Live Through This

Cultural Exchange

Being less successful than my parents feels like part of the trade-off.

Collage by Minna.

Collage by Minna.

One of the questions I constantly get from my students and friends here in Poland is: em>What are you doing here? Well, my parents are Polish, and they made the decision to move to the United States in the ’80s, when the Polish government declared martial law, which severely restricted individual freedoms. Even though I grew up in the U.S., my first language at home was Polish. I’ve always wanted to spend more time here with my aunts, uncle, and cousins, and to write stories and essays about the experience of living in the country that my parents left behind. Last year I graduated from college in Pennsylvania, and I decided to spend a year living and teaching English (through the Polish-American Fulbright Commission) in a town in southeastern Poland.

Being the child of immigrants comes with certain expectations. Namely, that your success will surpass that of your parents, who left their homes to make a better life for their families. But my parents came to the U.S. with PhDs in biochemistry, so besting their achievements, particularly when it comes to academics, isn’t easy to do.

When I was little, my mom bought me toy chemistry sets and science books. They gathered dust as I made friendship bracelets and devoured Little House on the Prairie. They’ve never said or admitted as much, but she and my dad may have had hopes back then that I would follow them into the sciences. As I got older, it became obvious that I wanted to be a writer. After that, they’ve never objected to the field I’ve chosen, and in fact have been nothing but supportive, but success in it is clearly part of their expectations.

Lately I have been thinking about what it means that I will be less educated than my parents. I studied English literature, and earning a PhD would take four to seven more years of schooling. After that, I’d be facing a pretty terrible market for PhD-level jobs. It’s hard to tell whether, under better circumstances, I would pursue a doctorate, but with prospects like these, the decision was basically made for me.

That, to me, is part of the strange paradox of the U.S. educational system. We seem to have endless educational choices, but a shrinking pool of people who can take full advantage of them. Low-income students with poorly educated parents have less advantages in the U.S. than in other countries, as do first-generation children of immigrants.

My parents faced problems no less serious that these, but they were very different, especially when it came to their educations. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Polish government subsidized vocational and university studies (that’s mostly still true today). As a student, my father wanted to study history, but was privately advised not to because Communist-party censorship had turned history books into propaganda machines. Instead he opted for the sciences, which were less controversial and harder to manipulate. So I can understand why it’s often hard for him and my mom to see the United States as anything but full of opportunity, especially for someone like me, who had the privilege of choosing her own major at a competitive university, which they paid for me to attend.

They were even more confused by my decision to go to Poland, with or without a Fulbright. With a degree in English, they assumed that I would jump into a job in publishing or journalism. But where they saw the start of a lucrative career, I saw listing after listing for unpaid, underpaid, or part-time gigs. My mom gave me worried looks when I talked to her about the possibility of freelancing. Why I would consider such unsteady work after she’d sent me off to study Shakespeare, Milton, and Proust?

Fellow Rookie and Polish native Emma D. pointed out to me recently that learning English means something different for my students here in Poland—it helps them speak a global language, which will hopefully lead to more opportunity. My dad seemed to be using similar logic when he urged me to study economics one semester instead of electing to take “Polish for Heritage Speakers.” I didn’t follow his advice.

My students’ opinions of Americans run the gamut from distaste in our arrogance and dominance on the world stage to wanting to move to the U.S. to live there for the rest of their lives. They’ve taught me a lot about where I come from. I’m also starting to understand a little better what my parents left behind here, and what they hoped to accomplish by starting careers and lives in the United States. I see their path more clearly than ever, but mine can only be different. ♦


  • rachaelreviewsall May 17th, 2014 4:11 AM

    I totally get what you’re saying! Ironically though, I have taken a science degree, but that has been my own choice. My dad grew up really poor in India, and when I say really poor, I don’t mean the Western idea of it. He got lucky though and managed to move abroad, and after that he travelled the world and worked hard to get where he is. My dad has a literal rags to riches story, by the time he was 22 he supporting my grandparents from abroad. However, I’m now twenty, still at university and am feeling really unaccomplished compared to him, despite me going to be better qualified than him. I also want to go into a career in the media, which I know my dad is wary of, but I know he’ll never say no too. I realised that it’s time to stop looking at the circumstances my parents came from, and start living up to my own expectations.

  • Mimi7 May 17th, 2014 9:28 AM

    It you’re doing what you love and are happy, that’s more successful!

  • hellorose May 17th, 2014 12:03 PM

    ‘With a degree in English, they assumed that I would jump into a job in publishing or journalism. But where they saw the start of a lucrative career, I saw listing after listing for unpaid, underpaid, or part-time gigs.’

    This is so true of the UK too. There is just nothing in publishing unless you are *incredibly* lucky or have excellent connections. Most large companies only offer a tiny number of internships or work experience places and with so many applicants many of them simply pick a name at random regardless of qualifications or cover letters (appropriately enough Random House do this). Most start ups and independents just want someone to do a full time job for free. I’ve seen job listings for unpaid work that ask for several years professional experience and the kind of technical proficiency no intern could or should be expected to have. It’s fucking ridiculous.

    Sorry for the rant, it’s just been making me angry and miserable! I think you’re smart to be teaching English and doing something that gives you the opportunity to write and to reconnect with your heritage, even if it doesn’t look to other people like the first rung on the career ladder.

  • enthusiastictruckdriver May 17th, 2014 4:52 PM

    It’s so cool that there are people on Rookie with such similar stories! I’m from Poland and speak Polish at home but we also moved abroad when I was little. My biggest dream used to be to move to New York after high school but now I’m reconsidering that. I don’t think it’s fair to compare our situations to our parents’ because they grew up in completely different circumstances and had reasons for making certain choices that no longer apply to us. Being successful doesn’t mean going more places (whatever that means) than previous generations of your family.

  • Berries May 18th, 2014 8:35 AM

    My parents are not as highly educated as me or my siblings. My mother never heard about such thing, and dropped out of education after high school (some education where you could learn a profession I think, I forgot) due to circumstances. My dad did finish his education post-high school, a school to learn about farming.

    I am graduating from a research master’s in psychology and am applying for PhD positions. My sister, after studying hairdressing and fashion, turned to business administration and politics. My brother got a degree in industrial design and is working as a programmer now.

    Every day I am very, very aware of the fact that the three of us are SO lucky to have had these chances. Our mother always supported whatever we did. I guess that my brother really is overqualified for his job, but my mother never bothered with that. He is very happy with his job and we’re just relieved that he’s doing fine. Plus, with his intelligence is is overqualified for most jobs anyway.

    From friends and roommates I heard all about parents who are as or more highly educated as them. It seems very hard! Some are really pushed to do what their parents would like them to do.

  • Vlada May 18th, 2014 6:07 PM

    As long as you’re happy and doing what you love, that’s fine. You just need to set your goals in order to keep motivated whether they are the same as your parents or not.

  • hawkins May 25th, 2014 10:29 AM

    I really loved this. Both of my parents went to university but were both rebels in their own right; my dad being the first in his family not to go into medicine and my mum being the first in her family to go to university full stop. I’m studying at uni now and keep surprising myself with how much better I’m doing compared to where I was in high school – just confirming that intellectual capability is very often determined by personal interest.