Special Reports / Where is Polish multiculturalism?

Where is Polish multiculturalism? [Reportage]

Jakub Krzeski, Konrad Niemira, Matylda Tamborska · 8 January 2013

A Vietnamese man: Mickewicz helped me quit smoking

Thirteen days. That is how long it took me to get to Poland for the first time. I was travelling by train through China, Siberia and Russia. In 1964 the Vietnamese authorities selected the best students from every province and allocated each of them to specific countries and fields of study. The best ones went to Russia, others to smaller socialist countries. Eighteen of us came to Poland. I ended up in Łódź on a Polish language course, then I began studying geodesy at the Warsaw Technical University. I lived in Riviera dorm. I still remember the houses with bullet holes standing in Piękna and Krucza streets. The remnants of war left strong impressions on us.

I obtained a diploma and returned home, but to Hanoi, not to the north. I started living in between two countries. In 1979 I started my PhD studies in Warsaw, then I undertook scientific work in Vietnam. In 1986 I returned to Poland for good, this time with my family. One of my sons suffered from asthma and the Vietnamese climate destroyed his health. He was in his final year of secondary school but weighed only 25 kilograms. Moreover, the economy was in bad shape there as only ten years had passed since the war ended. That is why we decided to leave Vietnam.

I do not go to the centre

During my studies I had deep affection for those Poles who were aware of what was happening in Vietnam: they were aware of the war. Before the transition to a market economy after the fall of communism nobody thought that we blocked any positions, nobody fingered Vietnamese immigrants as the cause of their failure. But as the 1990s wore on we began to be perceived differently.

Government offices? I have never had any problems with them. Nothing has changed, but that is only because I am not trying to acquire the Polish citizenship. I have a residence card and can live here freely. Actually, when Poland entered the European Union and the economic situation here improved, the attitude towards us changed yet again. It is interesting that even those Vietnamese who have the necessary documents are afraid of being questioned by the police. Although the “stop-and-question” controls are infrequent, they are still not very pleasant. People get an aversion to them, so they end up avoiding going to the centre. Why provoke anyone?

Get a post-doctoral degree, work at the Stadium

Now many of us even want to return to Vietnam because of the economic stagnation in Poland. The richer ones send their children to study abroad – in the USA, England or even Australia, where they stay. My sons got their degrees at the Warsaw Technical University, but none of them work in the profession for which they were trained. The older one has a child with a Polish woman and hangs out with other Poles. The younger one sells imported clothing, just as I did some time ago. They will not return to Vietnam, because life there is different, harder. Everything is handled differently.

After I got my post-doctoral degree I started scientific work for Polish companies, but then I returned to selling clothing from a stall at the 10th-Anniversary Stadium, because it paid better. It was easier to work at the Stadium, and our life got easier.

Sienkiewicz wins popularity in Vietnam

Once a year we go to Vietnam to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year* or to visit our family. My mother-in-law lives there. Vietnam is a nice place to spend a holiday, but it would be hard to stay there for good. I am retired and I spend most of my time in Poland with other Vietnamese people. I also have a few Polish friends, some still from my college years. I do not feel cultural differences or barriers. Poland and Vietnam are middle-sized countries without the imperial mentality possessed by Russia or China. People in Poland are easy to live with.

I am an active member of the Vietnamese Association in Poland. We are building a new temple now, because the old one was demolished when the old Stadium was pulled down. And I translate, in fact a lot. I began with “Pan Tadeusz” by Adam Mickiewicz. A very difficult task. Mickewicz had to prepare footnotes with explanations for Poles, so imagine what I had to do in my translation… During this work I quit smoking.

Then I translated some short stories of Sienkiewicz, and recently the novel “Chłopi” by Władysław Reymont. People like them because of dynamic plots. People in Vietnam read my translations because they know that Poland is not a big country, but it has many Noble Prize winners! It is impressive. But the language is difficult, very hard to master. My wife has tried a few times to learn Polish, but it proved impossible. And she has been living here like this for almost thirty years.


A Venezuelan woman: At home I would probably go mad

I came to Poland in 1982. My Polish singing teacher convinced me to do so. In the spring of 1983 I was supposed to begin music studies in London, everything was taken care of. However, she convinced me to come to Cracow, and I wanted to see if I would get to like it.

Such things in a socialist country?

It was a huge change because I had spent the whole of my life in Caracas. When I came here, I was shocked. My idea of socialism fell apart. I went to the market square and saw people lying on the pavement begging for alms.

