Moving Back to a Culture I Left

Magda Baranowska, a student of the William and Mary Program, explores the difficulties of moving between cultures and how she is learning to embrace them all. 

I am Polish-American and the first generation of my family to grow up in the US. I was born and raised on the East Coast, and always felt myself an odd cultural hybrid, glued together only by a hyphen. I don’t quite belong to the land of my birth or the land of my parents. I speak with an American accent, which is increasingly creeping into my voice when I speak Polish. I am trying to change this.

I grew up not playing sports, instead devoting my time to theatre, schoolwork, subjects in the humanities. I was gangly and awkward, and when I finally grew into my body, was not beautiful by American standards. I was easily confused by things like the SATs and Common App, having to fill out these forms myself because they confused my parents more. My exam scores weren’t awful and I sat on a pile of good AP scores (which didn’t really mean much as everyone had these qualifications too), so I applied to the best schools and realized that I didn’t have enough extracurricular activities on my application, that being valedictorian didn’t really mean anything if I didn’t have a sport to vouch for my ability to be a team player. 

This frustrated me and a long string of rejections brought me to the University of St Andrews, across an ocean, and in an entirely different culture. Here, it felt that I was beautiful, that there were no standards to fill, that my good scores were simply enough. The school system was refreshingly independent, where I learned to research, write, and earn high marks on all of my papers. First year passed in a blur of acceptance and self-discovery. 

But to complicate things further, the reminder of my degree structure loomed over me. The program that I am enrolled in is called the Joint Degree Programme, where students study between the University of St Andrews in Scotland and the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. We study at both universities to experience both school systems, to insert ourselves into each atmosphere, and see if we survive. We are not quite here and not quite there, part of both universities, but not belonging to them for 4 years. It is ironic that I have chosen this program.

This year, I start my second year of university at William and Mary. Or, if you prefer the translation: I start my sophomore year of college in August. 

To distract myself from leaving my friends, my boyfriend, and the only place I’ve managed to feel embraced in, I decided to get an internship in Washington, DC, the capital city of the culture I thought I was leaving for good. 
This gave me the chance to confront all aspects of it. 

I realise now that I look at America from an outsider’s perspective. Despite growing up here, and despite having only lived abroad for 10 months, it feels even more alien than when I left it. I am more conscious of the differences in the health care system, in the school system, in the way that people think. I feel similarly about Poland. 

Initially, I felt claustrophobic coming back to the US. It’s odd to feel that way in such an expansive nation, where the distances between New York and DC should make up for the feeling of suffocation. To me, it has much more to do with peoples’ mindset, more with the feeling that I sound exactly like those around me, more that I’m at the awkward cusp of child and adult in a nation that asks us to crush ourselves with debt and decide upon a future career, without permitting us to step into a bar after 9 PM. 

I find myself gripping desperately to the idea of the UK and Europe. I speak Polish much more often. I soften my voice when I speak English, trying to neutralise myself as much as possible, saying words like “jumper” and “flat.” I carry my passport everywhere I go, even though I will still be in the same country if I drive west for 6 hours. 

I am most surprised by mindset here, probably exacerbated because I am in DC. It feels easy to quickly slip into the idea that the world revolves around the US, and considering the international economy is based on the dollar, I guess in that sense it does. This idea seems to seep out of every person I listen to: people on the metro, university professors, think-tank researchers. It is a given and an underlying assumption, stemming from the massive hold we have over the global system. It is odd to have learned this in theory across an ocean. It is odd to see this in the city I’m temporarily living in. It is odd seeing how it influences the psychology of that nation’s people. 

And though I don’t feel like all those around me, I do recognise that I sound exactly like them. I may not feel American, but the end of the day, I do hold an American citizenship and an American accent. This makes me feel like an outsider but not necessarily sound like one. This is a comfortable thought for me. 

I love the convenience of many things here, the culture of driving, the idea that a university gives me all the materials I need. It is nice knowing a system, its shortcomings and its strengths. It is nice knowing that I can exist within and without this system. It is nice hiding in plain sight. 

Moving back to a culture I left is helping me understand why I felt so displaced in the first place. Having traveled and having met people from all corners of the world, I am able to see that I never really belonged to my high school or my middle school or my elementary school because the single town I was born and raised in didn’t make up my world. Moving back to a culture that never quite embraced me is allowing me to more readily embrace it, picking out the things I like about it and putting them into my pocket. It is allowing me to learn myself a bit better, even if I often disagree with those around me, and even if I constantly feel a tiny bit uncomfortable.