People Who “Hate” Their Native Languages: My Perspective

Beware the Ides of March!

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Today’s topic is an interesting one that I’m surprised hasn’t been touched on in almost any language-learning blog I’ve encountered.

For many years I’ve heard comments like these:

 

“(Speaker’s native language) is the most useless language in existence”

“(Speaker’s native language) is only useful 0.1% of the time.”

“I suppose there are a lot better things to do with your time (rather than study my native language)”

“Why the fuck do you want to learn (speaker’s native language)?”

“I think my native language is boring”

“I would trade my native language for…”

 

I should mention two things:

  • I’ve been guilty of this myself. Part of me wishes that English wasn’t my native language. That was literally the second blog post I ever wrote about on this blog, actually!
  • Almost all of the people who made comments like these were westerners (although I’ve heard some people from Asia or the Americas do the same, too—but not as frequently. From Africa and the Pacific, not to date).

 

Before I continue I’m going to say that I do NOT include people who actively dislike their language due to trauma. (e.g. “my grandmother was a native German speaker from Nazi Germany and after she left she refused to speak German ever again”. Disclaimer: this describes neither of my grandmothers). That’s beyond the scope of what I feel qualified to talk about, and in the event you DO encounter someone like that, avoid that language altogether without questions. End of story.

 

But as far as ordinary people who somehow feel that they could trade their native language (or one of their native languages) for another one, there are some things that I’ve noticed.

 

  • Sometimes they just say that in order to get you to validate their native language.

 

YES. This has happened to me. Enough for me to write about it.

 

Only yesterday was I in a Talmud class and we had a discussion about the fact that, according to Jewish law, prospective converts have to be refused three times (in order to show that they are genuinely serious about becoming Jewish, regardless of what liabilities it may bring them in the future).

 

Sometimes someone who says “why bother learning (my language) if so few people speak it / everyone in my country speaks English anyhow / it’s ‘useless’” may actually want you to justify your decision passionately. Or they may actually want to hear your story in detail but don’t want to ask directly.

 

The more fluent you are in a language, the LESS this will happen, especially if your accent is good.

 

There’s a reason for that, actually. Because if you speak it well enough, it shows that you’ve had a good enough reason to invest a lot of time into it, so your reason will almost CERTAINLY not be within the realm of questioning (e.g. having done business there, married to or dating a native speaker, etc.)

 

  • If they use ANY amount of the language with you at all beyond basic greetings, they really DON’T hate their native language. Especially if they show telltale signs of enchantment.

 

If they did (and yes, I have encountered a handful of cases in which they did), they wouldn’t smile if you speak their language, they would instead appear disgusted and a tad confused. They wouldn’t be continuing the conversation in the “useless language” and playing along with you with smiles as they do it.

 

This is the case with me and English. I may have extremely conflicted opinions about American English, but if someone wants to learn it from me, I’ll usually play along rather than act frustrated (especially if someone really needs help with his or her English). Because whether I like it or not, American-ness is a part of who I am (in addition to my other identities).

 

  • Sometimes this attitude can reflect a certain sense of jealousy (that we ALL have) about speakers of certain languages.

 

I’m hugely jealous of Greenlandic native speakers. I make no secret of that fact. (It still remains the hardest language I’ve ever attempted to learn, bar none, to the degree that if someone lists a major language as the hardest to learn, I’m secretly scoffing on the inside.)

 

Throughout Europe I’ve met many people who view American English native speakers as lottery winners and view them with a certain sort of jealousy that they can’t hide. And yes, you will make friends JUST by virtue of that fact alone, especially with people who feel that they need the conversational practice or even knowledge about American culture (this is true no matter WHAT your native language is, actually! Someone out there is looking for you! This can also be the case if you’re a fluent speaker of a language, even non-natively).

 

My knowledge of whatever native languages I can’t have and I can’t catch up with will almost certainly never be on the level of a native speaker. But I can try and keep learning. And if it is of any comfort to you, my knowledge of other English-speaking cultures and their idioms are also going to be out of reach in terms of “perfection” as well.

 

But you don’t need to be a native speaker to be good. Far from it, in fact.

 

  • Unless someone brings up a traumatic incident or shows signs of vexation, do NOT take “I hate my native language / I think it’s useless” comments seriously.

 

And there also is a chance that you just MIGHT need to get better at their language in order to get them to warm up to you!

