America is full of first generation kids who have to grapple with learning two languages. One at home. One in the outside world. Kamila Kudelska tried to avoid one of these growing up.
When I was nine, my parents sent me to summer camp. It was the last place I wanted to be. It was a horse riding camp, which I honestly didn’t mind too much. But I minded…very much where it was located. Along the Baltic Sea, in Poland.
My parents are Polish. But I was born in NYC. And this was one of their many efforts to get me to practice my Polish. I’d already been forced to have a tutor who would have my brother and I put on plays on Polish history. I had to go to weekend classes to learn the abc’s (say in Polish), that’s the abc’s in Polish. But so far nothing had worked. I had refused to learn. And they were getting desperate. My dad would sit me down and recite historical tidbits about how resilient the Poles are. He would say “We weren’t an official country for 100 years. And we kept our culture!” And the list goes on and on. So they sent me away to a tiny town in Poland where nobody knew English. I would have to speak Polish.
At home my parents speak Polish but I always replied in English. I was embarrassed by their strong accents.
But I wanted to be 100 percent American. I refused to accept their culture or language. In Poland being a girl meant you’re suppose to wear dresses and be polite but being American meant I could play soccer and ice hockey. This meant the world to me.
So when my parents shipped me off to camp , I rebelled. I decided for the entire three weeks I was there I would not speak one word in Polish. It was pretty hard for a nine year old to not talk to anyone but I was determined. The other kids whispered to each other about how the American girl thinks she’s too cool to talk to us. So I dealt with being the weird American who wouldn’t speak.
Then, one day, we took a trip to the seashore. When we finally got there everyone shot ahead. I took a deep breath of the salty air, tightened my legs around the body of my horse, and with a gentle kick we were off galloping towards the shimmering water. — until, plop, and I hit the damp sand. A stabbing pain shot up my back. I was stuck —. My group far away already.
At first I contemplated staying there forever. But as the group’s silhouettes got smaller and smaller,. and I realized I was alone, my stubbornness evaporated. If I wanted help I would need to speak Polish. I yelled out “pomoc;” “help”, meekly at first and then louder and louder. Pomoc, POMOC until I heard thundering hoofs approaching . The entire group came back. The counselor dismounted and asked whether I was ok. “Jestem dobrze,” I’m good, I said. I was relieved. It felt like I’d been holding my breath but I was finally able to breath.
When I came back to New York, I didn’t speak Polish right away. But a couple months later for a school’s bake sale I asked my mom if we could make farworki’s, a polish sweet, crisp pastry. My mom beamed – we spent the entire evening rolling dough into twisted ribbons as she taught me the Polish words for what we were doing.
OUTRO: Kamila Kudelska now doesn’t only enjoy speaking Polish but French as well.