23 May 2011

Teaching My Children Polish

I am not a teacher.  I am not organized perfectly in my daily schedule.  I also have no idea what I am doing.  But that has never stopped me in anything I felt passionately about.

The other day, I met a woman, who within 10 minutes told me my children will never learn Polish.  This woman caught me on a day when I was missing the neighborhood and state where I had grown up.  It was a very long winter and I have not yet found a good support system here with fellow mothers who I could relate to.  So, I left the library after my conversation with her, shaken, fairly upset, and disgusted.

Disgusted that she was Polish like me.  Disgusted that she dared to judge me within such a short span of time.  Disgusted because she was not me, she was not my mother, she was nobody.  Yet she thought she could drop such a statement about my children.  I hope it made her feel superior.

I have since discussed this conversation with the people who matter to me who also know a bit about my Polish background, about other Poles, and Polish society.  And I have come to the conclusion that this woman was from a small village, based on her accent and mannerisms.  She came over as an adult so she did not have to master 3 languages by the time she was 3 years old, like I did.  She has no idea anything about me and I could care less to know about her.  I also reaffirmed to myself that she was not every Pole, she was just a random person.

My encounter with her reminded me of another such experience I had in a village in Eastern Poland when I was a young teenager.  We were visiting another Ciocia of mine who had moved there after marrying her husband.  It was my first trip back to Poland.

My cousin and I had gotten along fabulously.  Some of her friends were hanging out as teenagers all over the world might.  At twilight, in a field, around a bonfire, and we were invited.  Everyone was very curious about me, as I was the only one from America they had ever met, which was understandable.

I was asked many questions by her friends and I answered them honestly.  After a few questions, it became obvious that I was indeed human and we began to talk about music, clothes, the mosquitoes biting us. 

One boy in the group, however, decided I was not Polish.  I did not speak Polish.  Yet the entire conversation, thus far, had been in Polish as none of them spoke English.  And after all, we were in Poland, what other language would we speak?

His point, he felt was driven home, when he asked me what a bowl was which he held in his hand and pointed to.

"Co to jest?"  He asked smugly.

I answered, "To miska."

He waved his hands in the air and told everyone, "Widzisz?"

Apparently, in that village, a bowl goes by a different word which I had never heard before.  I tried to tell him that I knew it as "miska" and that I did speak Polish but I lived in a different country where I knew nobody else who spoke Polish and there were no Polish schools around me.

My cousin chimed in, saying that in different regions and villages in Poland, just like in other countries, some words are different.  In Wroclaw and the area around Wroclaw, the word for bowl was "Miska".  And she knew this because she had family there and had gone there.

At first, he was insistant in his conclusion.  I was not Polish, I didn't speak Polish.  After a while, however, the conversation changed because another friend of my cousin told him to shut up and get over it, obviously I was Polish, we were all obviously speaking Polish.  And he was asked if he spoke another language, which he didn't.  He looked sheepish and apologized and we continued to enjoy ourselves.

On the way back to my Ciocia's apartment, he held my hand and told me that even though I was American, I was very pretty.  My cousin held his other hand, I think to keep him from getting silly ideas.

This hand holding was later on explained to me by my mother as a bit of a scandal.  Girls didn't hold boys hands unless they were dating.  My cousin again chimed in to my aid that she as well had held his hand and that it was just children holding children's hands.  She was very sweet.  I wish I knew where she lived now so I could talk to her.

I think that woman in that library was like that boy.  Except she wasn't a boy talking to a girl, she was a grown up who felt important at her job and in her mediocre life, who felt that she knew who I was.  She didn't, obviously.

Today, my oldest daughter is in a Catholic school, learning about the Czech Republic for a presentation her class will be doing.  When she comes home from school, she will be cleaning her room on her own then snacking on pasztet smeared on whole wheat crackers, drinking carrot peach apple juice from the polish store and watching Mickey Mouse on youtube.  In Polish.  Because that is typical in my house.

My children have no foundation, that woman said. 