 

One last thing: you can actually use this to your advantage to keep conversations in your target language (which I’ve noticed is becoming less and less of an issue the more experienced I get. It was a noteworthy issue back in 2014 and is almost NOTHING now, but we’ll see how Austria and Slovakia fare later this year on that front). Benny Lewis famously would bring up his English-language Catholic school experiences in order to guilt people away from using English with him in places like Spain. I’ve never had to go to that length but I’m certainly willing to describe the darker sides of my American experience (which I won’t go into right now).

 

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

The Mindsets of a Young Hyperpolyglot

A lot of people ask me how I managed to acquire working knowledge of 10+ languages despite my young age.

Even seasoned professors managed to wonder how I could present on many topics before college classes with such clarity…or, as I often get, “how does all of that information fit in your head?”

Well, I don’t believe in keeping secrets and so today I let forth everything that I did right and, more importantly, that I did DIFFERENTLY.

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  • I make efficient use of “dead time.”

This is probably the MOST important thing that will net you results with your time. Do this within a week, and you’ll notice significant results in any goals you have your heard on attaining.

If I’m on the subway and standing? I’m listening to audio in one of my target languages.

Am I working out? I’m doing very much the same.

Waiting for an appointment? Flashcards or books. Easy.

This is the difference between someone who struggles with their second language and someone who becomes a hyperpolyglot. This is, to some degree, the only difference. But there are other ones worth mentioning.

 

  • I focus on what I REALLY WANT.

How do I manage to learn many things succinctly? Easy. I find things that I like and I focus on them.

This results in a situation where I focus more on the languages I care about than those that most in society would deem “useful”. But so what? Better to have knowledge of something you care about DEEPLY than to have forced knowledge that someone else thinks or says is a good idea.

Obviously, if your “language love” is a global language, choose that. If it’s a small national language or minority language, choose that too. But remember this: the very thought of studying it should be like getting a treat to you. If that isn’t the language you’re learning right now (or ones you’re maintaining), pick ones that DO fit that bill.

 

  • I have an ego (and I’m not afraid to admit it. On here, at least).

 

I have a drive to be the best and be a legend. Admittedly not everyone has that drive. And that’s okay.

What really drives me to accomplish things is a sense that…I’m not ashamed to admit it, I like attention. And it’s not a bad thing, as long as you use it for HELPING others in your community and building yourself in a positive way. (Make yourself into a hero, not a villain who tramples on others for the sake of puffing themselves up.)

In line with that: while I am not a descendant of Holocaust survivors, I am a descendant of pogrom survivors and, to some degree, I see that I have to life a good life as much as I can for the sake of my distant family members (including other Ashkenazi Jews as a whole) who didn’t get that opportunity.

 

  • I’m fluid in my identity.

I post about Pacific Islands regularly, as I do with Greenland, Jewish culture, Scandinavia, video games, stupid puns and countless other topics besides. I see a gift of living in the contemporary world with infinite masks.

Making someone curious about the world is one of the SUREST ways to make the fluent in several languages. And the fact that I’ve found myself confused about who I am for most of my life (including as I write this) helped with that, even though it harmed me in many other respects.

And another important thing is…

 

  • I don’t ask myself “what do I use to learn a language?” Instead, I ask myself, “what DON’T I use to learn a language?”

 

I think of my life as in need to “mobilization strategies”, as what the United States did during the Second World War and also what I hope it (and all of human civilization) will do for the sake of saving the climate and the human future.

If I have a goal, I have to warp my life as much as possible to point towards the directed outcome. Make sacrifices. Build habits. Make the right friends. Join the right groups. Surround myself with material conducive towards fulfilling that goal.

There’s a difference between using one method to learn something (what many people do, especially with apps [and those apps are usually more invested in their profit than getting you to learn and this is no secret at all]) and those who use almost ANY method they can get their hands on to learn something.

And it doesn’t all have to be book-learning either!

If you want your life to change, you will have to change your life.

And the good news is that anyone can do that. At any time!

Onward!

How to Decide on a Costume (for Purim, Halloween, etc.)

Happy February everyone!

This is an off-topic post that has nothing to do with language learning at all. Sorry! But perhaps I should actually write more of these.

So a holiday or theme party is coming up and you know that you want to dress up as SOMETHING, but you can’t exactly decide what.

This serves to document my personal process of how to come up with WHAT costume I should pick, not necessarily how I should assemble it (luckily, as of the time of writing, one of my best friends is about to get an advanced degree in Fashion and so he will be helping me put my Purim costume together this year!)

Fotka Jareda Gimbela.

