Being Polish In Post-Brexit England
Exploring the evolution of self and cultural identity after moving to a different country.
I don’t come into contact with many Polish people, despite being an immigrant myself. This has always bothered me, as other than with my family, I haven’t been able to speak openly about my experiences as a Polish person living in the UK with someone who could relate. Although I very much enjoy introducing the people around me to my culture, it can be a little alienating. So I’ve decided to share it on here.
I moved to the UK when I was around six years old, mainly to join my mum who had lived there for several years prior. My grandparents had travelled with me, sacrificing their retirement and a steady life back home. In turn, I placed a lot of guilt on myself in regards to ‘how British’ or ‘how Polish’ I seemed, especially in front of my grandparents.
I didn’t want to let my family down by involving myself too much in British culture, as ridiculous as that seems. Jokingly, they’d shame me for putting milk in my tea or eating too much British food, or what my family call ‘fatty foods’ (It’s almost as if I can already see the outraged comments from the middle aged British men).
I joined primary school when I was six, and didn’t speak a word of English. It was very evident the school didn’t know what to do with me, often punishing me for not following instructions I simply didn’t understand.
However, I didn’t start feeling truly alienated until a year after. I had joined a new school and for some reason my brain became very aware of my differences to the other children. Naturally, the children were curious and would often ask me to “say something in Polish!”. I couldn’t help but feel offended and embarrassed by their requests. I didn’t want them to see me as different.
From then on, to my future self’s disappointment, I made every effort to blend in to my new environment. The kids in my school liked to point out I sounded posh (a great crime in the North of England), so I recalled making an attempt at sounding more Northern when I spoke to my peers, which must’ve sounded very tragic.
With my family I was very proud to be Polish, although that could be the notorious nationalism associated with Poles. You will often find us in your local YouTube comment section, pointing out anything to do with Poland in the video. There is currently not a lot be proud of; such as our government’s ignorance towards climate change, their bigotry, and the public’s decision to keep PIS (our Conservatives with a very fitting name) in charge.
There’s a lot I’m sure British people aren’t aware of when it comes to coming from an immigrant background. Situations such as translating everything to your clueless grandad at the doctors, or making sure your grandparents aren’t getting scammed by reading their bank statements out loud to them in Polish. Thankfully, my mum speaks very good English, so parent’s evening wasn’t much of an issue.
Speaking with my mum, who moved here in her twenties and had to adjust to adult life in the UK, I learned about her experiences with alienation. It was much more challenging for her to learn the language, having completed all of her education back in Poland, so it was something completely new to her.
To make a living, she had to take on jobs with horrible conditions and illegal working hours. But Polish people don’t complain much, so it’s difficult to gauge how my mum really felt about moving here. She’s mentioned stories of racist managers, using her newly emigrated status against her, verbally abusing her to work faster.
Fifteen years later, there are still instances where she gets underestimated by people noticing her accent and patronising her. She often asks me to speak when ordering food, since she’s afraid they won’t understand her or she’ll pronounce something wrong. But she would never victimise herself or complain.
As I’ve aged and integrated more into British society, I have come to accept and appreciate my different background. There is nothing more gratifying than connecting with other people of immigrant backgrounds about how weird British culture can be.
Being bilingual is a blessing. I wish I had always appreciated it. It will be easier learning more languages in the future, alongside the bonus of being able to talk about people in front of them, without them suspecting a thing.
I’ve noticed that first generation Polish immigrants tend to either reject Polish culture and pretend they were never Polish, or have no interest in engaging with British culture. The latter is a perfect example of my grandad. He never made a single attempt at learning English. Whenever an English person would speak to him, he would answer back in Polish and laugh at their confusion.
Brexit. I didn’t think I’d personally notice much change after the vote. To most people, I must come across as British, being white with no accent.
On Election Day, I headed over to my nearest polling station to make sure I had a leg to stand on when debating political issues. At least I tried to. I was turned away by a Boomer who told me I wasn’t allowed to vote as I, “put my nationality as Polish while registering”. I’ve lived here for 3/4 of my life, and still I am not allowed to vote for my future.
Later, I saw stories of other immigrants (mostly students) who were also turned away for, ‘not residing in Britain for at least fifteen years’. It’s disheartening, for sure. Boomers will leave the world in flames, and still believe they did the right thing.
Post-Brexit. Even though I feel more animosity towards the British public, I can’t help but feel hope in the younger generations. Polish people are upgrading from laborious jobs to higher managerial positions. We are infiltrating the societal ladder quicker than ever before, so I think it’s a bit too late for ‘Brexit’ in a country with one of the world’s biggest multicultural epicentres. Whether they like it or not, we’re here to stay.