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Growing up Polish-American in Chicago

Growing up with Polish culture in the Windy City.

BADGE OF HONOR Eva Penar, right, learned Morse code and survival skills in Polish Scouts.

On Christmas Eve during my freshman year of high school, I entered my family’s traditional Polish celebration proudly sporting a new perm and Gap outfit. My Polish babcia (grandma) looked at me sadly and muttered, “You don’t look like a Polish girl anymore.”

My grandma, who met my grandfather in a post–World War II relocation camp before immigrating to Chicago, had grounds for her disappointment, though I started out as a good Polish girl. Saturday Polish school was a fixture of my childhood: I enrolled when I was seven and studied language, culture, song and dance and marched in Chicago’s Polish Constitution Day Parade wearing the traditional folk costume—this was the image of me Babcia preferred. But I craved acceptance among classmates and longed for all-American Wonder Bread and Esprit bags. After several years, I quit Polish school and went back to cartoons on Saturdays.

Many who grew up with family from the old country have similar stories about struggling to straddle two cultures—in Chicago, a city chock-full of Poles, I’m in especially good company. Norwood Park’s Eva Penar was completely immersed in Polish culture from birth. Though Penar, 31, was born in Chicago, she and her Polish-born family spoke the mother tongue at home (she’s fluent and has worked as a translator). In addition to Polish school on Saturdays, she also spent the day at Polish mass and Polish Scouts (which she describes as “like Girl Scouts, but more hard-core”), where she learned Morse code, survival tactics and camping skills. Today, she considers herself both Polish and American: “I define American as having richness in your culture.”

Bob Kordalewski, 32, of Arlington Heights, started Scouts at age three and stayed on long enough to meet his wife there in his early twenties. Now, their kids are in Scouts and Polish school, and he and his wife speak Polish to clerks and each other (especially when they don’t want people to know what they’re saying).

Knowing the language seems the defining line between identifying as Polish or American. For Penar, speaking fluent Polish made Polish school pay off, though she remembers grousing about missing The Smurfs to go to class. “Now, I can’t quote Smurfs, but I speak a second language,” she says.

For my part, because I’ve forgotten what little Polish I knew, the language barrier prevents me from getting Poles to see me as one of their own—I’m just another American. My integration was successful, but at a cost: I’m limited to simply enjoying pierogi with other Americans. It’s a painfully small consolation to be an expert in the antics of Gargamel and Smurfette.

For more on Polish culture, we asked TOC Production Manager Cheryl Magiera to share with us this video that gently mocks - and celebrates - her background. She explains:

This video was an entry for a “Star In Your Own Workout” contest for a national gym chain. Having grown up doing the polka, it seemed like a natural fit. The amazing part was finding five friends willing to do this with me. One of the guys in the video (wearing the Okocim t-shirt) is a polka enthusiast who can be found at every Polkaholics show, and the guy on the organ just loves Polish girls. While I can’t exactly say I’ve seen similar videos, I’ve absorbed a lifetime of Polish culture and seen enough cable access shows to be able to imagine a Polish work-out. The director/editor (my husband, John Dingfield) deserves all the credit for the look of the video. We had some continuity problems with the edit because the guy in the wrestling outfit had ever growing sweat rings.

I ended up being a finalist in the contest and had to fly to New York to audition in front of a panel of judges. My audition consisted of jumping rope with a string of sausages and dragging the emcee out to polka with me. I came in second place but if I had won, "Polkacise" would have been produced for distribution. We did it for laughs but the irony is that this really was a kick-ass workout.

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