WHAT MY COSTUME SHOULD BE:

  • I usually want it to be a particular character rather than just “a class” (e.g. J.P. Morgan rather than just “a robber baron”). I can make an exception for this if the class is considerably distinctive.
  • No cultural appropriating (my personal heritage is okay, so in high school I’ve done Viking costumes).
  • Props are good
  • Colors are good
  • Lots of attention to detail.
  • Having the “homemade look” is not only acceptable but encouraged (especially for Purim which is wacky enough as is).
  • The primary goal should not be to have other people recognize your costume. It’s great if they do, but don’t have it be the primary focus. Playing towards your own tastes works wonders.
  • Comfortable, or at the VERY LEAST can be comfortable with removable pieces (e.g. I can take headwear off and I’d be okay).

WHERE I GET INSPIRATION:

At the times in which I need to get thinking about what sort of costume to wear (or even when it is NOWHERE NEAR Purim or Halloween or Lord-Knows-What at all), I pay attention to character designs in films / video games / art in museums .

I pay particular attention to how such a character would fit my body type – male, dark hair, average height and weight, broad shoulders, quite muscular.

That said, some of these can be “flexible” but I really can’t pull off the look of a pale-skinned blond man or a dark-skinned character native to equatorial climates.

I understand that there are definitely certain types of people over-represented in popular culture than others (e.g. over-representation of white people in Hollywood films), but there always IS something, no matter who you are.

Another thing I keep in mind is that I see experiencing media (such as looking at paintings or movies) as “trying on clothing”, in a sense—imagining how I would behave in the suit of such characters. If there is any character that you feel particularly “clicks” with your personality, then you really may be onto something.

Lastly you don’t need to get EVERY SINGLE detail in your “target costume”. The most important colors, hair-styles and props are all that are necessary. If you can do that, great! But if you can’t, don’t disqualify a very good idea.

Happy costuming!

 

The Most Important Lessons of my Life So Far (30 Years of Jared Reflection)

On my 30th birthday I think of all the times in which people ask me if I “feel old”. The fact is, I feel wiser and more confident with each passing day, despite the fact that this decade has probably been the most difficult one of my life (granted, the sample size is not large).

At age 20, I was a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem while abroad from Wesleyan University. Looking back, I think that I was a LOT less restrained and a lot less “polished” in terms of my behavior. Paradoxically I was both an iconoclast AND very religious. The maturity that I’ve acquired since then, despite the fact that most of it happened as a result of negative experiences, is, oddly enough, something that I’m grateful for.

At age 30, here I am in Brooklyn, teaching a multitude of languages to very curious and smart people. It was something I’ve dreamed of doing since before my Bar Mitzvah. I also wanted to be a hyperpolyglot throughout most of my life, but I think a mixture of having discovered the right blogs and the right tools made it possible.

Also, perhaps at this juncture I’ll make a list of the worst things about my personality, as well as the best things.

Bad things:

  • I question myself very often, perhaps way too often.
  • I have a narcissistic streak in which I sometimes seem openly concerned for the way that I am perceived.
  • I set EXTREMELY high standards for myself, even to my detriment.
  • I am difficult to impress.
  • I tend to blame myself for anything bad in any situation.

Good things:

  • I am on an endless quest for self-improvement (and this attracts other people with similar qualities into my life).
  • I take advice from people readily and I apply it (my rabbis and coaches have noted that I do a “fantastic” job at applying advice and changing my behavior when asked).
  • I am difficult to provoke and remain calm in a lot of situations (to a degree that sometimes scares people, but also enables them to put their trust in me).
  • I make an uncanny amount of connections between things in my brain (this is probably my BIGGEST advantage as a learner).
  • I pride myself in being different and taking “roads less travelled”.

 

Now for the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my life so far. I may have written an article like this before, or possibly not. Honestly, I can’t remember.

Here we go!

  • Frame Your Life as a Story or an Epic in Conversations.

 

Characters such as Abraham and Odysseus are memorable because their characters are formed via transformative journeys.

 

Even if you haven’t left your hometown, you can still see yourself on a similar type of journey in a sense.

 

For me, the fact that I hopped between Orthodox Jewish Day School and Inner-City Public school and then Wesleyan University and then 20+ different countries made me a bit of a confusing fellow earlier in my life but an “epic character” later on.

 

Given that I downsized my religiosity, that also adds another element as well. Given that I became a hyperpolyglot, that also serves as a “twist” in a sense. Given that I stopped pursuing advanced degrees to create my own game(s), that shows deep courage.

 

Find what your story is.

 

  • To Teach Well, Think about What your Boring Teachers Did and Do the Opposite of What They Did.

 

 

Granted, in this clip my body language could…improve a bit (I think that I’m shaking too much). But hey, it was my first time.

