Nov 01, 2017

Embracing Your Heritage

By Lori Draz and Karolina Szenkiel

Welcome to Teen Scene. Each month, our young authors write, in their own voice, stories that will educate and inform fellow students and parents. If you are a teen who would like to write your story, contact The Journal. We’ll help you polish it up, so don’t worry – let’s just get to sharing.

This month’s author is Sea Bright’s Karolina Szenkiel, a 17-year-old senior at Biotech (a.k.a. Biotechnology High School). This month, as families join together to celebrate Thanksgiving, they also celebrate their traditions and the traditions of their nationalities and cultures. Feeling different, speaking a different language, and a having different cultural background could make you feel like an outsider. But as Polish American Karolina Szenkiel learned, being different is something to embrace; it’s what makes you, you. Karolina is proud of her heritage and to be a part of the global fabric of her emerging world. This year, as your family celebrates together, be sure to honor the heritage that is unique to you. Here is Karolina’s story. (By the way, Karolina’s photograph was taken at the ancient Wielczka Salt Mines. It is on the UNESCO’s World Cultural and Natural Heritage List and has been mined since the 13th century. It is a one-of-kind landmark, worth looking into.)

Have you ever thought, “God, this is so embarrassing, I’m going to remember it for the rest of my life”? For me, that embarrassing moment came in kindergarten. I was just about five years old and my stomach was churning as though I had gotten off a rollercoaster. I knew that I felt sick, so I walked slowly and deliberately to tell the teacher. I tugged on the end of her skirt to tell her I felt didn’t feel so good. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “I feel like I’m going to…” I trailed off. My teacher raised one eyebrow, and suddenly, my brain blanked on the word. I tried to motion with my hands to no avail. It was obvious that she had no idea what I was trying to say, so in my best Polish accent, I pronounced the only word I knew for ‘throw up.’ “I think I’m going to…zwymiotować!” I then ruined my favorite teacher’s shoes as she watched in nonplussed bewilderment.

That was the start of the long and rocky history that my culture and I share. The fact that I still remember it today, almost 12 years later, shows what an impact it’s had on me. The next year, in first grade, my friends stared blankly when I told them I going to do my country report on Poland. I realized that none of them had even heard of Poland. One of them even asked, “Isn’t that a state?” Then in fourth grade, when a fellow student learned I spoke two languages, they said in very slow, exaggerated English, “Wait… so…can…you…understand… me?” I was baffled. From that point on, the word “Polish” became an excuse for my weird last name and my mother’s strange accent. Poland became the source of my weirdness, and I suddenly wanted nothing to do with kielbasa on bread as a packed lunch. The other kids thought it smelled weird, so I opted for good ‘ol PB&J instead. I got along with my classmates just fine, but I never felt completely at ease inviting school friends over to my house. I became deeply embarrassed of my Polish nanny and her attempts to speak English to my friends. No one else seemed to like her homemade beet soup as much as I did, either. I honestly thought I’d never feel completely normal among my classmates.

Going to high school made me realize just how wrong I was. My new school was roughly twice the size of my middle school, and although I was anxious to be in a new place, I was excited to meet new people. Soon, I began noticing that a lot of the kids were just like me. I met classmates whose parents came from all different places, like China, France, Germany, India, and Vietnam, and I slowly came to realize that all first generation kids share a certain culture. Even though our families were from all over the world, I found myself laughing at how we shared the common experience of having friends wrinkle their noses at our food or having to answer the phone in another language. I even met two other students who spoke Polish just like me! I started to learn that maybe my culture wasn’t so bad. In fact, I grew to become proud of my Polish heritage.

Nowadays, I smile when someone asks me about my name. Instead of apologizing for its difficult spelling, I simply shrug and tell people it’s Polish. In Spanish class, I enjoy talking about the similarities between the Polish and Spanish language with my teacher. Doing so actually helps me learn more and I’ve developed quite an interest in linguistics as a result. I even dressed in a traditional krakowianka outfit for my school’s multicultural day last year, complete with coral beads and a flower wreath. Today, I see my Polish culture not as a burden, but as a gift from my mom who worked so hard to build a new life from the ground up in the United States. I feel blessed to have the ability to have a conversation with my cousins in Polish, and visiting Poland this summer has been the highlight of my year. I’ve always known that the culture of a little country in Europe has shaped my life in many different ways. It was through a new perspective, however, that I finally came to realize what an amazing gift my culture has been to my life. I honestly wouldn’t trade my experiences for the world and I encourage everyone to learn as much as they can from the ‘different’ people they meet along life’s journey.