Do you ever think about how living abroad impacts your sense of identity? And have you tried to find your writing voice in a second language?
In a new Quiet language learner story, Gosia Rokicka shares her experience moving from Poland to London and what it meant for her as a writer. Enjoy her insightful story of change and discovery through and with languages.
I used to read a lot of Amy Tan. I probably read all of her books — there was something incredibly appealing in her stories of an American woman of Chinese origin and her Chinese mother. It made me curious about migration and blended identities, although I was a Polish student with a Polish family and no intention to live outside of Poland… at that time.
To me, Amy Tan has been writing the same story for years. And I don’t say it to undermine her incredible craft. Quite the opposite. With each book, she peels off another layer from an intricate and complex relationship between a mother and a daughter deeply embedded in very different cultures.
Many years have passed since I held any of Tan’s books in my hand and I would be hard pressed to recall plots and characters. But there was one paragraph which hit me hard at the time of reading and has stayed with me forever. Funny enough, I can’t remember which book it was from.
Amy Tan’s character, a woman born in the US to Chinese parents, reflected on her relationship with her mother. She admitted to herself she had never appreciated her mother or understood her wisdom or culture while she was alive. After her mother’s passing, the daughter visited China for the first time and learned from her relatives what kind of person her mother had really been. Growing up, she saw her as a simple, unintelligent and uninteresting woman. Why? Because the mother didn’t speak English too well and the daughter never bothered to learn Chinese.
“Your intelligence is judged based on your linguistic abilities”, concluded the daughter (I’m paraphrasing here.)
And it’s true.
Coming across as eloquent and well-educated has always been high on my list of priorities. In Poland, I worked as a journalist and couldn’t imagine ever earning a living in any other way than by putting words on paper (or rather — on a computer screen.)
But nevertheless, in 2007 I moved to London, England for personal reasons. Would I go if I had known I would lose my identity for years to come? Honestly? Probably not. Lacking a previous experience of living abroad, however, I underestimated how difficult it would be. (By the way, almost every immigrant I spoke to about it agreed. And no, holidays, gap years and Erasmus don’t count as migration. A hint: think thrice before deciding to move countries!)
I was fooled by the fact that I had already spoken good English. Not journalist- or writer-level good but perfectly fine for an average person. The problem was that I wasn’t “an average person” as far as my relationship with language was concerned. I thought that by moving abroad I was merely losing my job — but in fact, I was losing myself.
When I learned languages in Poland I was doing it with certain goals in mind: to be able to communicate with foreigners, to read books in original, to improve my future chances on the job market, and — last but not least — to pass exams. I never thought one of them would replace my mother tongue as the main means of communication.
But precisely that was what happened with English. I’ve been using it at home with my partner and at work for almost 12 years now. And for the first 5, I had completely lost my writing voice. It slowly started coming back but really, I didn’t fully regain it until last spring.
I couldn’t write in Polish because to retain sanity I had to detach myself from all my past work-related associations — and that included both people and written words. Still, so many years later, I can’t write about it without a pang of anxiety about the life that I left behind.
But somehow I had to make a living in London and I couldn’t do it by the means available to me in my home country. I still can’t. The fact that I do write in English (fiction, poetry, essays…) and have a tiny group of readers who show up and appreciate my writing I owe to the democratic nature of the internet. We have a saying in Polish that “paper is patient”. Well, the online space is even more patient.
Like an accident that never happens in a void but is a series of events, my comeback to writing happened for many intertwining reasons. One of them was the discovery that Joseph Conrad who, contrary to the popular perception wasn’t a Brit but my fellow Pole, actually learned English as an adult! (His real name was Józef Konrad Korzeniowski — can’t blame him for dropping the surname though! — and apparently, he retained a strong Polish accent for the rest of his life.)
Since I first heard about him in school I’ve been absolutely sure he had grown up in England and the fact that we’ve been so proud of his Polish heritage stemmed from our complexes (at the end of the day, everyone thinks Maria Skłodowska-Curie and Fryderyk Chopin were French!) But he was Polish indeed, apparently hadn’t spoken a word of English until he was 21 and English was actually his third language, after Polish and French. As he died around the time BBC Radio came into existence, there are no recordings of his voice but according to some letters, his English pronunciation never matched his exquisite writing skills. Not that I compare myself to Conrad but this can be an inspiration, right?
Inspired or not, however, in the 21st century Britain on the brink of Brexit I will never land a writing or editorial job equal to those I could have got back home, hadn’t I left Poland in 2007. Granted, my English would have been much worse and I almost certainly wouldn’t have been writing stories and poems in this language now so it’s always a trade-off.
Amy Tan’s story is always with me, though. By now I know that I come across as eloquent and intelligent in writing but I don’t like public speaking because from the get-go I am labelled as “a foreigner who can speak good English.” My accent will never be transparent enough. (The most hated conversation starter? “Where are you from?”) I don’t know what I dislike more — when people guess I’m Polish or when they think I’m French. If someone assumes I’m German, I consider it my good accent day. In general, I’m striving for Swedish. Once a guy thought I was Australian but it was a very windy day and his hearing probably wasn’t at its best.
As for other languages, my experience with English taught me I wouldn’t be able to achieve the level I’m happy with without a prolonged, intensive, daily contact with the language. And as I very much doubt I will ever forget that many people judge my intelligence by the way I express myself when speaking, I concentrate my efforts on reading, listening and vocabulary to enjoy the richness of the cultures I like so much.
My relationship with languages varies. Czech is a trusted family member — I watch films, listen to the radio and I’m not so scared of speaking. At the end of the day, it’s a Slavic language like my native Polish.
Russian, which I used to learn in primary school, I almost forgot but it’s on my list of things to get back to. Apart from being beautiful, it’s also quite useful and I love the challenge of a different alphabet.
French is difficult. Judging by the years I’ve spent studying it, I should have been fluent by now but I forgave myself some time ago for being far from it. I made my peace with the fact that I would start speaking only if I moved to a francophone country for a while. Maybe it will happen, maybe not. No need to kick myself about it.
Italian is easier on my ears and speech organs so my odds are better here, although the variety of accents is a killer. (Also, I used to learn Latin which I loved in school, to the extent that I chose it as a selective for my final exam — one of only two people in the whole school who did it. I’ve forgotten almost everything by now but it comes back now and then when I’m learning Italian.)
And I keep reminding myself one thing: I don’t need these languages for survival or even to be able to make a living. They are meant to enrich my life, provide an exercise for my brain and bring me pleasure. I’m certainly not going to move to any of these countries to try to rebuild my identity as a writer there. So… no pressure!
Storyteller, word catcher, curious observer, animal lover, plant enthusiast, master of tsundoku, Jane of All Trades. Her writing can be found on Medium and Narrative + on Twitter and Instagram (handle: @gosiawrites.)