I come from a family with social traditions and leftish views. I could not believe in what I saw. Such things could have happened in Caracas, but not here, not in a socialist country… I thought that people shared everything with each other.

Here the past has not been erased

One of the first things that startled me in Poland was the darkness – the physical one. On the other hand, I was warmly welcomed by my colleagues… Now I have a sense of nostalgia for these times – people then used to be very creative, very innovative.

In my first year I sang a song at a concert devoted to Gershwin. The entire operetta “Blue Monday” was transcribed by ear by a tireless conductor from a recording. At that time you could not get your hands on the sheet music for love nor money – so he wrote it down.

I came to a wonderful city, where everyone could meet in the same café just as it was done 50 years previously – you cannot do that in Venezuela. People there do not care about the past – only commemorative plaques remain. All the traces of my childhood have been erased, only the primary school and university still exist.

The question of memory, incessant recollections of various things – for some people it is tiresome, for me it was important. How many times Poland disappeared from the map, but still lived in the memory of its people. That is why I love Poland and the Poles. Such memory is extremely valuable, especially if you come from a country which tries to kill it. This is what hurts the most. In Venezuela they try to introduce a new reality which has nothing to do with the historical one.

Is the Pope on the altar or not

When I came here I had no idea how my future would look. Still in Venezuela I got a degree in education; I am a qualified teacher of the hearing impaired. In Poland I also obtained a master of fine arts degree – after four years of studies at the Cracow Music Academy, and then later in Warsaw.

Recently I also finished postgraduate studies in teaching Spanish. I am really happy that I have achieved so much – and that I can do what I love. I have successfully collaborated with some really acclaimed musicians. I noticed how they struggled with the world and decided that if they could live here, then so could I.

Any differences in mentality? I remember that together with a Mexican friend I went to see the Pope when he visited Poland on his pilgrimage. I thought that when he appears on the altar, he would be welcomed by an outburst of joy – euphoria, screaming, etc. – and that is how we would learn he was there. However, Poles were speaking in hushed tones: oh, the Pope… the Pope… That was shocking, I could not even tell if the Pope is on the altar or not!

Citizenship – a New Year’s resolution

When did I decide to stay for good? It was at the end of 1989. I was in my last year of studies, some of my friends had already left and I had to make a decision. I started a family, so it would have been hard to leave then. I do not know whether it was the right decision or not. I do not analyse my life this way.

I have a residence card. I made a New Year’s resolution that – providing that the world does not end tomorrow – I will try to become a Polish citizen, in part for political reasons. I have always thought it is a good idea, but now I am certain. I cannot understand things happening in Venezuela, so getting Polish citizenship is a symbolic act for me – I want to cut myself off from certain issues.

I was there for the last time four years ago, for my mother’s funeral. That will be the last time, the situation there gets worse and worse. Every half an hour another Venezuelan dies because of crime – it is a nightmare. It is a special policy designed to prevent counteraction and making people hole up, frightened, in their homes.

I am happy that my children live in Poland and are safe here. In Venezuela every mother does nothing but worry about their children – I worry about them here as well, but if I were to live there I would surely go mad. Here they have so many opportunities – it is up to them whether they use them or not.


A Ukrainian man: It is always up to the inspector

I have not been to Ukraine in almost a year and a half. I used to go there regularly during my studies. Every two or three months at least. But since I started to work as a sociologist in Poland, I have decided not to leave. In fact, I came here by chance.

I came to Warsaw in 2006 for a 6-month training course. I did not plan to stay here. I noticed, however, a lot of opportunities for academic progress. I managed to start PhD studies in the Graduate School for Social Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences. I have had a few friends who completed similar courses. This school had a very good reputation. And I was not admitted anywhere else, so I chose Warsaw.

Rushing for a numbered ticket

Getting a visa is of the utmost importance. Everything starts at the Polish consulate in Ukraine. You have to bring your application, all supporting documents, justifications. The consulate uses this material to make a decision regarding your visa. To prolong the amount of time I am allowed to stay here legally, I have to visit the Office for Foreigners in Warsaw. All the immigrants hate this place, as no one likes bureaucracy. Four years ago I still had to do the same things and undergo the same procedures over and over again.

Now it is slightly better. Then the queue started to form at five or six in the morning in front of the office building. Some enterprising Poles, in search of beer money, secured early places in the queue and sold them on later. When I wanted to file an application I had to be there at five. The office opened at eight. Everyone then rushed inside to get a numbered ticket. After five or six hours, if everything went right, I could file the documents.