 

Note what I did in the clip. Used a theatrical style filled with energy. I spiced up my presentation with artistic detail and tiny “blink and you’ll miss it” details (including having hid several of my gaming user handles in the presentation).

 

I’m not dismissive of anyone’s questions and I answer them on point. If I don’t know something, I say that I don’t (as what I did with Yanjaa Wintersoul’s question about learning from different consoles).

 

Richard Simcott approached me after the presentation and said that he was told “excellent things” about my presentation including several wishes that I could “come back” for future Polyglot Conferences. (It seems unlikely that I’ll be in Fukuoka for the 2019 Polyglot Conference, though).

 

  • If You Want Something, Take the Necessary Steps to Get that Something IMMEDIATELY.

Life getting too routine? Draw up a multi-step plan on how to change it and do SOMETHING to change it.

 

Too concerned about a flaw in your life? Speak to a friend about it.

 

Want to learn the language of your dreams? Start NOW!

 

I could go on.

 

  • Make Lists Often.

The self-descriptive article at its finest.

 

  • Realize That a Lot of Advertising and News Articles Are Meant to Tug at Your Insecurity for Clicks and Sales.

 

They are most likely overstating many problems (with some noteworthy exceptions) so that you can feel more immobilized and click.

 

  • The Aging Process Does Not Have to Be an Evolution from Idealism to Conformity.

 

It may be tempting to think so at times, but one way to counteract this is to constantly “open doors” in your life with new skills and expanding the world of you.

 

  • If you’re Over-Analytical, Know When to Turn it Off.

THIS is something I have issues with. Still.

Whether it be with students’ feedback or internet comments or even dislikes on videos, do realize that creating hypothetical situations and “stories” can actually be harmful. A lot of this has to do with competitive school culture, but once you really leave you’ll realize that most human beings are actually quite forgiving of…almost anything, actually. As long as it isn’t done out of pure malice, that is.

 

  • Ask People Questions About Their Story. Frame Their Lives as a Story.

For example, I’ve met Jewish converts and “newly minted” American citizens on a weekly basis for some time now. I’m curious to hear about how Judaism / American-ness makes them feel. Same for many other identities as well, whether it be discovery of a language like (Spanish / Danish / Yiddish / Thai / etc.) or having recently moved to New York City.

Often I got remarks like “I’ve always wanted to open up to people about this, but they almost never asked”.

 

  • Open Doors for People (Well, Yes, Literally, but Also in a Figurative Sense)

When I was in Yad Vashem in December 2012 (which, looking back on it, was one of the most transformative months of my life. I visited Skansen in Stockholm for the first time and visited many of Israel’s holy sites that I hadn’t seen before), there was one remark from a Swedish priest that still rings with me to this day.

“There were some of the teachers that tried to open doors for me. And there were others that tried to close doors for me”, he said.

In my teaching and in my conversations, I want to make people realize that their dreams can come true. I praise people for their tough decisions and their artistic determination. I want to act as an energizer and let them know that becoming their ideal self is always possible.

 

  • Know that You are a Legend and Other People Will Remember You.

 

Perhaps this one requires a good deal of egoism. But egoism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you use it to lift other people up, especially in times of despair, then it can actually be a divine virtue, in a sense.

See yourself as a legend beyond compare, as if the future of the world depends on your every action, in a sense. See yourself as a comic book character with layers of deep change and vulnerability. See yourself as someone who has to use his / her / their powers for good. Use that power to make others believe in themselves and feel appreciated and cared for.

 

After all, YOU may be the person upon whom the future of humanity depends. And you may not even know it yet!

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5 Things About Language Learning I Learned from Norwegian

Gratulerer med dagen! (Congratulations with the day!)

While Norwegians and their various expatriate / heritage communities the world over celebrate today (May 17th, the Norwegian Constitution Day) with parades, traditional costumes, hot dogs and ice cream (and much more!), here I am in rainy Brooklyn wondering how I can bring (1) exciting new motivation to learners of Norwegian and (2) an interesting perspective as an outsider that will be insightful to native speakers.

Norwegian was actually the first major European Language that I became fluent in and still is my favorite European Language. Contrary to what you may hear, there are VOLUMES of resources to learn it and even MORE to engage with the language even if you’re nowhere near Norway or any native speakers at all.

17 May 2018

 

(1) Norwegian Taught Me to Reflect on What English Was Throughout the Ages (And What It is Now)

 

With some noteworthy exceptions, English’s sentence structure is Norse in origin. One of those noteworthy exceptions is the fact that Norwegian (like almost all of the Germanic Languages) has verb-second construction. (To explain this: if a sentence begins with something indicating time, manner or place, put the verb right afterwards. In English you would say “today I will play a game” but in almost all of the other Germanic Languages you would say “today will I play a game”. Same if it were “Slowly” or “in Oslo” at the beginning of a sentence instead of “Today”).

