I am half Indian and half Polish-American. I can’t even begin to count the number of times someone has come up to me and started speaking Spanish or Portuguese.
When I was young I used to love the idea that I had two cultures to draw upon. I can vividly remember one holiday spent at my Aunt’s house in New Jersey. I must have been six or seven years old, and I sat on the dhurrie rug in the living room completely fascinated as my uncle and second cousins started singing in Hindi. I couldn’t understand a single word of what they were singing, but the slight strangeness of it all kept me with wide eyes and body at full alert. They broke off laughing, and white teeth glittered in brown faces. I wished desperately that I hadn’t run away screaming with my hands over my ears when my mom had attempted to speak to me in Hindi a few years earlier.
A few months later I was spending the weekend at my grandparent’s house in Fox Chase. They owned a large, sprawling white house with room after room full of old furniture, dolls, and faded pictures with curling edges. The land surrounding the house was vast. There was a forest with a stream that curled through, deep enough to fall into and soak your Saturday outfit. A large tree at the edge of the lawn, just before the woods took over, had been retrofitted into a pirate ship tree house. We spent hours here, clashing swords, foraging for supplies, and nursing imaginary wounds with toilet paper bandages. My Grandmom called for a break to the war by offering up lunch. My brother, cousin and I ran up the hill to the house eagerly, since the provisions had run out since morning.
“Why don’t you two go over to the barn and tell Ziggy and the others that lunch is ready,” my Grandmom said to my cousin and me. There were several Polish men who were working on some machinery housed in the old barn catty-corner to the house. They scared me slightly, with their lined and worn faces, missing teeth, and complete lack of English. I was sure that when they broke out in bursts and dribbles of Polish as I walked by, they were talking about me.
“Fiiiinnne,” I whined. My cousin Steve and I whirled around, ready to run over and deliver the news.
“Wait,” Grandmom commanded. “Tell them this: Jak przygotować się do powiedzenia na lunch.”
Uh, come again??? I’m sure our little jaws must have dropped open. We stood there and recited the strange syllables several times until she deemed we had it half-way correct. Running the few hundred yards to the barn, I could feel my heart pounding. This was a test of my Polishness– I just knew it– and I couldn’t bear the thought of failing. We shyly approached the group of men, and stopped in front of Ziggy. I recognized him from spending time at my father’s machine shop, and he always had a mustached smile on his gaunt, thin face for me. Cousin Steve hung back, so I took a deep breath and flung out the Polish words like missiles, expelling them from my mouth as fast as I could. The workers started laughing uproariously, and I somehow knew that I hadn’t managed to sound quite as fluent as I’d hoped.
Ziggy laughed, heh heh heh, and recited something back to me. I repeated the words dutifully, and he laughed again. We ran back to the house and delivered the unknown message to Grandmom. She smiled and thanked us, but wouldn’t tell us what it meant. I never did find out what they told her. I still can’t say anything in Polish worth a damn. Or Hindi, for that matter. I suppose that’s my American heritage rearing its head.