For whatever reason, people always wanted to call me either Dutch or Polish. I never understood this distinction. Besides cultural upbringing, what makes me different? When people see my strange surname, something in their heads starts to turn. Some start to see me in a different light, like I’m privileged or something. In this day and age you could say so, because I have another language I can speak, which gives me the chance to communicate in a better way with the Poles which live in The Netherlands for a living. However, it was often a way to loneliness when I was younger. It has to be seen from two perspectives, not one. We’re talking about two sides of a coin, it’s not like you can pay with two separated sides. That’s when you have two coins instead of one. Let’s jump in.
What I’ve noticed along time, is the fact that the ways of thinking are pretty different. I was born and raised in a Dutch city with a population of about 40.000-50.000. People are individualistic, family ties are often quite loose. Unless you’re part of a sports club or any other community, people tend to put more value on their own priorities. But even with sports clubs, there is a drift from traditional sports clubs to more individualistic sports such as running and the almighty gym. People tend to work to live, instead of living to work. With a healthcare system in place where everyone from the age of 18 is required to have healthcare insurance, it’s a bit of a socialist consumerist society. Except that people are trying to erode the socialist parts of the system.
Up until now, I’ve spent about a month each year in Poland. Families tend to be tight-knit, they are like communities. At least, I can say that from the southern parts of Poland. My parents both grew up in towns with a population of about 500-1.000. Comparing a big Dutch city with small towns like this would be a little strange, as the differences are huge. People conform to the rules pretty much, they get married somewhere in their early/mid 20s, they visit the church regularly and go through all the rituals, women mostly do child-rearing and the household. A bit of what a lot of people would call old-fashioned.
Throughout the years I’ve felt I learned the best of both worlds, being a free-thinker on one side while being well-mannered on the other side. That last bit doesn’t mean I conform to whatever people tell me to do, however. I just navigate social interactions in a different way than most people do.
As my parents were one of the only Poles in the city before 2009 when Poland entered the European Union, I was also pretty much the only Polish kid in class. While I had no trouble interacting with other kids, I could at times just feel how different my interests were. The Second World War fascinated me, especially the fate of Poland and how the Germans treated them. At that time, I hated them for it. It seemed pretty much the general way of thinking for Poles who don’t interact much with Germans (with time I came to respect them, as the current generation has little to do with what their grandparents did). There were people who made fun of me for this, for being fascinated about something that happened so long ago. For whatever reason, me struggling with my nationality seemed to be something to be bullied for. They liked picking on me for the fact that Poland was the first to fall. Technically, that is right. But in reality, they kept fighting in exile for their freedom. They continued the war even though their country was captured.
What I really didn’t like about this time was the fact that my parents forced me to go to church and take Polish classes. These classes were organised by a Polish Catholic Missionary Mission, and were focused on educating the values and the language. I didn’t really feel at home there, I honestly didn’t care about what was taught. When I’d feel miserable from going to school all week, I’d have to go to school on Saturdays as well. And this was even worse, this school was in one of the biggest cities of the Netherlands and it took 30-60 mins to travel to this place. I’d have to get ready in the morning around 9-10, travel to this church somewhere in the middle of this metropolis, spend the entire afternoon until 16:00 or so and then when I’m home the wait for food starts. The worst days were when my parents decided to follow the mass. Then I’d be home after 18:00, about to die from starvation. The mass actually was a regular part of the school routine, but it didn’t matter if you went home after the lessons. In that case, you’d be expected on Sundays. And boy, did I have a lot of fights about this. This mass actually took place in the city where I live, but still, the mass started at 09:00.
Like a lot of kids, I didn’t like to go to church. Because I didn’t give the Polish classes my full attention, I actually ended up understanding little of what was being said during mass. I understood the concepts however. I didn’t really get why it was important to go to church. I preferred my Game Cube, PS2 and PC over this. And my sleep, of course. After a while I started rebelling by staying in bed after my parents woke me up. Acting as if I were asleep. I didn’t like the fact that I had to wear ‘nice’, uncomfortable clothes to the church as well. I had a lot of trouble with jeans, I really didn’t like them. Especially if they had a button fly. I preferred sportswear – jogging pants. I simply didn’t understand all the hassle about the rituals and customs. Mass to me seemed like an endless circle of the same things every year.
At a certain point, the rebelling became so furious, that my parents (mainly my father) started to ease up on it. I’d insist on staying in bed to make sure they’d be late for mass. This was during puberty. Eventually, I told him I don’t believe in God governing my actions. I didn’t see why a man from the clouds should control all the actions that seem to be happening around me. It doesn’t make sense why all the hurts happen, it doesn’t explain why I got bullied badly. My father didn’t understand this, I had to believe in something! We had a big fight about this, but eventually he relented. I didn’t have to go to church any more, I only go to church with Easter and Christmas. But that’s a tradition.
Back to my national identity, people would often ask me whether I’m Polish or Dutch. Whenever the European or World Championships Soccer would take place, the same question appeared each time: “Are you rooting for Poland or the Netherlands?”. To be honest, I wanted Poland to do well. But that’s more because they’re the underdog in soccer. The Netherlands in that case, already managed to get to finals but never won anything. And that’s when they’d call me Polish, I’m not Dutch even if my ID-card says so. I simply didn’t understand why people would segregate me like this. I’m nothing like the Polish people which are living here since 2009 or later for work. When I’m working with them, I can have good conversations. But at some point they’ll call me Dutch anyway. Besides that, I don’t have Polish friends.
Each year, when I’m Poland, the same question returns: “Are you Dutch or Polish?”. And surprise, they’d call me Dutch. The fact that I don’t drink anything with alcohol in it, they see that as something not Polish. I’ve had some nasty experiences at weddings because I refused to drink vodka with family members. I’m lucky to have an excuse now – I’m driving. I’d also often get the question whether I prefer Dutch or Polish girls. I don’t understand the fuss about this. A Polish girl will be very dependent on me when she’s abroad and doesn’t speak any other language well enough to find her way. I don’t really care where the ‘ideal girl’ from, as long as I feel like she’s a great fit and adds something to my life. She has to be able to live her own life as well. Until the time I accidentally bump into a girl with the right traits, I’m comfortable being on my own, exploring who I am and doing the things I love. What’s the point of telling other people what they should do if they don’t know what makes the other person tick? People should mind their own business.
In the end, I found answers to some of the questions I had and some which others are asking me. On the Polish-or-Dutch question, I tell people I’m European and I feel like I’m not bound to one country. The father of an autistic friend of mine, has trouble processing this answer. He calls it a ‘political answer’, because it’s not black-and-white. I’m fine with this. When I get the question with the soccer championships, I’m comfortable saying that I’m rooting for one of the Scandinavian countries, as my values seem the resemble theirs more closely. In the end, what is the point of limiting yourselves to one system? Just get out of that box and grab the values you like to live by.