The Life of a Foreigner

28 November 2012, Poland

The cat woke me up before an alarm clock this morning. Half awaken, I went to the kitchen to feed my furry friend and what a surprise… the box with his wet food was empty! I must have forgotten to buy a new one yesterday… Oh my Lord! The cat is miaowing like crazy, my eyes are still barely open, but I need to get ready at a breakneck pace and in the emergency mode run to the local shop for some more cat food so he could stop sending me those “SOS” signals. Why everything needs to be so complicated! Why can I not just put my shoes and coat on, forget about the make up and go to the shop on the corner of the street? I don’t know why I keep asking myself this question when I know the answer so well… I only have to think of those judgmental looks every morning at the bus stop… No matter how “normal” I look, I will never be able to join the people standing there unnoticed if I don’t get ready. Not to mention the shock of most of the crowd at the sight of a girl with neon pink hair and a heavy metal man … so if I don’t want to risk someone calling the police, of course I have to get ready NOW!

5th July 2013, England

“England, a rainy and foggy land with people half asleep from this aura and where the time flows phlegmatically from one cup of tea to another…”

That’s what they say in Poland… Such a cliché … or not so much… It’s now been several months since I moved here, but it has taken a while to remember that an umbrella is your best friend and NEVER EVER forget about it, at least if you do not want to be soaked to the bone. When it comes to tea…. the ‘tea o’clock’ seems to be a sacred ritual of savouring a taste of a life-saving elixir and a remedy for all problems. I learnt about it from my very first day at work – “let’s have a break, let’s have a cuppa”, “we will discuss it, but first let’s make a cup of tea” and so on… There is one thing that I still cannot understand – how can they drink tea with milk?! Still cannot forget an embarrassed grimace on a face of my English co-worker when I asked if she had accidentally made me a coffee. However, something that no one in Poland told me about (and what could be some life-saving information) was that I should be extremely careful with the double water taps! I cannot remember how many times I had burnt myself before I learnt this painful lesson…

So here I am in this different place, in this country of foreign people for whom I am a stranger as well. They keep asking me “where are you from?” And when I am telling them that I am from Poland they say “oh there is a lot of Polish people here in England” – which I never know if I should treat as a sign of sympathy or rather as unexpressed irritation. I don’t know if it’s because of my accent, the linguistic lapses that I keep making, but I feel that I am all the time reminded that “I am not from here” and thus, I attract interest like a tropical animal in a zoo whose history we try to learn as much as possible about… However, this is nothing compared to my reaction when one day in the middle of the High Street I was passed by a girl wearing pyjamas! BUT there were no looks nor discrete smiles… This lack of any reaction from the public surprised me to a degree where I had to stop and look around to confirm that I am not in fact hallucinating! Finally, I decided to ask my sister who has been living in England much longer than me. So, there I go… “She was wearing… she was wearing…” which irritated my sister to the point that she finished for me: “…PYJAMAS, YES! And stop staring because here no one makes a big deal out of it!”.

8th September 2022, England

I was about to watch the Polish national volleyball team playing the semi-final of the world championship, this sport is BIG in Poland! National treasure… but I was not in the mood. The Queen had just passed away and I don’t know why this sad information touched me so much. Time flies so fast and I didn’t notice when England became my home and its culture, history and people are not foreign to me anymore.

Of course, Poland has a special place in my heart and this is never going to change, I will honour it’s history and values! Yet, being here allowed me to look from afar at the country of my origins and notice so many aspects of Polish mentality I don’t align with anymore, and if I ever had to return to my country, I would feel like a foreigner again! What a paradox!

Someone might even say that I’ve lost my identity, but nothing could be so far from the truth! Indeed I am just creating a new one… Combining everything that is so precious for me in the Polish culture, like openness to other people and hospitality (it is not without reason that it is said that in Poland the doors of our homes are always open) and everything that I learnt here, in England – the right to be ourselves and to express ourselves in the way we want, and no one can judge us for that.

The sight of a stranger wearing his PJs on the street or a woman having rollers in her hair while doing her shopping in a supermarket no longer shocks me. I haven’t done any of these things yet, but multiple times I went to the shop without makeup only in my loungewear and absolutely no one cared! What a fantastic feeling – not having to get ready to go out like an actor before going on stage, but just being yourself, the girl next door!

So what I would say, if someone asks me again this question, “Where are you from?”, I would definitely say that I am a citizen of the world, a cosmopolitan* (a person who has lived and travelled in many countries, one who is free of national prejudices) as every experience of living in another country completes me like a missing puzzle, which I put together sometimes like at this moment, drinking a cup of tea… with milk of course!

Here at Dialogue, we offer cultural training so that your employees are able to adapt to a new environment, just like Jo did in this article. 

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