Polish or American?

Stephanie Jaczkowski - Warsaw, Poland


Growing up in a Polish-American family was always a little different. Unfortunately, the Polish language disappeared from my family when my grandparents passed away, but the culture and traditions are still vibrantly practiced in our house. My family celebrates Christmas with a meatless dinner on Christmas Eve and, growing up St. Nicholas came to our house on December 4. Our Easter eggs weren't only dyed with bright colors, but special eggs were carefully crafted with wax and deep, rich colors, a process called pisanki. I started Polish dancing when I was four years old and continue to this day. In light of all the Polish influences on my life, choosing to study abroad in Poland seemed like a very easy decision. I was so excited to go to the country where my great-grandparents immigrated from. Poland was an unfamiliar place, but through my church, family, and dance, I felt that I knew the country already. Many people have told me that you cannot fully know a culture without speaking its language. I did not speak Polish, but I thought I possessed a deep knowledge of the culture and would be able to adapt without a problem. In retrospect, I didn't know as much as I thought I did about Poland. However, my Polish friends were amazed that I knew so much about their culture.

They laughed when I talked about my Polish church or Wigilia, the Christmas Eve dinner. However, their favorite thing to talk about was my vast knowledge of traditional Polish dances. Most Polish students don't learn even all of the national dances of Poland, which there are five. My 14 years of dance came in handy at this point because I could talk about even small, obscure dances from different regions of Poland. While I was in Poland, I was able to learn more Polish dances through the school's dance club. It was taught by dancers from one of the biggest dance groups in Poland. I met one of the dancers in the club my first week in Poland and she invited me to practice. To start off, the group practiced six hours a week!

 My dance group at home practiced one hour a week. My first day of dance lessons, she introduced me to the teacher and explained a little about the practice. To my surprise, almost none of the other dancers spoke English!  The class was completely in Polish and while I was familiar with many of the steps, it was very challenging. As the semester progressed, my language skills improved significantly. I understood when the instructor wanted me to go left or right, or when I was spinning in the wrong direction. It also made life easier with my fellow dancers because I could ask questions about the dance or practice. We talked about our weekends and I would tell very short stories about my travels around their country.  Studying abroad not only gave me the chance to experience Polish culture firsthand, but also gave me a chance to connect more fully with my heritage. I realized that I am both American and Polish. Both cultures are intertwined and contribute different qualities to my life. Studying abroad was one of the best decisions of my life. I cannot wait to return to Poland and continue experiencing a culture that is both new and old.