
In fact, I heard some very strange statements about Poland from other children. That we were all Communists. Did we have tombstones, tomatoes, diapers, cows, cars? That we owed the USA for everything because the USA rescued Poland during World War II because we were too stupid and lazy to fight the Nazis. I could go on for hours.
At home, I tried to speak English all the time, even though my parents wanted me to still speak Polish so that I would have that as a job skill later on in life. They were right, of course, but with what I went through at school, I didn't care. My parents spoke to the teachers about my issues with my peers and the first couple of teachers cared and had me sit at tables where the children were not judgemental and nasty.
But then, I got a teacher who didn't care at all and probably secretly was a nasty little racist herself. My schoolwork suffered for a while under her. I began to draw back emotionally from people and not focus. In the beginning of the school year, when she met my mother and I, she requested a fellow teacher to try translating for us. When the second teacher came, she listened to us speaking English, albeit with accents, and she announced "They speak English clearly. You don't need an interpret or." My new teacher would go on to hold hostility toward all of my family. She and my mother once got into a screaming argument because she believed I should have been held back the year prior and because she believed I needed to be tested since she felt I had a low IQ. Never mind the fact that the same year we were all tested for future placement in the new Gifted and Talented programs and my results placed me 2 years ahead of my peers. My mother was so pleased at the results, she shared them very nicely with the teacher, who in the conversation went from her usual fake smile (it was the year I also learned that just because someone smiles, does not mean they are actually happy) to a very unhappy and angry face. She then looked at me, smiled and said "I always knew you were intelligent. You just lack focus, sweetie." And then turned to my mother and said "I still think she needs more ESL classes" and walked away.
We did a presentation in class, my first. I didn't fully understand what the assignment was, asked and was told to "Just do it!". It was for Black History Month. It was the first time I had ever heard of that. I asked my parents if they had a Polish History Month and my parents laughed. Apparently, there wasn't an Immigrant History Month, either. The assignment was to pick a famous Black person and write about them. This was a new idea to me. How would I know who was a famous Black person? My parents didn't really know either so a classmate's mother suggested, and I wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr., who's dream of a color blind world really touched me.
While presenting my essay in front of the class, I began to stumble on my words and speak quieter and the same racist teacher commented "Somebody needs more ESL classes! Go sit down!" I was so young and I still remember how angry and hurt I felt. I still carry hatred towards her, which I know is wrong, but I don't care, it's the way I feel.
The holes I have in my education are all from that year. I can't multiply off the top of my head and I struggle to write an research essay about a theme someone presents me with. That year, we also learned about the names of other countries and their capitals. I decided in high school to learn that on my own, since I didn't learn it that year in elementary school. I could work on it more, I know. I could shake the blame I lay squarely on her. But she was also a teacher. Someone who helps shape children into the adults they become. And I don't think she had any right to be one.
I also feel shock and disgust at the education system because although my mother repeatedly reported her for marking all my homework as wrong, of which the answers were all always correct, even according to the Principal of the school, she continues to teach to this day. In fact, when we moved to a new school district, my younger sibling was assigned her as a teacher in the new school. She attempted to fail my sibling as well, and state that she could not understand their "accent" which they did not have, being born and raised in the USA. After three months of her continued harassment of my mother and sibling, my sibling was transferred to a different teacher, but that woman was never reprimanded.
I ended up losing my accent very quickly. I also forgot Polish. My cousins, both Babcie, Cioci, and Wujek would all send me cards and letters which I loved. But I didn't know who they were. And it reminded me constantly that I was missing family. And I couldn't call them to talk because at the time, calling Poland could cost you over $100 for just a half an hour. And I didn't write to them because I felt ashamed that I didn't know Polish well enough anymore to say anything.
I even had play dates with another little boy my age who was also Polish and who constantly reminded me that he "was more Polish" than I was. Surprising, he and his family later in life were confused why I didn't marry him. I'm actually glad I left the neighborhood I lived in, because shamefully, many Polish Americans had that same "I'm more Polish than soandso" attitude. I don't think that is a Polish trait, I think it was specific to that neighborhood.
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 persons 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 to. 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.