Being a foreigner. Being an outsider?
Wiktoria Walkowiak, City, University of London
When referring to the ‘community,’ many would think about a physical location. But forever long, the meaning of ‘community’ continues to change. The definition now is used to describe ‘something one chooses for oneself, through a process of self-discovery.’ The reason for this continuing re-definition acts as a result of the ongoing evolvement surrounding identity.
As we know, the Polish community is viewed upon various stereotypes created through the years by not only society itself but foremost by both the political and media discourses. While being a foreigner, becoming a part of the ‘Polish community’ can bring onboard various connotations, it is common to hear that ‘as a foreigner in Poland, you will stand out.’ But what does this exactly mean in terms of community?
First, however, let me briefly introduce you to Emir Ramic and Amogh Malik. Emir, a businessman, has travelled and worked around the world. He’s been a ‘Polish-foreigner’ since 1999 after leaving his homeland Serbia and, is now referred to as ‘the citizen of the world.' Emir touches upon his experiences during his travels which further define his understanding of ‘community.’ While Amogh Malik, a university graduate, gives us an insight into his childhood of what it was like to be a Polish citizen with a South Asian background and grow up within a Polish community.
WW: Identifying as a foreigner and having insight into Polish culture, what was something that you noticed in particular about the Polish community?
Emir Ramic: Personally, the value of family is incomparable to anything; it is something that we truly cherish through time and the moments we share. Reflecting on the Polish community, this is something that I particularly noticed as a foreigner travelling to Poland, especially during the early years of meeting my wife’s relatives, I noticed that the Polish community does in fact ‘prioritise family and friends first’ and the Polish culture is in fact ‘family-orientated.’
WW: Some time ago you told me that there was a language barrier. You were not as confident in the Polish language as you’re now. Did this have an impact on community acceptance?
ER: So, when I first visited Poland with my wife and I was in the process of learning Polish, I found that Polish people were extremely helpful especially with their patient approach to try and understand me. To give a quick overview, I would say that I felt very at home in Poland which may seem bizarre because of the language barrier that I had, but everyone I came across was very welcoming and helpful. Of course, there were minor instances where I heard mutters behind me in shopping centres when people saw that I struggled with communicating but this was a minority.
WW: What did those ‘mutters’ convey? How does that reflect on the community?
ER: They were either directed into an expression of surprise or irritation as I would describe. I am certainly quite darker in skin tone in comparison to my wife and children and, therefore, 20 years ago in a village of 100 people, it was certainly surprising to see a foreigner who barely speaks Polish. I would link this back to the previous point you mentioned about the statement of ‘being a foreigner and standing out.’ Now Poland along with other countries is becoming more multicultural whereas but back it wasn’t.
WW: What stereotype have you previously come across of the Polish Community and would you encounter as accurate?
ER: I would say that I have passed a lot of stereotypes which claim that ‘Poles are a hardworking nation’ and truthfully speaking, I think that from my experience and visual observation, I would totally agree. To add to this, a large proportion of the negative stereotypes are formed on the minority of people that emigrate to the UK, sometimes from ‘poorer’ spheres and in some ways may display pathology through their behaviour. But I wouldn’t ever proclaim and say this is what the Polish community is like in Poland. In all honesty, I identify the Polish community as being very welcoming and determined to carry out better.
WW: And how about you, Amogh?
Amogh Malik: Having a South Asian background, I was born in Warsaw, lived there for 8 years and attended an international school in which a minority were Polish citizens. I was surrounded by diversity, so I didn’t have a clear experience of a strong ‘Polish orientated community.’ At this point, I also lacked Polish language since everyone at school spoke in ‘American English.’ It wasn’t until I was thrown into pure Polish-ness “podstawówka” (primary school) in Gdynia that I got a true insight of the young Polish community that I soon became a part of.
WW: How did this radical change of going from an international school to a Polish primary school make you feel? Did you face any challenges entering a new community?
AM: When we moved to Gdynia, I would assume that my family was the only Indian family in Gdynia at the time. In the first month of settling down, I didn’t have friends, and my Polish needed improvement. This wasn’t due to any personal reasons nor did I look upon this negatively, I was conscious of the fact that this was a new beginning and completely different especially when referring to ‘diversity.’ Just like in the usual neighbourhood, people notice when ‘newbies’ move in. Therefore, when we moved in, I was approached and greeted not for the reason that my characteristics were more South Asian (which probably struck the interest of some) but mainly because I was simply ‘new’ in the neighbourhood though, stereotypes may argue otherwise. Overall, Gdynia is a tourist destination. Therefore, locals are fairly familiar with multicultural visits and are open-minded to diversity. To expand on this, I did not experience the stereotypical ideology of any racial problems or the feeling of being an outsider.
WW: What does ‘community’ mean to you then?
AM: You can interpret the meaning of community in various ways, depending on your previous experience. When delving into the understanding behind ‘Polish community’ from a perspective of a foreigner, I could say that the Polish community is welcoming but from an individual who was born and raised in Poland with the family background of a different nationality ‘Poland is my home and it always has been home and no one has made me think or feel otherwise.’
WW: ‘Poland is becoming more multicultural.’ What changes have you noticed following this statement?
AM: I think for the moment being, the English language is being used more commonly. And, as I previously mentioned, Gdynia is a tourist town, so if I was to describe one change that I have noticed it would be the approach of people in the public. For example, 5 years ago, if I went to a store, people would approach and greet me in Polish but now their approach consists of using English. I think a reason for this is that my characteristics don’t hide that I have Indian roots, but I also noticed the reason for this change is because there are more foreigners in town.
ER: What I would also like to add, and what I think is crucial, is that we can all paint over our cultural differences and pretend they don’t exist. The moment we leave our country we become a foreigner. And, to highlight, we forever stay a foreigner. Thinking about the idea that the world we live in is not our home and we’re strangers, communities are the relationships that make you feel at home.