In teaching languages of Scandinavia, I have to teach students how to recognize words from English as well as how to piece together words from pieces they already know. “Gjenskinn”  may not be familiar to you without this training, but once you learn to recognize it as “(a)gain + shine”, you can piece it to mean “reflection”.

Other Norwegian words use pieces of words that have fallen out of usage in English but survived in compound words. “Homestead” and “instead” use the word “stead” (which is a direct relative of the Norwegian word “sted” meaning a place).

«Å skade» means «to hurt» or «to damage», which you may recognize from the English word «unscathed».

The most common question I ask when going over a Norwegian text is “do you know what this looks like in English?”. Once you see exactly how similar the two are, it doesn’t become scary at all. In fact, Norwegian (and its relatives) are a lot less scary than the Romance Languages are (in my opinion). Consistently I have seen English native speakers of Norwegian as a second language be SIGNIFICANTLY more confident that English native speakers of Spanish as a second language. Yes, the pronunciation in Norwegian is harder to master, but the grammar is simpler and even the complicated aspects thereof feel intuitive for an English native speaker.

Norwegian is an excellent first choice for your first foreign language if your only language (right now) is English.

 

(2) Norwegian Gave Me a Glimpse Into the Reality of Heritage Speakers

Many a Midwesterner has had Norwegian-speaking grandparents who didn’t pass on the language to their children. As a Jew I hear often stories of Yiddish-speaking grandparents who did the exact same thing.

Especially in the United States, cultural erasure happens but sometimes the erasure only happens for one or two generations (with one of the future generations seeking to re-attach themselves to their roots).

In comparison to many people who I’ve met who learn languages to, in vague terms, “speak with many people”, the heritage speakers I’ve encountered approach language learning with an almost holy determination. Many of them see the Norwegian-American experience as truly incomplete without a language component, others want to communicate with their distant relatives from the small village from which their ancestors immigrated.

These people make me think about what motivation can do and how a genuine desire to become an “honorary” member of a community can make the heaviest obstacles in language learning seem passable.

Several of my students said that learning Norwegian enabled them to experience an alternate universe version of themselves in which their ancestors didn’t immigrate and / or passed down the language rather than replacing it only with English. With my heritage languages I would say that it is very much the same.

 

(3) Once You Learn a Smaller Language, You Actually See Its Influence in Contemporary Popular Culture Everywhere

American folk music has been deeply influenced by Norwegian airs. If you listen to Norwegian party songs like those written by Robin and Bugge or Staysman & Lazz, you’ll notice a clear similarity to American country music. Obviously the influence also happens in the other direction as well (as Americanization is something I’ve noticed in literally every country I’ve ever been in, although it was probably the weakest in Jordan).

Norwegian songs that have become ultra-famous in the greater world, like “Take On Me” and “What Does the Fox Say?” (despite both being songs in English), do have a distinctly Norwegian touch to them.

The city layouts of the Midwestern United States will give you a heavy dosage of “déjà vu” if you been to anywhere in Scandinavia at all.

Product names and idiomatic similarities are also some added bonuses you’ll get to recognize.

 

(4) The Norwegian Language Has Layers, as Do Many Languages Throughout the World.

At its base, Norwegian has Old Norse as its ancestor and primary influence. However, later on, there were other influences that entered the picture. The Denmark-Norway Union changed the language significantly. French and German influence also contributed loads of vocabulary to the language, not also to mention Latinate loanwords that Icelandic does not have. These layers also influenced regional accents. Now there are English loanwords as well and more of them entering the language by the year.

Do keep in mind that, with some exceptions, most languages are layered in a similar fashion. To be an adept language learner, be aware of the various influences in your target language and learn to tease them apart and note if you see any patterns as to where you see French loan words / Latinate words / German words etc. It will also show you that a language is a history map, something you can’t unlearn (in the best of ways).

 

(5) The Norwegian-Speaking Community Has Been Firmly Supportive of My Efforts and Those of my Friends

You’re welcome to share your stories to the contrary (and some of my students did have one or two people saying “I’m really impressed, but to be honest, why bother?”), but Norwegian speakers have been nothing but supportive of my journey and those of my friends. This was true even when I was an ABSOLUTE BEGINNER.

