SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2012       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Monika Kobylarz

Between Two Worlds

It was May 1994 but it feels like yesterday when I lost my friend, my hero, my father. A year later I borrowed money from the bank and bought a ticket from my native Poland to a destination where I thought everything is possible, the United States of America. I heard that this was a paradise on Earth. I came here thinking that I would never struggle and my life would be filled with pleasures. However, after few weeks, I noticed that people here have similar problems to the citizens in Poland, Germany or Russia. I finally understood that America is not the “picture perfect place” I have seen on the postcards. I witnessed the other side of the magnificent Las Vegas Strip when I shared my sandwich with a homeless person. I learned how to sleep in San Francisco parks when I became homeless myself. I stopped at gas stations not to fill a luxury car with gas but to take bath. I asked myself how this is possible to see so much poverty in the midst of affluence. I’m still searching for the answer.

I was transplanted to the United States of America in my mid twenties and it was definitely the greatest challenge in my life. I was lost from the beginning of my American journey but never regret it that I come here. I learned that this country is so different than Poland in many aspects. I think it was difficult for me to assimilate to the new culture but I was a curious person and I was ready to explore a new world. I felt lonely sometimes and wasn’t sure about my identity. I often found myself missing my country. It wasn’t country as a piece of land I was missing, it was the little things in life like music, books, Polish newspapers, TV shows, even the smell of fresh fruits and flowers. Yes, everything in America was different. Through the years, I got used to a new culture and enjoyed a lot, but I also noticed a few important differences between the two worlds.

Immigrating to the United States of America helped me to appreciate my culture and my heritage. We are similar and different in the same moment. I was astonished to see such a diverse country, commonly known as a melting pot. How wonderful, that people from around the world can immigrate to America and call this place “home”. I was happy when I found a “Polish Deli” in the dry and hot Phoenix so I could prepare my first Christmas dinner. Although I found myself trapped between two worlds I cherished every moment of it. I learned that although America might be a country of opportunities, nothing comes easy and I experienced events I would never have encountered in Poland.

It is often difficult task for first generation immigrants to balance both cultures. We frequently experience loneliness and emptiness, searching for the best solution, hoping to give our kids preferably brighter future. However, I think that we should make a process of assimilation the best experience ever despite the differences. We should keep our tradition alive and treasure the memories from the place we came from. We should be flexible, accept the changes life brought to us and enjoy the life’s journey.

Although I assimilated well, to my new country I still keep in mind the reason why I came here. A few years after I immigrated to the United States my best friend Isabella refreshed my painful memories:

“ I remember this awful day like it was yesterday. We were in the last year of college. It was May 7th and in three days, on Monday we were scheduled to have our first written exams. Monika and I had to pass written and oral exams in order to graduate from college. I couldn’t stop crying when my mom told me that Monika’s father suddenly passed away on Friday. I thought to myself: “How is she going to write those exams under these terrifying circumstances? Our entire class was empathized with Monika and we all came to her father’s funeral. It was so devastating to see Monika, her mom and young brother grieving over her father’s death. I didn’t know what to say and how to comfort her. I was hoping to see her on Monday at school. I was relieved when I saw her taking the exam. I wished her good luck and admired her strength. After successfully completing the written and oral test we celebrated our accomplishments but Monika wasn’t with us. The party was miserable without her because she had been the heart and soul of our class.

After college we all went in separate directions, to various universities. Monika went to Law School. I knew this was the perfect choice for her since she always wanted to bring justice to less fortunate people. By the end of first year Monika called me to announce that she had to discontinue her studies because due to limited budget. Her brother was still at college and her mom struggled on her own to support them. They decided that Monika, the older sibling, will leave abroad for awhile to help to support family. I wanted to scream again! Her family just lost a father, now she has to abandon them. She was a rock of the family. I didn’t understand why she needed to go to America! She could go to Germany or Austria, somewhere closer, but America was out of my imagination!!! She learned some English because her mom sends her for private lessons but her English was limited. Besides she was only 21 years old and she was leaving our town, family and friends for six long months! I was devastated again!!

I thought to myself how life can change overnight for some people. What will her future be like! Are we going to send each other letters because phone calls will probably cost a fortune! I couldn’t adjust to the new situation. Everything happened so fast. It was May 18 and Monika left to the land of opportunities, the United States of America. She will be experiencing new culture, exotic food and hopefully blending in the melting pot. I will miss her dearly, but I know she had to support her family. I will keep her in my thoughts until next time we will see each other and talk over a delicious, Polish dinner.”

