Proud to Be Polish

For those of you still reading the TravelJen Blog (anyone? anyone? Bueller? Bueller?), my apologies for the long delay since the last posting. I’ve now been back in NYC as long as I was overseas and have been stressfully busy as all hell. While the trip abroad seemed to last much longer than four months—more lifetime-y than one-third of a year-y—the past four months back home have passed in a dismayingly fast, and largely unsatisfying, fashion. Blame it on the wanderlust that still puts ants in my pants. But I’m determined to end the TravelJen Blog, and not just let it peter out. It can’t go on longer than a few more weeks. I mean, this is getting ridiculous. Meanwhile, last week I took a non-fiction book proposal seminar at my graduate school alma mater. Hopefully this blog will have formed the skeleton of a larger project that will, inshallah, result in something you can hold in your hand.

And then, double inshallah and technology willing, I’ll start a new blog that will actually capitalize on the real-time aspect of the Interwebs—you know, daily updates and the like. Think travel, science, culture, books—and the future. (Cue Evil Mastermind Cackle.)

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When I was a kid, my father had a T-shirt that said I’m Proud to be Polish! But this was not your standard off-the-rack nativism (which in America, of course, is often immigrant flavored). For one thing, there was the color: a safety-cone orange, a Tang-toned blaze that was both Saturday-morning cartoon and Better Living Through Chemistry. And then there was the quintessentially 1970s fabric appliqué the words had been adhered to the T-shirt with—a slick and rubbery patch that always tweaked the latent teething toddler in me. (Well, at least with my own T-shirts. I left my dad’s alone.) Finally, there was the actual phrase. The word “Polish” was misspelled five times, each iteration skewed at a “wacky” angle and then crossed out. The correct spelling ended the list. It had a gleefully triumphant exclamation point: Polish!

The fact is, most of the Polish jokes I heard when I was a kid I heard from my father and other second-generation Poles, as well as from Italians and the Irish, whose blood I can also claim a touch of. (See: Mom, freckles.) Like every other word “taken back”—think nigger, fag, or bitch—the derisive terms for these later European immigrants were eventually used by them. In northern New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s, Polacks, Wops, and Micks routinely smacktalked each other along a clearly satisfying continuum of white ethnic slurs. The Brzezowskis and the D’angelos and Fitzgeralds called each other stupid (Poles), lazy (Italians), and drunk (Irish), and then made babies together. That’s how you wind up with someone like me, who according to these tropes is genetically drunk and stupid. Forget being proud to be Polish. I’m proud I can find my own face.

But if I thought growing up with constant reminders of my Polish background might make me feel some sort of intrinsic connection to the Home Country, I was wrong. In fact, my experience turns out to be the opposite. Many of the things I encounter seem so intrinsically Polish, and so completely unrelated to anything in my family history, that I end up feeling more wholly American than ever.

It all comes down to the nuns on bikes.

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