I thought growing up as an immigrant and constantly wrestling with my cultural identity was confusing. The questions am I Polish, am I American? Am I both? Which culture do I *feel* more like myself with were something I struggled with a lot when I was younger. I knew I couldn’t be the only one right? After all, there are so many immigrants in this country, each with their own unique story to share. I hope to highlight as many as I can with this series, but today I decided to turn the tables so to speak, and share my own immigrant story.
When I was thinking about what I wanted this series to look like, I imagined taking a peek into the lives of immigrants and how their stories evolved. So here’s my own little tale. My name is Kasia, I was born in Poland and immigrated to the United States with my family at age six. (That’s me on the left with my cousin in front of our childhood home.) My parents, along with my three siblings and I, left a rural farm town in Poland and came to Brooklyn, New York. (My youngest brother was later born here in the States.) To say it was a culture shock was an understatement. We went from a spacious family home to a one-bedroom apartment that housed eight. I recall a few details during this time, mostly being shocked by the size and scope of my new surroundings.
I can’t even imagine what it was like for my parents, uprooting everything they knew and landing in a world that couldn’t have been more different from their own. Now that I have a daughter of my own, envisioning their journey and all the sacrifices they made, has made me want to honor their story more than ever. So here it goes: On my culture/heritage playing a role in my life growing up: I think a common thread among first generation immigrants is how different you are from your American counterparts growing up. When people immigrate to the U.S., I think it can either go two ways, full assimilation or the reverse, holding on as tight as you can to your former country while also navigating life in this new one. For my family and I, maintaining our Polish identity was a crucial component of my upbringing. So yes, it’s safe to say that my heritage played a huge part of my life growing up here in the States.
When we first immigrated to this country, it was important for my mom that we stay in touch with our Polish roots. She never wanted us to forget where we came from, the language we spoke and the many nuances of our Polish culture.
We quickly immersed ourselves in the Polish community in Brooklyn, joining the local Polish school and Polish scout troop. Though our new home was a confusing place, with a new language and new people, we found our place in the tight-knit Polish community (known as Polonia) among other Polish immigrants around us going through the same things. This community was an integral part of my upbringing — responsible for lifelong friendships and cherished memories — and one I’m so grateful for.
I can’t even count the times that the culture I’m from (Polish) was at odds with the American culture I was being raised in. I mean, it’s everything, the language, the food, the customs. This is something that every immigrant can relate to.
Everything was new to my family, so for my parents, navigating a path where they’re raising 5 children in this completely new world that was so incredibly different from the one they were raised in was a constant struggle. I distinctly remember bringing my Polish lunches to school and cringing when classmates would walk by my locker and ask what the smell was (kielbasa for your information.) Oh how I longed for simple peanut butter and jelly, but my Polish parents balked at the thought of sending us to school with something other than the wholesome, Polish food we ate at home. I can look back at this memory and laugh now, but I remember at the time feeling so different from all the other kids and just wishing I could be more “normal” like the rest of my peers.
Things like sleepovers were a huge no-no as well, heck even trying to spend time with friends outside the home meant they usually had to undergo a rigorous background check by my parents first. Most often, the friend they let me hang out with the most was another child of immigrant parents (or fellow Polish friends) lol so I guess sticking to what you know was their strategy. But yet, that’s the beauty of being a kid since I did develop meaningful relationships with my American classmates, many of whom I remain in touch with to this day.
I think the hardest part of being an immigrant is constantly being at odds with two worlds.
On feeling connected more to a certain culture (the culture you’re from vs the American culture you’re raised in): On one hand, you have the country you’re originally from — your motherland — but on the other, you’re now in America, so you should be embracing this new side. Growing up, I honestly felt at times like I led dual lives. At school I went by ‘Kathy’ laughed with my American friends and did my best to “fit in” to my new adopted country yet always feeling a bit different. Yet at home and in my Polish community, I was “Kasia”, I ate Polish food, spoke in “Ponglish” (Polish-English) combo to my friends from Polish school and Polish Scouts. So I felt more connected to a culture depending on the setting I was in, more Polish at times and more American at others.
As I grew and matured however, my connection to my Polish roots grew stronger and stronger. I visited Poland every other summer growing up so the connection to my home country was fostered then as well and continued to deepen as I got older. By the time I got to college, I decided to drop “Kathy” and instead embrace my Polish heritage by having everyone — American or Polish — refer to me as Kasia. It seems like such a small thing but for me it was a huge step in finally bringing those two worlds together.
Today, I can say that I basically feel like a Polish person who has lived in America for a long time. That said, when I’m in Poland it’s very apparent to me that I am not indeed Polish like them, I’m viewed as more of an American, so it’s interesting that I kind of toe the line between both cultures constantly.
On my Polish heritage and its place in my life today: My heritage/culture plays an enormous role in my life. I married a guy who is also Polish (born in the States but raised in a very Polish home quite like my own) and we’re raising our daughter the same way. We met through Polish Scouts (one of the first organizations my mom signed us up for when we came here to ensure we maintain our Polish identity, guess it worked! ha) and we continue to be active members to this day. We are also members of a Polish parish and unsurprisingly, through our involvement in all this, have a large Polish community that we are surrounded by. The older I get, the more immigrant I become if that makes sense. I used to try and hide my culture but now I fully embrace it and wear it proudly. It’s woven within me, an integral part of my life and being.
On hopes for my child’s view of their cultural identity: I hope with my whole heart that my daughter will be as connected to her Polish roots as her father and I are. Studies have shown that by the third or fourth generations “immigrant languages generally suffer early deaths” and I honestly I don’t like to think about it because it breaks my heart. I truly believe that what makes America “America” are immigrants. This nation was founded by immigrants and it remains an intrinsic component of the culture, it’s the great melting pot after all.
On my background and how it affected my experiences of growing up in the U.S.: I think it’s affected it incredibly. Everything I view in the States, I view through an immigrant lens. And I think like most immigrants (or children of immigrants) I feel an incredible pressure to be successful, after all, my parents sacrificed everything and came here for a better life. I try to remain conscious of their sacrifices when approaching my own life decisions but at the end of the day, I know that all they want is what’s best for me and my family and that they support me no matter what I do.
I believe that having influences from both cultures — both Polish and American — has made me an all around better human. I’d like to think that I’ve taken the best of each and combined them into my own little mix.
There are so many traits I love about being Polish and so many I love about being American (and of course many I don’t like from both cultures also) — the beauty of being around both so much is that I can combine them in a way that works best for me and family.
My heritage had an immense influence on my upbringing and has shaped my life to what it is today and I absolutely love it.
I have such pride for Poland and dream of moving there someday with my family to be able to experience it in a whole different way. It’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I can say that being an immigrant was the best thing that could have happened to me, I used to want to be more “normal” to fit in with my American peers, but now I know that normal is relative. Being an immigrant gave me so much perspective on life in the States and life in general. I love my story and I love that my parents took a risk and came here. In the end, home really is where the heart is. No matter where I live, I’ll always have pride in where I’m from and the culture and traditions that go along with it.