They provided honest and meaningful constructive criticism and made it very clear that they were happy with my efforts and curious to hear why I fell in love with this musical language. At no point did I feel that they were deliberately intending to show off their English skills at the expense of learners (as many people, regardless of native language, can tend to do).

Norway sadly has a reputation for legendarily unfriendly in some circles, but with the Norwegian language you’ll experience this culture in a way that you can deeply connect with it. And believe me, Scandinavians are not unfriendly—they’re just different from what you may be used to in regards to social norms.

 

NOTE: When I refer to “the Norwegian Language” in this piece, I am strictly referring to Norsk Bokmål. I have not studied Nynorsk yet but my reading skills in it are good.

Have YOU had any experiences learning Norwegian? How will YOU celebrate May 17th? Let us know!

The Darker Sides of Hyperglotism

2018 has had its share of victories for me so far, but sadly it also resulted it a huge series of rude awakenings.

For one, especially after the Polyglot Conference and my growing presence online, I’ve felt my inbox flooded with people asking for learning advice and resources and many other things. I am very grateful for that, in a sense, but to some degree I feel overwhelmed because the day is not far off when I will get WAY too many messages for me to deal with.

I started this blog and became a teacher because I know that the contemporary world is full of pain (as has, most likely, all of human history to date). Contemporary marketing thrives on insecurity, building up limiting beliefs and convincing people that their dreams are out of reach.

I know how it feels to be confused and without hope, and I hope that my writings have brought at least a little bit of healing to the world.

On the other hand, since this year started, there have been a number of difficult happenings. I woke up on morning to find an entire thread on Reddit devoted to hating me with every imaginable awful thing said about me (they linked to my blog and that’s how I found out about it). Thankfully the moderators got involved (perhaps a bit too late) and doled out warnings and deleted the thread (sort of) but the damage still lingers in my heart, despite some apology messages I got.

Anti-Semitism has also entered as well in ways I don’t want to describe. Suffice it to say that, while being Jewish has largely been a source of advantage and comfort for me nowadays rather than either a social liability / point of discrimination / source of guilt, it has been used against me….especially in private messages from complete strangers who don’t hold back.

Unlike in previous years, I find myself in a permanent spotlight. I can’t live a private life anymore, even if I wanted to. But this is what I wanted for years and it is surprisingly stressful when I got it.

I have to be aware that every interaction I have with anyone ANYWHERE has the potential to be used for me or against me. I have to keep my fluent languages in even better shape.

This ties into another thing: I’ve been focusing a lot more on my fluent languages than I have on ones I’d like to know. Part of me wishes it were otherwise, but I also fear that I am suffering from burnout as well.

Thankfully earlier this year I also became a video game tester as well so that has been something new, exciting and quite fulfilling. But if you’re expecting that a job like that is “play games and get paid”, you’re not exactly right. (A lot of the games can be extremely frustrating and you have to take detailed notes on what does or doesn’t work).

Earlier this month I said I was working on Kiribati and Rotuman, but I gave up on improving Kiribati after the first day (for now, at least). I’ll come back to it another day, perhaps one in which I haven’t suffered from so much “Oceania fatigue” (Rotuma is different given that it will likely come of use in Fiji, however slim the chances, and if it blossoms into something to write about I can’t lose that chance).

I constantly feel as though I need to maintain ALL of my projects PERFECTLY AT ALL TIMES, in a twisted perfectionism that has left me confused. I find myself wondering if the good fortune I’ve had so far is something I even deserve, and doubting my successes is another thing I do with unfortunate consistency.

One day I think I will no longer be vexed by this “new state of things”. But much like adjusting to a new reality, as I had too many times throughout my life (going to an Orthodox Jewish Day school for the first time, entering an inner-city high school from there and then Wesleyan University and then four other countries FOLLOWED BY a confused return to my homeland which didn’t seem as though it was mine anymore) will take a lot of difficulty at the beginning, followed by (what I hope can be) some variety of solace.

The Fijian and Fiji Hindi recordings are almost ready, I just need to compile and upload them!

Do YOU relate to anything that I’ve described here? Go ahead and let us all know!

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5 Things That I Liked About Living in Poland as a Jewish-American (And 5 Things I Didn’t Like So Much)

May 3rd. The Day of the Polish Constitution. Sure, I could write a piece about Verb Conjugation. I could write a piece about the cases in the Polish Language, or even a list of my favorite Let’s Play Channels in Polish (which I’m going to watch as soon as I’m done writing this article.

