The Twenty Word Vocabulary

Joseph A. Kotarba

As a third-generation Polish American, I have only tenuous ties to Polish culture. I grew up in a post-World War II family and community where my generation was expected to function and prosper as Americans. At St. Turibius School in Chicago, the good Felician Sisters, although themselves Polish, emphasized science and math rather than instruction in the Polish language. The baby boomers raised in places like Chicago's southwest side comprise the segment of Polonia that mastered the infamous "twenty word vocabulary." It consisted of food products, like those dynamite pierogis Grandma made, body parts (to understand where Grandma was spanking us for being bad), and expletives (to understand what Grandma was saying while she was spanking us).

When I got the opportunity to travel to Poland with my wife, Polly, in October 1992, I did not intentionally go to discover my roots. Poland was just another foreign country, one where Catholics still do strange things like go to Mass every Sunday.

I traveled to Poland during my sabbatical leave from the University of Houston. I was invited to lecture at the University of Wroclaw by the faculties of the Institutes of Sociology and Psychology. Leszek Koczanowicz, whom I met while he was a visiting professor at Rice University in Spring 1992, served as our host. In my lectures I presented research on the postmodernization of rock music and on the social aspects of HIV/AIDS risk among homeless adolescents.

I also got an opportunity to conduct some sociological research in Poland. Professor Elzbieta Malkiewicz arranged interviews for me with two groups of teenagers. One group was a third year class at the elite high school, and it consisted of very bright, middle class kids. The other consisted of 18 working class kids who met after school at the Institute for Socio-therapy. The Institute helps these kids cope with mild emotional problems, typically related to the stress of living away from home in order to attend high school in Wroclaw. I found that both groups had access to television sets and VCRs, and the introduction of privatized television broadcasting and the widespread availability of European MTV provided access to a nearly complete range of western rock music styles. The economically and culturally privileged students generally preferred "college" and "alternative" rock groups such as R.E.M. and U2, whereas the working class kids preferred heavy metal. All of the kids indicated interest in rap music. They interpret it as a political voice for the “oppressed” in America. E.g., several people said that performances such as Ice T's "Cop Killer" predict a race war in America. Rap may be replacing heavy metal and hard core rock as the primary medium of dissent among Polish youth. Kazik, the most famous of Polish rock stars, has recorded numerous rap songs that, among others, criticize the inability of the Walesa government to live up to its campaign promises.

My talks with the kids made me realize who I am: an American sociologist in desperate need of a translator to supplement his twenty word vocabulary.

My brief research into the delivery of health care to persons with AIDS in Wroclaw introduced me to a world both foreign and familiar. Professor Malkiewicz arranged for site visits to two local AIDS care facilities. The first was established in a building that formerly housed a psychiatric hospital. The second was in the countryside about sixty kilometers away from Wroclaw. The first provided both inpatient and outpatient care, whereas the second provided residential care to intravenous drug users who were HIV positive. Although the quality of medical care at both facilities was not as high as in the United States, I was struck by the warmth and friendliness that permeated interaction between staff members and patients at both facilities.

A hands-on, loving style of caring was also reflected in the interaction between staff members and children at a day care facility we toured. Polly, who teaches pre-school at St. Thomas More School in Houston, was struck by the abundance of hugging and the feeling of comfort and security all the kids displayed. Perhaps Polish Catholicism had something to do with that. Can hugging be an ethnic trait that transcends citizenship? My Grandmas and I certainly did not share much of a language, but we surely shared a lot of hugs.

During our visit, I encountered numerous little displays of Polish culture: crucifixes over doorways, even in the homes of allegedly Marxian academics; a strongly stated disdain for the Church among academics, paradoxically coupled with a timorous self-definition of "agnostic" just in case those good Sisters were right; and hospitality I have rarely seen since Chicago where, if you visit a Polish family, you have to sit down and have something to eat, usually something on the order of a dozen or so pierogis.

Another archetype of Polishness I discovered was the simple little mushroom. While we were driving out to the rural AIDS Care facility, we stopped to see a rural museum. Muzeum Wsi Opolskiej is one of several ancient farm villages the government is rebuilding to show what rural life was like two, three and even four centuries ago. While we were touring the main residence where the patriarch of the village lived, I noticed four little cloth pouches hanging from strings above the huge fireplace. The pouches were nondescript, and no one else in our party noticed them, but I found myself asking the guide what they were. He told us that they were mushrooms hung up to dry. Nirvana! I excitedly told everyone that, at that very moment, there were mushrooms hanging to dry in at least one attic in Chicago, that belonging to Walter Kotarba Sr. I also spoke about those cold, autumn mornings my dad would bundle up the kids and take us out to the forest preserves surrounding Chicago to look for mushrooms. We rarely found any, but I remember hearing, over hot chocolate at home, the intriguing stories of how mystically important mushrooms and other denizens of the forest were to the Polish people.

The mushrooms are one of those little parts of growing up Polish American that we forget most quickly and easily as we strive to become more like the Smiths and Joneses of the world. Yet, I was reminded of just how significant little things like this are to one’s ethnic identity when our hosts' faces lit up and they responded by asking me, "Poles in America hunt for mushrooms, too?" At that point in our visit to Poland, I knew I shared something ineffable with our new friends, something that transcended the limitations of my twenty word vocabulary.

Joseph A. Kotarba is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Houston.


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