Then an inspector, usually the same lady who receives the documents, asked me to bring some additional papers. These varied enormously. All of them completely different. A list of necessary documents? It theoretically exists. Nevertheless, the inspector always found something else necessary. Sometimes a payment receipt for electricity or gas for the last three months. Why? To decide whether after paying the monthly bills I have enough money to spend this month in Poland. You think you have everything in order, but you can bring any amount of such documents and still you will have to come again. Only once did I manage to get everything done on a single visit.

I do not raise suspicions here

I have been asked a few times: “Can I employ you legally?”. Employers frequently think: “Is it possible? Can I employ a Ukrainian person?”. Here is another problem – I work in a, let’s say, scientific area and not many Ukrainians here have a higher education degree and look for such positions. These are exceptional cases. I have many Ukrainian friends with higher education here – physicians, teachers, lecturers – and I drew on their experiences every time I was looking for a job. I had to explain to the employers how can they can go about employing me.

Poland can definitely become my final country, although it is just true for Warsaw. Not many other Polish cities are immigrant-friendly. Maybe also Wrocław, the Tricity area (Gdansk, Gdynia & Sopot), Poznań. Still, I feel at home in Warsaw, there are many Ukrainians here as well.

Poland is not so “close”

Despite the common border, Poland is a distant country for Ukraine. It may be “close” for Lviv, for the Western Ukraine – where the interchange of people and goods is common. Everything looks worse a little bit to the east. Poland’s presence in the Ukrainian media is also not strong enough for it to be perceived as a “close” country. If you asked people on a Ukrainian street about the name of the Polish President or the Prime Minister, they probably would not know. President Komorowski visited us several times, even recently, but I do not think that many people would remember it.


A Russian man You survive as long as you are young

You see, up to a certain point in life business is the most important thing: you bend everything to it… Then suddenly you have a family, a child and they become your priority. You look for the place where they will feel good and safe.

Why not Russia? Because it has decided to be liberal and have fun, it has abandoned Christian values – it has lost its family and is now dying. Think about it yourself, during the financial crisis at the end of the 1990s the state was acting against its own people, it was just another crime. The state was destroying property, finance, people’s savings. You can survive it as long as you are young, but when you become older… I have already told you, it is about safety.

I came to Poland in 1998. I was selling ice cream for a Russian company, the market leader – we imported 500 tons every year. For six years we spent fifty percent of our time in Poland, and fifty percent in Switzerland. Switzerland is far from reaching the kind of peace Poland has. For Russians Poland is a closer country. It is hard to accept living in Switzerland or other European countries. If you cannot accept liberal values, like drugs, being gay or lesbian, you will find that life in Switzerland is unbearable. It is a place when you earn a franc during the day and spend it during the night. It is all about fun, they have a different attitude to life.

Very nationalistic, very political business

Poland is a good place for family, for business not so much. For me the family was most important and I like it here. Others prioritized business and travelled further – one to Israel, another to India, yet another to France, where they could fulfil themselves. Coming from Russia to Poland to start a business is a ridiculous idea. Business is very nationalistic and political here. I agree with this attitude, because it should be beneficial for Poland. I was lucky, I had capital.

Now I have a residence card. Citizenship? Maybe. If they offer and give to me, that will be great – I will love it. In Poland I feel… pretty fine. Of course the Polish police are no help, roads are atrocious, and people wish bad to others. Every country has its vices, and Poland is no exception.

Both Catholic and Orthodox

I am a member of the Orthodox Church. But for me it does not really matter, I do not flaunt my beliefs, I do not emphasize them. There is only one God. I celebrate the Catholic holidays, because Catholics invite me, and the Orthodox ones, because I want to pray in an Orthodox church. It is not a problem for me.

Ma parents live in the same building on a floor below mine. I brought everyone here: my father, mother and sister. However, my sister had some problems with conducting her business and returned to Moscow. I organized everything for her: a residence card, a job, money and a flat, but she still decided to leave – she lives and fulfils herself in Moscow. But she comes here to visit every two or three months.

It is enough to know how to count to six

Anybody besides my family? We play backgammon, so other people who like it join us. We do not have similar characters or anything else. It is enough to know how to count to six and that is it. We are connected by the club, it has nothing to do with our natures or characters. And what about friends? Of course I would like to meet them more often, I miss them. They stayed in Moscow, one went to London, another one to Glasgow. I can call or e-mail them. And finding somebody to meet for an hour in a week – that is not a problem. We can meet, talk, drink a tea or beer and that is enough for me.


* Vietnamese New Year (Tết Nguyên Đan) falls at the end of January or the beginning of February (depending on the Metonic cycle). The celebrations last for three days.