Poland is a fascinating country and one that used to be the largest in all of Europe (not to mention the fact that it was deemed very powerful in “Civilization V”). The landmarks are memorable and virtually every tourist I’ve encountered who has been there has been changed on a very deep level (and luckily I think even with Holocaust tourism there are new dimensions opening up that are facilitating Polish-Jewish dialogue like never before).

Unlike many tourists, I’ve had the privilege of actually having LIVED in Krakow for one year. It was a fantastic experience and one of the best years of my life. As that experience continues to fade into memory (even though it will always be a part of me), I thought it would be wise of me to make some reflections about what I liked and what I didn’t like so much.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: “Straight-Talking” Can Get Time to Get Used to (As an American)

 

Unlike in many English-speaking countries, the culture in Poland encourages people to be blunt with what they’re feeling. Surprisingly, when I look back at it, I’m somewhat…grateful for this mindset. In the United States, where you usually have to be all smiles even with someone who you have intention of getting along with, you constantly doubt social interaction as a façade. In Poland, I knew that if I was doing a bad job, I would be TOLD so, and that if I was doing a good job, I would also be honestly and straightly told as such.

In the United States, a major error would result in a delicately worded speech. In Poland, people would be visibly angry. Like in Israel (in which much of the same culture exists), it felt painful at first. One of my Polish friends told me that it was the primary reason he disliked American culture (he didn’t dislike it as a whole, just that aspect of having to be “nice” all of the time).

For the first month, it was very much like there was a nagging voice telling me that “I would never fit in”. Not even in a previous year in Israel prepared me for the return of “straight-talking”. And…a lot of Polish people can actually be PROUD of the fact that they do this!

 

Liked: A Lot of People Were Willing to Ask About My Story (And Listen)

 

Poland has a distinction of being what is nowadays a very monolithic society in terms of its ethnic makeup but before the Second World War there were significant minority communities from all of the neighboring countries as well as Ashkenazi Jews (yes, contemporary Jewish communities exist in Poland! I know because I visited them every week! Several times every week, actually!) Almost all Poles have a trace of German / Ukrainian / Lithuanian / Jewish / Belorussian / anything I forgot ancestry somewhere in their family tree (and sometimes more than just a trace).

One result of this is that there is a certain “phantom pain” concerning the communities that were killed off en masse (in the case of Jews and Roma) or forcibly repatriated (in the case of many of the others). A lot of people wanted to hear about my story as an American, as a Jew and how my relationship with the Polish story came to be.

Sometimes I would find out intriguing Jewish stories as well, including childhood friendships their grandparents had before Hitler invaded, or noteworthy acts of resistance as well.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some People Can Ditch Political Correctness Entirely

 

The fact that I heard a number of Islamophobic macroagressions (not a typo in that last word) can’t be ignored. Thankfully they were sparse (very sparse, come to think of it. As in “five times max over the course of a year”). Some of the locals parroted a similar variety of Islamophobia that was motivated in part by “horror stories” from Sweden and Germany, not also to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When I was headed to Sweden for the following year and made the announcement, some people were actually…legitimately worried for my safety.

Dialogue can definitely help with this. And learning the Polish Language is one way with which to meaningfully engage!

 

Liked:  A Lot of Forward-Thinking People Who Are Constructively Critical of Their Milieu and Have a Good Relationship to Their Polish Heritage and History

 

I wasn’t pleased about the Holocaust Bill that passed earlier this year. I understand fully that the Polish Government was dismantled by Nazi Germany and that the Polish state itself did not exist at the time the Holocaust was carried out. I also recognize the acts of resistance as well, wholeheartedly. That said, a full reconciliation will come with a look into the past, including the acts of some Poles who either stood by or may have actively aided the genocide.

I say this as someone to whom Polish culture has changed on a deep level and to whom this country and people mean an awful lot to me and…yes, I owe this country and the fact that I lived there the bulk of my future successes. My relationship with Poland, like my relationship with the other countries in which I have lived, is overwhelmingly positive.

With that also comes a “relationship maturity” in which you will help your country be the most forward-thinking, productive motherland it can be. And I think a lot of my Polish friends have well-developed resistance strategies and constructive criticism that they use to bring their country forward. It is something that I think Americans can really learn from (and, possibly, have been).

It is one think to criticize a country you have no relationship to (and I never do this with a place that I either haven’t visited OR don’t speak the language / haven’t studied the language). It is another thing to reason with your homeland as an adult and bring him or her up via acts of constructive criticism. And that criticism doesn’t take away from the fact that Poland has a lot to admire.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some People Can Be Very Defensive

 

Some outsiders have this image of Poland as a backwards place where everyone is racist and anti-Semitic. Poland is very divided but in all honesty it isn’t worse or better than the United States (which has similar divisions as well). Krakow in many respects is a lot more accepting than New York City is, as are many other Polish cities.

