I didn’t realize how American I am, until I lived abroad. As a first-generation Polish-American, I assumed myself a Pole living in America, but as a recent American expat this assumption was proven otherwise.
“You don’t wear majtki (underwear)?” I asked my friend in astonishment. With a bewildered look she responded, “No!” In the first grade I landed in a mud pit when swinging on the bars in the playground. It resulted in an embarrassing need for a change of clothes. I mentioned to a friend my urgency for a fresh pair of majtki and her furrowed brow and silence made it clear she did not understand. I later voiced my concern to my mom who clarified I was using a Polish term. Similar incidents ensued many times thereafter as well as other subtle variations between my home life and that of my American friends’. The food, music, and traditions: it was always different, sometimes creating unease, only because it was not the norm. Some poked fun – how many Polish jokes can one hear? However, our family parties roared until the wee hours of the morning where Polish music bellowed from the stereo and bellies were satiated with Polish cuisine, so “not the norm” was actually the silver lining of my life. The chatter among guests was of course in Polish and women wore their bursztyn (amber) jewelry with pride. After school it was a Polish au pair who would greet us and prepare pierogi for dinner. At times my family went against the grain with politics and unless there was a football – as in soccer – match airing, sports were ignored.
Only rarely were my parent’s accents judged, but more often welcomed. My father escaped Polish communism in the 1970’s with only ten dollars in his pocket, a master’s degree and a heart filled with Polish tradition. My mother immigrated with her parents after my grandparents endured painful and horrific experiences as Poles during World War II. When my mother started school, she had not even one English word under her belt, but once fluent she still gravitated towards a Polish community in the Bay Area. Nonetheless, she emulated her parents’ work ethic and excelled in her American education. When her and my dad crossed paths in California soon after my father immigrated, they fused their Polish traditions and instilled them in my brothers and myself. Both my parents and grandparents rolled up their sleeves to pave a road, which was buried under rough terrain, all to find the American dream. Not only did they succeed in strides, but also ingrained the importance of identity through our culture.
With a love for America and Poland, my parent’s European fervor still spilled into everything and ignited a desire for me to move abroad: so I did – twice. For as much as I grew up in a Polish home, when living in both France and many years later Australia, I was surprised to see just how American I am. Many situations presented a decision in my approach and I instinctively reacted American. My Polish ways eased my expat experiences with other cultures, but simultaneously my sudden love for America surfaced. So now as I raise my American children in the States with my American husband, we assure we will not let them ever forget how special their Polish heritage is.