And we saw each other a few months ago, fifteen years after I immigrated to the United States. Isabella asked me how my life was since we saw each other last time. I told her about my first impression about the country and the American people. It was a strange feeling to be around people who spoke the “weird English”. My main complaint was that they were talking too fast. I couldn’t understand anything. I avoided picking up the phone because it was even worst to hear and understand people over the phone. It took me years to understand American English and many years to be able to speak on the phone. They spoke too fast, not separating words or sentences one from another. I was so lost without the language and I understood how huge an obstacle is a lack of communication and not knowing the language. I felt so lonely, scared and depressed. There were also sweet memories. I loved the wonderful smell of the ocean and fell in love with Caramel and Monterey, the most beautiful, charming places in northern California. I remember that Isabella asked me if I would take this journey all over again if I had a chance. I hesitated to answer this question. I know that struggles and challenges definitely made me a humble and a better person. Although it was often painful I’m grateful for this life’s experience. However, I often thought how my immigration affected my mom and my brother. I remember when we decided I would be immigrating to the United States, my mom was crying. My brother was extremely sad and devastated. I knew he would miss me but now I realized how much he really needed it me. He was only 17 years old, had just lost his father and now he will be losing his sister. Our plan was that I would leave only for 6 months but as of today is almost sixteen years! We both realized how much we lost not being able to be part of each other’s lives. How many birthdays we missed, graduations and Christmas days. Unfortunately, we cannot rewind the past. I think now I have a different understanding of my immigration and I’m not sure if I have done do this if I had known how much I would miss my mom and my brother. Next month I will be home for Christmas, for the first time since 1998. I still cannot believe we will all sit down at the table with traditional Christmas dishes. This is one of the moments in life I will cherish forever. It will be priceless to share this dinner with my mom and brother. I will also visit with friends and we will share our memories from childhood eating delicious poppy seed cake. I can’t wait!

I never thought I would leave my country. I was patriotic and couldn’t imagine living in a foreign country. However, life brings us many surprises and sometimes they are heartbreaking. Due to the tragic, unexpected death of my father I had to leave my country to support my mom and younger brother. Immigration to the United States has changed me forever. I knew that my situation as an immigrant wouldn’t be simple. So do my immigration status. I also knew that a few months working in United States could help my family tremendously and thought I would be returning to Poland within six months. I couldn’t achieve this in my country. Poland was going through political and economical transformation and many Poles were emigrating. Many left to United States, some to United Kingdom. I knew that it would take years to receive permanent residency but at that time I wasn’t planning to stay in the United States. After a few years of living in California I realized that I could not count on amnesty because the previous amnesty had been offered to immigrants in 1986. Also, in 1996 the immigrants who arrived on tourist visa were prohibited of receiving a permanent driving license. The driving permit was issued only for a limited time, usually for the period of the visa. This was though. Immigrants in California and Arizona suffered from many deportations and lived in fear. They were visible because most of them worked at California’s farms. In same year, a Welfare Reform bill included anti-immigrant and other measures that eliminated many social services for undocumented immigrants. The life of an undocumented immigrant meant to live in fear. However, I was privileged because of my class, gender and ability to speak English. 2001 was very a difficult year for immigrants because the U.S. government initiated a series of immigration policies under the Patriot Act that were designed to thwart terrorism after the 9/11 attacks. My life as an immigrant has been shaped by all those issues. After receiving legal status my life has changed tremendously. Being a fear free was the biggest relief I ever experienced.

“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans”
. This was so true in my case. I had been accepted to the prestigious Law University and was making plans for the future when my life turned upside down. The death of my dearest friend and hero, my father had changed my life forever. Due to this tragedy I immigrated to the United States, country where everything is possible. This experience has changed me forever. I juggled the responsibilities of a wife, mother, student, mentor and a leader. I met remarkable people during my college journey. I never forget running for an International Officer for an International Honor Society and speaking in front of five thousand people. Meeting Rachel Maddow, Christine Amanpour and Sanjay Gupta were my dreams coming true. Many struggles and obstacles brought my empathy and love for humanity. I love serving those who are less fortunate and this brings me the biggest joy. Those are the diamonds inside of my jewelry box. But there are many regrets and emptiness left in my heart. Being separated from my mom and brother often makes me sad and heartbroken. It has been fifteen years of missed birthdays, holidays and anniversaries or conversations over cups of coffee. Maybe because I’m getting older I’m also becoming more sentimental and I realized the emotional impact my immigration had on me and my family. I know I have a choice to either contemplate on “lost time is never found again” or I could embrace the past. The past thought me a lot and I should be grateful for it. However now I will take “one day at a time--this is enough. I won’t look back and grieve over the past for it is gone; and I won’t be troubled about the future, for it has not yet come. I will live in the present, and make it so beautiful it will be worth remembering.” Immigrating to the United States of America has been an incredible journey and I’m looking forward to the next chapters in my life.

Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage