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May 17, 2015

Oh, the places you won't go: Polonia in the United States

This is the third article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

Naming the largest diasporas in the United States may seem like an easy task. For one, we have the deeply-assimilated families of German, Irish, Italian, and British immigrants. There is also a large Mexican community, unique for having a much higher percentage of members who were foreign-born.

Most people would venture a guess that India or China should come next; some may also suggest France, Denmark, or the Netherlands. They would be all wrong: the next spot on the list belongs to the massive Polish diaspora, estimated to be almost ten million strong.

Given its sheer size, the cultural influences of the Polish-American community are uncharacteristically subdued. There are precious few Poland-originating holiday traditions or ethnic foods. Outside a couple rapidly shrinking enclaves such as Avondale in Chicago or Greenpoint in New York City, you are unlikely to bump into posh Polish diners, pricey grocery stores, or flamboyant street parades. Children born to Polish immigrants in the US are seldom taught to read or write in their parents' language - and will probably know very little about their familial lineage or common ancestry.

Perhaps there just aren't that many bits of Polish culture to build on against the backdrop of Germanic, British, Italian, and Dutch influences that shaped the American life. Much like its German counterpart, the traditional Polish cuisine is obsessed chiefly with potatoes and meat. Today, we take pride in our pączki, but when pressed, we will sooner or later confess that they are just doughnuts by some other name. We can offer you some pierogi, but they will truly impress you only if you never had any ravioli or tortellini. We can also hook you up with some sausage, sauerkraut, pickles, ribs, or beer. On your way out, take a bite of our cheesecake or apple pie.

The holiday traditions run into the same challenge, perhaps with the exception of the infamous but niche Dyngus Day. Other than that, the most commonly observed practice is that in line with much of Central Europe, Polish children may get their gifts in the evening on Christmas Eve, not in the morning on Christmas Day. Our traditional clothing looks distinctive - but it is ornate and archaic, making it compare unfavorably with the beautiful simplicity of wearing green on St. Patrick's Day, or getting hammered in suspenders come Oktoberfest.

Humor aside, a more powerful clue to the invisibility of the Polish diaspora may lie in its very history. In the twentieth century, the immigrants from Poland ended up occupying three isolated social strata, with relatively few opportunities for working together and developing any form of a shared cultural identity.

The first and most populous stratum of contemporary immigration were the common folk, displaced by the horrors of the war and the crippling poverty that followed under communist rule. Many of them worked menial jobs, spoke little or no English, and clustered around many of the traditionally Polish enclaves that offered them a degree of familiarity and support. For many years, they and their children faced blatant discrimination, epitomized by the popular "Polish jokes" in the 1960s and 1970s. The demeaning stereotypes that followed them everywhere prompted many Poles to adopt Americanized names, intermarry, and keep their origins a private affair.

The second stratum were the dissidents and the disillusioned intellectuals leaving Poland to escape the dysfunctional regime. Usually better-educated and more confident, they helped build the first proper Polish-American institutions, including local newspapers, community organizations, churches, shipping and travel companies, or banks. The members of this group felt much stronger national identity and perceived themselves as the guarantors of Polish interests abroad. With the fall of communism in Europe, many of them were incredulous that the former dignitaries were allowed to walk free and play a role in business and politics - a sentiment that still shapes their political views.

The big change in immigration trends came with the accession of Poland to the European Union. The unhappy and the disenfranchised would now overwhelmingly favor moving to Germany or to the UK, where they could take up residence without having to deal with restrictive immigration laws. The remaining US-bound migration shifted toward skilled, university-trained engineers and IT workers, many of whom gravitated toward tech hubs such as SF Bay Area, Seattle, or NYC. Having been born in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them remembered Poland as a thriving capitalist democracy; they were driven not by despair, but by the prospects of better pay or more interesting work.

All this nuance is easily lost on the people back home. Many of the left-wing and centrist pundits in Poland demonize the expats in hopes of mobilizing the more moderate domestic electorate. They paint a picture of a frighteningly powerful voting block that will prop up any fringe, conservative candidate, as long as they promise to rid Polish politics of the Soviet sleeper agents and other increasingly fictitious communist legacy.

Of course, for most part, such reputation is bunk; although a good percentage of Polish-Americans are very distrustful of left-leaning politicians in their country of origin, only a tiny percentage of them ever turns up to actually cast a ballot, and their overall influence on the results of Polish elections is slim. Contrary to how they are perceived, they also do not blindly cling on to social conservatism; in American elections, they usually vote for Democrats.

That said, repeated over and over again, the catchy narrative about dimwitted compatriots can take a life of its own. Several weeks ago, Longin Pastusiak, an eminent Polish publicist and polician, penned a piece characterizing Polish-Americans as simpletons who only have a very shallow appreciation for the Polish heritage and who meekly submit to the supposedly powerful influences of the Roman Catholic church. He is not alone in his views; many go even further and call for the diaspora's voting rights to be taken away.

Having overcome discrimination in the States only to face bureaucratic hurdles and prejudiced, vitriolic nonsense back home, it's no wonder that most of the Polish immigrants just want to blend in and move on. In the long haul, it's probably a big loss - not necessarily for them, but for their former home.

Crowds at Polish Days in San Francisco (2010)

For the next article in the series, click here.


  1. You mention 3 social strata, but I only see you elaborate on two of them.

    Also, what about the Polish Jews who immigrated (mostly before the holocaust, a tiny few, after) to the US?

    1. The text talks about three strata (laborers, communist-era dissidents, modern-day high-tech workers), but the transition may be a bit awkward.

      For earlier waves of immigration (especially before WW2)... most of them would be of very advanced age or already gone from this world, so I don't think they play a very visible role in the contemporary Polish community in the US. Their children and grandchildren may retain some distant connection to Poland, but they are probably Americans first.