Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Maintaining Heritage, Is It Worth It?

I recently attended a Polish festival.  It was a bittersweet experience.  On one hand, I was taken back to my homeland with the savory Polish food and seeing the traditional colorful pisanki and folk dolls for sale.  I watched as Poles, Americans, Polish-Americans performed some of our traditional dances dressed in our traditional costumes.  I joined in singing Sto Lat to a dancer whose last performance was that day, before he joined a religious order of monks.  And the whole time I felt like I wanted to go off into a corner and cry.

There were all of these reminders of Poland, but this wasn't Poland.  Most of the people there didn't speak Polish, or what Polish they did speak was heavily marked with an American accent.  There were actually more non-ethnic stands than Polish ones.  One vendor was actually selling German artisan items.  It just felt like a mere attempt at reminiscing, not the real thing.

Shortly after the festival, I visited the Polish church where I received my first communion the year after I arrived in the United States.  I sat through mass, easily singing along the various parts of the mass, reciting the Lord's prayer in my native tongue, looking around at my fellow Poles and wondering if any of them felt the same disconnect that I do.  I now have the added burden of no longer identifying as Catholic, something the priest that day pointed out as an essential aspect of Polish identity.  I'm not married to a Pole, so we do not speak Polish at home.  I do speak to my daughter in Polish, but I often wonder just how long that will last, since I resort to English to express the deepest emotions and most profound thoughts that come my way.  I won't allow my relationship with my daughter to suffer because I insist on using a language I'm no longer native-fluent in.

My younger siblings were both born in the United States.  We made one family trip to Poland when they were teenagers.  My brother was motivated by the pretty Polish girls to teach himself to read and write Polish.  His outgoing personality allowed him to enjoy himself and explore his parents' hometown without worrying about how he would be perceived.  My sister spent the majority of the time with her nose in one book or another, safely tucked away in our gradnmother's house.  Whenever I see Polish-Americans, I think of my siblings.  They are proud of their Polish heritage to varying degrees, but they do not miss something that was never theirs to begin with.  They have never known a time when they weren't American.  They can't relate to my sense of loss.

My parents, on the other hand, made a conscious choice to leave Poland as adults.  They got fully socialized into being a Polish man and a Polish woman before they left. Even if they don't maintain contact with the Polonia community, they have internalized a very clear Polish identity that has essentially been fossilized inside of them.  They do not worry about comparing themselves to other Poles, other Polonia, Polish-Americans, or other Americans.  Their ethnic identity was never questioned growing up.  They cannot relate to my sense of confusion over who I am.

My husband also immigrated to the United States as a child, but from Central America.  His family settled in a largely Spanish-speaking area of Florida.  He has the added aspect of being a "visible minority", meaning people know he is Latino just by looking at him.  He doesn't have to do anything to prove it, to himself or to others.  He speaks Spanish, which is icing on the cake.  And there are a ton of Latinos, both from his native El Salvador and other Latin American countries, in the region where we live.  There's restaurants, music stations, media outlets available in Spanish.  Even government forms offer a formal nod to Spanish speakers by providing an option to fill out paperwork in Spanish.  My husband doesn't feel confused about his identity and doesn't feel like he's lost anything because his Latino identity is reinforced all around.  He doesn't relate to my immigrant experience.

I've been learning about transracial parenting, trying to educate myself on how to provide racial mirroring for my daughter, how to raise her so that she feels comfortable in a Filipino community as an adult Pinay, how to instill in her a sense of pride in her genetic heritage without making her feel that just because she can be mistaken for her dad's Hispanic heritage she should shy away from claiming her Filipino heritage.  But I wonder if I can really deliver.

How can I teach my daughter to feel comfortable about her ethnic heritage if I don't feel comfortable about my own?  I'm tempted to stop putting so much pressure on myself, stop focusing so much on the externals.  Heritage is all about the past.  It's not who we are now unless... unless other people only see our racial ancestors when looking at us, and more importantly, when such observations lead to differential treatment.  Generally this treatment is based on negative stereotypes and bias, leading to discrimination and racism.  These are issues I don't need to worry about on account of my ethnic heritage while living in a country built on white privilige.  It seems the best thing I can do for my daughter in this regard is to make sure we raise her in a racially diverse area and expose her to not only her own heritage but to the cultures of various peoples.  

The spiritual instinct in me tells me that it is important not to become stuck in the material trappings of our physical appearance.  It's important to not ignore how our race can affect the way people treat us.  But it cannot become the only - or even the main - way in which we identify ourselves.

I'm in a difficult position of having to anticipate what my daughter may need in order to feel comfortable in her own skin.  But when it comes to my own heritage, I am the mistress of how I choose to identify and what I choose to feel about that identity.  At first I thought that since my daughter is still very young, I could focus on reconnecting to the Polish community, and later apply what I learned to establishing that connection for her.  But I'm afraid that this pursuit would actually distance me from my spiritual goals, goals as a mother to raise a well-rounded daughter who can gain strength in her identity via spiritual means rather than relying on the external validation of the Filipino community or mainstream (white?) community.

While I understand the perspective of the advice-givers in my transracial parenting group, they come from adults who were transracially adopted by white parents and raised in predominantly white communities, and white adoptive parents of non-white children.  It is important not to assume that their experiences are transferable to ours.  I'm learning a lot from them, but I have to continually consider that their advice may not apply to me 100%.  Nothing, it seems, relates to me in its entirety. Story of my life, it seems.  

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