Thursday, 14 October 2010

Who am I? (kim ja jestem?)

This week's Economist defines one of this year's Nobel prize winners for economics, Christopher Pissarides, as a 'British Cypriot'. Wikipedia helpfully points out that Mr Pissarides is a) a Greek (rather than Turkish) Cypriot and b) he was born on Cyprus. [Note: he was born on not in Cyprus - the island's not big enough for 'in'. Australia is. In Polish it's the same: na Cyprze, but w Australii.] A British Cypriot? How very helpful. Does this make me a British Pole? But then I was born in Britain of Polish parents...

The reason for this post is today's Johnson blog, in which racial and national nomenclature comes under the spotlight. Some names are more controversial than others. Blacks? (African-Americans); Jews? (Jewish people); Gypsies? (Roma); Chinamen? (Asian-Americans). What's the preferred nomenclature, Dude?

Over to me and my kind. I was born in Britain to Polish parents and am now residing happily in Poland. There may be a couple of thousand more like me.

I recall several years ago shocking a professor at Toruń University by telling him that I consider myself "100% Polish and 100% British". He nodded sagely as I said the first part of the equation. His jaw dropped as I uttered the second. A mathematically-impossible sacrilege.

Yet I am entirely comfortable with this statement. I have no problem in blending in with a company of Poles (sure, I need to tidy up my case-endings and prepositions, but I'm told my vocabulary is OK) or with a company of Brits (maybe I need to update myself on the latest goings-on in Albert Square and current Premiership positions).

What then is the preferred nomenclature for people born in Britain of Polish parents and now living in Poland? Anglo-Poles? This is often used. I'm not so sure. Growing up in England, I never considered myself English. Yes, British certainly, but no more English than the child of Scottish or Welsh parents living in London.

I think that British Pole would do (no hyphen, thanks). British, adjective describing the noun, Pole. I am British by birth, citizenship and passport, will one day be receiving a full UK pension; I feel a greater residual respect for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II than I do for any here-today-gone-tomorrow Polish president (sorry, don't wish to offend, but that's just the way it is).

Yet I am emotionally very attached to Poland, Polish tradition, history and culture, Poles, the Polish landscape. I am here by choice; living in Poland is not for me a default setting. Polak brytyjskiego pochodzenia please; certainly not Anglik.

As teenagers, us British Poles would have long soul-searching discussions about kim ja jestem. This was never a problem to me. Am I my father's son, or my mother's son? Both of course. [Interestingly, English has two words for country of origin - motherland and fatherland - Polish just the one 'ojczyzna'.] I was raised by Britain and by Poland, a by-product of Yalta, not of economic migration. Paradoxically, I have felt less resentment towards me as a Pole in Britain than to me as a Brit in Poland. Though I guess the latter (on those rare occasion when it does surface) stems from material jealousy rather than any genuine sense of 'otherness'.

Poland does have it share of backward xenophobes, but these tend to be the demographic victims of transformation and poor education, so I can excuse them for their views. Similarly in the UK, the people who most dislike Poles are those at the bottom of the heap, displaced economically by a harder-working and more motivated people pushing down on wages just like the Okies did in California in the 1930s [warning: a Grapes of Wrath post coming soon].

And a final word in Polish: Mieszkam w Polsce, bo chcę mieszkać w Polsce.

[This time last year, we already had our first snow!]


basia said...

Nice post. It resonates nicely for me.

At least you have the British empire to fall back on!!
Canadians are rarely distinguished as being distinct from Americans by Europeans (that's why we stick that maple leaf everywhere). Many Europeans perceive North Americans as mongrels, lacking in culture and tradition. The hyphened identity statement (Italian-American, Polish-American etc) is often regarded (by Europeans) as a desperate attempt to align oneself with some "real" culture. They just don't get it.

I can't imagine that I would ever be fully accepted as a Pole, even if I mastered the language and chose to settle there. I haven't shared in their collective pain, therefore I am not eligible for entry despite the bloodlines.

Our culture is dominated by immigration and assimilation, and is much inclusive.

WilkBury said...

I would like to say hello and that your blog is a pleasure to read. In fact it is the only blog I read. Generally I am not fond of blogs.
From April this year I check fot the new entries on your blog almost everyday. Keep blogging!

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Basia - assimilation - Poles are not particularly good at assimilating their own, let alone non-Poles; it's something the newcomer has to adapt to. None of this namby-pamby multiculturalism. And in a way, I'm glad.

@ WilkBury - many thanks! Worth checking out some of the other blogs on my bloglist - ones in English about Poland.

Pacze Moj said...

I'll echo Basia: resonating post. I'm in her Canadian context, but some of the points stand. As a Canadian, I, of course, don't know what assimilation is (we're so cosmopolitan, our constitution guarantees rights to everyone on Earth), but I've come across plenty of -hyphens of various dimensions. In our case, though, because Canadians have little Canadian identity, the hyphen is easily interpreted: Polish-Canadian I take to mean Polish-culture Canadian-resident. Americans have a greater identity than we do, so the -hyphen becomes more complex when dealing with Polish-Americans. But give me a Polish-Italian and, as you point out, we get into the juicy interpretive problems.

You know, I'm so used to it that it's almost invisible, but when people in Canada ask each other what are you, they're really asking what are you other than Canadian. What I can't figure out is whether the assumption is that you're obviously Canadian or that there is no such thing as being Canadian.

PS: English, indeed, has father and motherland, ale polski nie jest aż taki cienki: macie ojczyzna i macierz.


Pan Steeva said...

English has both fatherland and motherland as translations of words used in other countries. England/Britian is neither motherland nor fatherland.

An early difficulty in coming to Poland was to understand the concept of Poland as a nation distinct to Poland as a country ie nationality (narodowość) rather than state or country of citizenship. Your 100% both Polish and British attitude may have sense in Britain, since nationality is a broad and ambiguous concept. It is not possible in Poland, where it has a much more intense meaning of being a part of the Polish people, with the need both to be accepted by the group and to act as if you are part of it. You seem very English to me.

Pan Steeva said...

Sorry for coming back, but I just saw where you come from - I had originally thought it was Wales for some reason.

I decided to cut short my previous comment, but thought of saying that many Polish people find the British concept of nationality very difficult to understand as well. I have been asked by four or five people whether I feel more British or English, which is a very logical Polish question. I answered that I actually felt more South London, where I come from, but even when I explained that the extreme diversity of people in England/Britain/UK limited my feeling of affinity with other parts of England, etc (or London) it was clear that I was being incomprehensible. The best I could get was to liken the Polish/Czech relationship with the London/Newcastle relationship, but I don't think anyone really believed that was possible.

I said you seemed very English to me. Funnily enough, however, I actually thought you were very like people I got to know in Richmond. Within my narrow horizons, therefore, I actually thought that you seemed very West London rather than a generalised English person. I now know that's what you are.

basia said...

"Growing up in England, I never considered myself English. Yes, British certainly, but no more English than the child of Scottish or Welsh parents living in London.

As a non-Brit, I don't know what you mean. Can you elaborate please.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ basia

Britain is made up of England, Wales and Scotland. A Scot can be British, but not English. To be English, you need to have English roots. So I'm British yes, English no.