Their middle names represent very special moments in my life that occurred in Poland and I tell them about it all the time.  At bedtime, we exchange "Dobranoc, Cie Kocham, Buska"'s with their "Dziadek".  Twice a week, they hear me on the phone for at least one hour at a time talking to my Babcia and Ciocia, in Polish.  On the way to and from school, they listen to Polish radio or C.D.'s.  My older daughter looks through Polish books and begs me to read them.  This coming summer, she will be practicing in workbooks that my Babcia had sent her, in Polish.  I plan to take them to Poland every other year.  I could go on and on.

Sure, I twist my endings and have a definite American accent when I speak Polish.  Yes, I doubt my skills in speaking Polish.  And yes, a few Polish people will never embrace me as Polish simply because they are jealous or cannot grasp that I left as a very small child.

But I am Polish.  Living in America.  And anything can happen.  After all, Poles are a nation of people who know how to push through adversity and Americans know how to grab the bull by the horn.  Between the two, I think my children will be alright.


Anonymous said...

of course they will be alright. you do soooo much with them that it's impossible not to pick up some (and more than some) Polish. You are a great parent, and don't allowe it to be undermine by some strange and grumpy lady :)

hugs from my corner

Anonymous said...

As the popular saying goes - the kids WILL be alright. Don't let someone's comment define what yours & your family's lives are. They are just ignorant. Even if you or your kids don't speak Polish with perfect accent, it doesn't matter because your love for your heritage is all that counts. :)

Kasia said...

I think they will do fine, especially since you take them to Poland, and so they can learn it the hard way if necessary :o) Kids can be harsh and judgmental, as you clearly show in your post, so if they do not learn it well enough they will be made fun of.

You are doing really good, when I read that you left Poland as almost still a baby, I was amazed you can speak it at ALL :D I spend almost the first half of my life in Poland, of course there is a differences in our Polish speaking level.

Polish people may react coldly if you do not speak fluent Polish, but so do all other nations towards the "mixed bloods" :o) You are standing in 2 worlds, that's not an easy situation. But many may not actually mean your accent or "language errors", but the fact that you escaped and now live in rich USA, while so many had to suffer true horrors (and I really mean horrors, torture, gulags, think of what Lech Wałęsa suffered through, getting drugged in prison) during communism, and later political and economical turmoils. Those are hidden wounds, and they show on the surface in a changed way :( I do not know if you can speak it as fluent again as a grown up, when you were relocated at such a young age, and so you are in a painful situation. Since it is hard to explain to someone in a few seconds, what led to a complicated life story.

Think of every person from Poland as your (distant) relative, and in a way they are, we are all descendants from the Piasts, and often this soothes down any anger :)

Mickey Mouse in Polish is cool, right :o)? I was laughing while watching, there are quite a few good things for kids online now.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Of course your children will be alright- they have a caring mama! It was silly of that woman to judge!

Dagmar said...

I'm just glad that experience of meeting that woman got you to write this post :) You are Polish in your heart, it doesn't matter that you might mispronounce a word. My German by now, after 17 years in the U.S., is awful, but I'll always be German, if I like it or not. A very americanized German with an American accent when speaking German :)

I wish I did that much for my son. I don't speak German enough with him, but I am taking him to Germany once a year, we read some German stories and listen to German songs. He will never be fluent in German, but I hope he will be able to understand German really well.

Dagmar's momsense

Unknown said...

I am so glad I stumbled on to your blog! I am American by birth place but Polish by birth parents. You do not know how many times a month, even a week people tell me "You are not Polish" Instead of arguing I just let them feel right, knowing what I know... the truth. My fiancee is Polish, from Elk in Poland, and we now have a beautiful 3 year old son. And my mother in law, tells me monthly I will never be Polish, I will never speak her Polish, and how she wishes and prays every day that her grandson could have a "real" polish Mama to teach him to speak to her. I plan to read your blog as often as possible, as I now feel a little less alone in this world of split culture. Thank you for blogging!!