My cultural heritage is Polish, so as a young child my parents first taught me the Polish language and English was my secondary language. Many people envy those who are bilingual, but to be a bilingual child for me was not as desirable as might be imagined. I quickly realized that “Polack’s” were made fun of and rumor had it that we were stupid. I constantly heard “Polack jokes”, and I found myself getting really upset and hurt. When you’re a child things seem so much more personal, and I began to feel ashamed of my background.
I remember being in grade school and thinking, why do I have to be Polish, why can’t I just be like everybody else? Little did I know that not everybody is the same, that we are all different and diverse in our own way. I started to feel out of place, almost as if I didn’t belong. As a result, I found myself hiding my Polish heritage, and I would quickly become embarrassed when my parents spoke Polish to me, especially when my friends were around. To make matters even worse, my parents enrolled me in Polish school, which was held on Saturday mornings at St. Teresa’s Polish church. It was embarrassing for me to explain why I couldn’t sleep over at a friend’s house or hang out on a Saturday afternoon, because I would be busy learning Polish. Eventually I had to tell my friends about Polish school, and their reaction would be, “why do you have to do that?”
My grandmother from Poland was living with us for a while, and of course she spoke nothing but Polish. When my friends were around, I had no choice but to speak Polish to her. Not only was I embarrassed, but my friends would ask me to translate, and I hated doing that just as much as I hated speaking it. Now that I look back, I know I created a bigger deal out of the situation than it really was, but when I was a child fitting in was very important to me, as it probably is for most kids. The fact that Polish people tend to be the center of jokes, and are labeled as stupid, made me feel ashamed of who I am. Therefore, I tried to disassociate myself from my background, and I would get quite irritated when my parents spoke Polish to me in the house. I always answered back in English. Although I don’t remember sharing with my parents how I felt, I am sure that they would have been devastated to hear that I was ashamed of my ethnicity.
My mother and father both were born in Poland. My mother lived primarily in Poland until the age of nine, and then came to New York with her parents who began working in the states. Up until about the age of 17-18, my mother spent her adolescent years in both countries. When she speaks of those times, she emphasizes how she wanted nothing more than to live in her home country, even if it meant being separated from her parents while they worked in the states. My father stayed in Poland throughout his entire adolescence, and it wasn’t until he was out of the army, that he moved to the states to be with my mother.
My parents continued to live in New York until I was seven years old, and then decided to move to Phoenix, after visiting their close friends who also moved to Phoenix from New York. From the age of about seven to fourteen, I grew up on the west side of Phoenix (43rd Ave. & Bethany). I remember living in a quite diverse neighborhood with African American, Hispanic, Chinese, and White families. We all had fun playing in our cul-de-sac after school. It wasn’t until I reached junior high school that my own culture became sort of a negative issue that I couldn’t get out of my mind. This scenario is now explained from my best friend’s perspective.
Joanna and I have been friends since the age of eleven. We met in grade school and clicked instantly. Around the time that we were in junior high, I began noticing that she felt embarrassed by her ethnicity. I knew that it really bothered her when someone cracked a Polack joke or when she heard negative remarks about Polish people. In every class, when the teacher would take attendance, I would feel Joanna tensing up before her name was called. Of course nobody could ever pronounce her last name Sliwakowski correctly, so she would have to explain the proper way to say it. Then the teacher would ask what kind of last name it was, and Joanna would have to tell her that it was Polish. I knew she hated having to do this every time, and I could tell that she felt completely embarrassed that now the whole class knew that she was Polish.
I didn’t understand why she felt this shame and embarrassment. I thought it was awesome that she spoke another language, and that she and her family spoke Polish to each other in their home. After tasting some of her mother’s delicious Polish dinners such as pierogi, I was even more impressed, and wanted to come over for dinner more often.
Every time Joanna’s parents or grandmother spoke Polish to her, I would ask her to translate, and she hated doing it. She would always say that it was nothing, and she would ask me, “why do you think it’s so cool?” Then I would ask her to teach me how to say certain words. I knew she hated doing it, but I thought it was so neat that I knew somebody who spoke a language besides English.
I always tried to explain to Joanna that kids could be really cruel, and that everyone was made fun of for something. I tried to convince her that she had nothing to worry about and that people were just jealous because they couldn’t speak any other languages. I wanted her to be proud of who she was. After being friends for a few years, she definitely loosened up, and now I hear her speak Polish to her four- year- old son. I’m just happy that as she got older, she learned to ignore the rude things that people had to say, or at least she stopped taking them personally. She is now proud of her background, and happy to be who she is.
Being of Polish descent while growing up in the U.S., made me feel as though I wasn’t like everyone else, that I wasn’t like my friends. Throughout my young adolescent years, I found myself upset at the fact that I was different, that my parents came from Poland, and that I spoke a different language. It was difficult to bring my friends over for the first time, because my cultural background was no secret in our home. My parents spoke Polish to me, we ate Polish meals and pastries, and there were many other cultural norms in my home that my friends were not used to. For example I was taught from a young age that it was impolite to refer to an adult by their first name. My friends on the other hand, were used to calling adults by their first names. Although my mother didn’t comment much when one of my friends called her Ursula, I knew that she sort of found it inappropriate and would rather have been called Mrs. Sliwakowski.
Another example would be, when I was at a friend’s house and would ask for something to drink. I was told to go ahead and get it by myself. In my home it was awkward when a friend of mine would just go through the refrigerator or pantry looking for something to eat. In the Polish culture, the norm is that when a guest asks for something, the host caters to that need. Therefore I was actually uncomfortable, getting things on my own at a friend’s house, because I was raised differently. In a way, I felt torn because I wanted my parents to like and accept my friends, and at the same time I didn’t want my friends to think that my family was weird.
I believe that being ashamed of my cultural background stuck with me so strongly because I was young, and it affected many different aspects of my life, such as the ones that were just mentioned. I know that most kids and young adolescents try extremely hard to fit in with the cultural norm, and fear straying from that normality. What I didn’t know back then is that there is not just one acceptable cultural norm. Now when I look back to those days, I am ashamed that I was ever ashamed of my ethnicity in the first place, and that I almost denied who I was, for fear of what people would say, or how I would be labeled.
I am not blaming schools, but perhaps if the educational system at the grade school level made more of an effort to teach cultural diversity, I would have realized that I wasn’t the only one who was “different” and others may have been more accepting of who I was. Instead, I was asking the question why me, why do I have to be Polish? Although my friends were intrigued with the fact that I spoke two languages, and admired other things about my culture, there were those people who judged me or laughed at my ethnicity, mainly because of the stereotype that Pollock’s are stupid. This is why I felt that I had to hide aspects of my life around even my friends because I wasn’t sure how they would react.
Now that I look back and remember these times, I realize that even though I didn’t want many people to be aware of my ethnicity, when I was around other Polish people, I wanted to be as Polish as possible. Although I was embarrassed to speak Polish, I was also embarrassed when I mispronounced a difficult word or couldn’t find the word that I was looking for, while speaking to someone who was Polish. I didn’t want my family to think that I was forgetting the language because I was struggling with certain words.
As I grew up, especially when I started going to college, things changed significantly. I now understand why my parents thought it was important for me to speak my language. Now that I have my own son I would love for him to speak and understand Polish. Last summer I visited Poland for a month, and I found that people were impressed that I spoke the language so well. Of course there were certain words that I didn’t understand, but for the most part, I was able to get by. I am grateful that my parents were able to instill my culture in me, while raising me in the United States.
Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage