Split identity of a migrant. Where is “home”?
Julia Pieza, University of Oxford
Since Poland’s EU accession in 2004, it is estimated that over 2 million Poles have emigrated abroad. A large portion settled in the UK, seeking their ‘British Dream’ of better earnings and a higher standard of living. Yet what exactly does the post-Brexit ‘British Dream’ mean to immigrants like myself trying to reconcile my identity between two homes?
I moved to the UK in 2007. I was nine years-old and I couldn’t quite fathom moving from a town of 4,000 inhabitants in north-eastern Poland to a city of 8 million. I still vividly remember completing my first spelling homework with my mum, it took us three hours because all we had was a pocket dictionary. At the time I couldn’t understand why my parents would want to immigrate, and I spent a large part of my teenage years resenting their decision. I felt isolated from my peers and felt I was missing out on the experiences my childhood friends had in Poland. To put it simply, I had ‘FOMO’ before it was even a thing. I would visit them every summer and have the time of my life in a small and relatively safe town where no one lived further than a 15-minute walk. When I was back in school in the UK my sense of nostalgia about the idyllic countryside and Masurian lakes inspired a fair few poems in English class. However, as I grew up, I began to seize opportunities my friends lacked living in small town tucked away in rural Poland.
Polish or British?
The reality of being a teenager is that your experiences are driven by a fear of standing out, and as the only Polish student in my school I felt the need to assimilate. Trying desperately to avoid being labelled as the ‘Polish kid’ I often shied away from speaking Polish when other kids asked me to. Even though most of the time their intentions weren’t malicious, I feared I was already too much of an outsider as a working-class Polish girl in a comfortably middle-class school.
It only occurred to me years later that I was losing my native language, I was thinking solely in English and found it hard to remember Polish words for everyday things. When I would return to Poland for the summer, I felt increasingly embarrassed to speak to my friends and family who would point out my grammatical mistakes. Yet when I noticed my younger brother or my mother starting to speak to me in English I would always reply in Polish. By 2016 I had lived the two halves of my life in Poland and the UK; but I didn’t feel neither Polish nor British.
That also happened to be the year of the Brexit referendum and whilst being bombarded with anti-immigrant rhetoric I grew unsure of my place in the world. A country that I had begun to call my home had turned into an unrecognisable place somewhat overnight. Yet I felt no stronger attachment to my identity as a Polish citizen. Visiting my friends in Poland always gave me perspective on the acute differences that would have had an enormous impact on my day-to-day life, such as the ability to access contraception with relative ease. I realised upon returning to my ‘homeland’ that I felt ‘at home’ elsewhere. My idea of ‘Britain’ wasn’t rooted in a blind belief of the nation’s benevolence, but an arguably equally misleading vision of progress. As I watched my parents grow more tolerant of issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, while still celebrating their ‘Polishness’, I understood that my identity was not tied to the idea of a nation. For many Polish immigrants Brexit exacerbated the issues of a splitting identity, a feeling of betrayal by a country that has become our home and a lack of comfort from our motherland. Today, Polish is the second most spoken language in Britain after English, and while this highlights the scale of Polish immigration to the UK, it also misrepresents it. It drives the misconception that Poles move to the UK for ‘easy money’, that they have flooded the country by displacing other languages native to this island. It has been over 3 years since the Brexit referendum, yet the idea that Polish people move here to exploit the benefit system or take jobs from British people is still present in the public discourse. Rightfully, this has made many Poles feel deeply uncomfortable in contributing further to a country in which many now feel unwelcome.
So, where is home?
I’ve struggled with answering this question and simultaneously realised that perhaps I don’t need to just yet. I don’t plan on returning to Poland, but I’m unsure if I’ll stay in the UK for the rest of my life. Net immigration from the EU to the UK is already at its lowest since 2012, and Brexit has made the advantages of becoming a British citizen a debatable issue in the current economy. The experience of immigration can be a life-changing opportunity; but trying to navigate one’s internal ‘identity crises’ has been more difficult due to the political factionalism arising out of Brexit. For now, the only thing I can do is keep reminding myself of the many great aspects of Polish and British culture and how their coexistence has enriched my life thus far.