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Identity and American Polonia

Somehow life allowed me to live in two places at the same time. There were times when the question of if there’s more Polish or American “mentality” up in that messed up head was brought up by other people. Quite honestly, it doesn’t even matter that much. Both identities kind of mush together, so it’s sometimes hard to tell what aspect of my behavior is influenced by which culture.

Because of my hybrid upbringing it’s hard to answer where I would supposedly fit in more since both places have their ups and downs. The key is to be nice I suppose, charismatic, thoughtful, positive, respectful, and I don’t know what else. People are all pretty much the same alongside some minor cultural influences.

As someone who is in Poland quite a lot it was always a bit interesting to attend Polish fests or picnics in the Chicago area, especially those targeted towards a more Americanized demographic. These fests would commonly feature PRL-era cars, Proud to be Polish tees, Disco Polo music, and lots of pierogi (please don’t call it pierogis) and kiełbasy. A lot of these events are organized and largely attended by the older generation Poles who might remember their country from the 70s, 80s or 90s. Sometimes their fashion is still inspired by the times of their youth.

Throughout the years I heard a number of misconceptions about Poland. More often than not they were innocent questions or comments. Years ago, a middle-aged American man told me that he likes Polka music and associated it with Poland. But Polka isn’t even from Poland, I had to explain. At the time I truly believed it was German. Thanks to a very fast search on Google, this type of folk music originated in 1800s Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). Throughout the decades a bunch of Polish Americans adopted Polka and added some regional spins to it.

The American Polonia that my mind associated with were old górale, regional dances, summer camps, fancy banquets, or complicated theater performances at Chicago’s Copernicus Center. For a long time, I would only look from a far.

My peers with immigrant parents would speak their parent’s tongue at home and speak English pretty much anywhere else, and so would I. We were American first and whatever else second while the photographs of the family before us slowly faded. Many families who teach their children a second language and try to preserve the old culture by signing them up to for extracurricular activities. Often times, these children don’t appreciate their parents’ attempts, especially since they have to study the history and language of a country that is so emotionally and physically far away. All these attempts may seem irrelevant. My history teacher taught me that eventually the immigrants who came here for a better life would Americanize to move forward in society. What was the point of teaching a language that would be useless outside of a small community?

I’m the person to swiftly defend teaching kids a second language. In my story, just knowing the Polish basics at first tremendously helped me develop both emotionally and socially. Every few months there are articles with fancy credentials that reveal the benefits of learning another language. Proponents of this lifestyle often mention increased brain power along with improved memory among many. When a child visits the country of their ancestors, they can at least communicate with those who cannot speak English. The other side claims that raising kids will fall behind in school, which will have a negative impact on their lives. Even though I personally did have some trouble with keeping up with the other kids for some time, there were definitely more pros.

A long time ago, the king of the Franks allegedly said, “To have a second language is to possess second soul.” Known as Charlemagne or Charles the Great, this man united quite a bit of western and central Europe around the Middle Ages. Sounds like this man went through a lot during his time on Earth, so it’s easier to argue that he knew what he was talking about. Lots of values coincide with the use of language. I’m apparently a bit more casual when I speak American English, but I’m awkward in both languages.

There are several factors when it comes to identity. I would probably say that I identify with my Polish side more since I was raised in the culture and can speak the language. But since more days of my life were spent in America, there’s definitely quite a bit of American flavor added in.


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