Several of my Polish friends in Israel got subjected to a significant amount of macroagressions (again, no typo), and to some degree I can understand why some can be defensive, especially if they’ve had negative experiences abroad.

Be prepared for some people to be defensive and make sure to listen and ask questions. We have to learn from each other.

 

Liked: If You Express Any Love of Polish Culture, History, Language or the Like, You’ll Instantly Make Friends

 

My Polish isn’t the best (and given my whole Fiji thing I sort of haven’t been working on it actively), but if you want to make friends with Polish people, learn about their culture. You’d be surprised how easy a connection can come with that. Even a handful of words of Polish can have a magic effect on people.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: The Police Can Be “No-Nonsense” To Unbelievable Degrees

 

That one time a friend of mine was holding a beer and took ONE TINY STEP beyond the rope indicating the “bar territory” and into the square. She was fined on the spot.

At least it wasn’t as bad as the story I heard about the German police officers who positioned themselves at a stoplight at 2 AM after a party for the express purpose of fining people who were jaywalking.

Jokes aside, given the history of “being invaded by everyone”, this element is significant unsurprising. Maybe.

 

Liked: Being an American was NEVER a Liability in Any Regard, and Poland and the United States Do Have a Lot in Common and Many of the Same National Strengths (and Faults)

 

In Germany, saying that I was American would subject me to a three-minute rant about the military-industrial complex by my barber. Israel was, to some degree, even worse in that respect. In Poland, Americans get a variety of special treatment, almost (even if you’re not Polish-American). Only once or twice was I told that Americans “have no culture”.  Instead, I would get asked about my roots or otherwise be told about someone’s family members in Chicago (where it is very much possible to buy tickets in Polish in public transport).

We also have shared histories of multiculturalism and our expatriates being everywhere. Our constitutions guaranteed religious freedom (yes, the Polish Constitution of May 3rd which is the reason I’m writing this piece). Jewish culture and the Yiddish Language very deeply influenced both places. As a Jew, I notice that German-Jewish and German-Polish relations have a lot in common (a history of reconciliation and a lot of people who are mutually interested in both cultures, drastic improvements in Germans’ relationship with Jews and with Poles over the course of the past few decades, etc)

“We Love Americans”. That’s what a Polish friend told me. I doubt more needs to be said.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some People Conflated All Jews with Orthodox Judaism

Some people expected my family to look like Hasidim. Thankfully there were also others who understood fully that Jews, like any other people group, have a wide variety of appearances and classes. Others expected me to constantly live under the shadow of deep prohibitions all of the time (to be fair, I was more religious back then). Some had perceived that my religion was primarily a list of things I wasn’t allowed to do, rather than a collection of texts, traditions and cultures (come to think of it, it could have been THIS rather than my time in Sweden and Germany that propelled me to becoming less religious).

I will say this: in Poland religions are respected, and Judaism was no exception in this regard. Fun fact: even Polish Catholics sometimes leave notes at the graves of Hasidic masters (!)

 

Liked: Poland Had a SUPERBLY Encouraging Environment for People Wanting to Learn Polish (and an EXCELLENT Balance Between Polish and English / Other Languages)

 

As an elementary learner of Swedish, I felt pressured to really, REALLY not make mistakes, and that some people would switch to English without a second thought if I hesitated. (This, obviously, changes the more you progress “up the ladder”, and now that I’m fluent in Swedish this is a non-issue). Israel sometimes felt the same way outside of the classroom. In Germany there was a bit of the opposite, in which some people who knew English but not German felt that they were saddled with every imaginable difficulty.

In Poland, in contrast to all of these places, there was literally a PERFECT balance between people wanting to use Polish or English to whatever degree you were comfortable with either. A lot of Poles have relatives in literally every corner of the globe (and Polish and English have the distinction of being the two languages I’ve heard spoken in EVERY country I’ve been to, Spanish and Hebrew would have been on the list but I didn’t hear them in Greenland).

I never felt as though I was “bugging people” with using elementary Polish, and I felt that everything I said was heartily appreciated and I was heavily encouraged to continue. Last summer when I devoted some time to “awakening” my Polish again, I felt very much the same way among Polish speakers here.

I really wish that the rest of the world would be a lot more like Poland in this respect. Linguistic diversity and encouragement in language learning needs to be had. Everywhere.

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Did YOU ever spend three months or more in Poland? How did that go for you? Did you ever try learning the Polish Language at all? How was it? Let us know!