Sunday, March 6, 2011
Gorals and Igorots
A few Sundays ago, after attending Mass, I took my family to Downers Delight, a nearby family restaurant known for their breakfast and brunch meals. As we pulled into the parking lot, I immediately noticed the lack of parking and knew we would have to wait long. I briefly thought of driving away to find a less populated place to eat, but my stomach convinced me otherwise.
After waiting approximately twenty minutes, we were finally seated in a cozy corner table that comfortably accommodated my family. We took our time reading the menu and finally placed our order. While waiting for our food, we engaged in our typical conversations the normally surround the table as I looked around the restaurant.
I noticed many families seated at their tables and thought of how nice it was to still see families making time to eat together. Then I noticed the waitress walking towards us with a large tray of food. My stomach became excited, but I knew it wasn’t ours because it was too soon for our food to have been cooked.
The waitress began distributing the dishes to a family of five sitting at the table next to us. When the youngest boy, who looked to be five years old, received his food, he smiled from ear to ear and his eyes lit up like Christmas morning. I smiled as he picked up a piece of bacon and held it in front of his face while licking his lips before biting into it. He caught me looking as I smiled and gave him a big thumbs up. He responded by nodding his head before stuffing the rest of the piece in his mouth.
After that brief moment of amusement, I turned my attention back to my family. Moments later, my right ear caught something that took me attention away from my family again. The father next to me said something in another language to his oldest son, who looked to be ten years old. I wasn’t sure of the language, but it sounded Polish or Russian.
The boy answered back in English. Then the mother joined in and said something to the younger bacon-loving boy in the same language. He too responded in English. I casually turned my head slightly their direction as I continued to eavesdrop on their conversations.
The parents would say something in their language and the kids responded in English. Then, I noticed how the kids threw in some of their parent’s language into their English sentences. I thought the parents must have been first generation immigrants because of their language, but when the mother flagged down the waitress for some syrup and the menu, I was surprised how perfect her English was.
My curiosity grew so much that I slowly turned toward them and politely said, “Excuse me.” The father turned and looked at me in response. Then his wife also turned her head toward me.
“Sorry to disturb you,” I continued. “I couldn’t help but hear you talking to your kids in another language. Is that Polish you’re speaking?”
The husband smiled and responded with an accent, “Yes, do you know Polish?”
I answered, “No, but I’ve worked alongside many Polish people and I’ve heard it often.”
His wife jumped in and said, “It’s actually a unique dialect that’s spoken where we’re from.”
“Oh, where’s that?” I asked.
“We’re from the mountains,” she replied with enthusiasm.
“Really!” I smilingly said. “We’re also from the mountains where we are from.”
I looked at their kids, who were all looking at me, and asked, “Do they understand everything you say to them?”
Before either parent could respond, all three proudly nodded their heads and smiled. The mother went on to tell me that their kids go to Polish classes every week to learn about their culture and practice their Polish dialect. I congratulated the kids and their pride swelled as they smiled and continued listening to my conversation with their parents.
Our conversation revealed more about their culture, and I found it very interesting to learn that they referred to themselves as Gorals, which literally means “highlanders.” Like Igorots, they had their own language, food and cultural ways that differed from the lowlanders of Poland. Also like Igorots, they have an organization that unites the Goral highlanders called “Polish Highlanders Alliance of North America.” After our 10-15 minute conversation, we both returned our attention back to our families. Before they left, we exchanged pleasantries again and said our goodbyes hoping that we would bump into each other again.
After they left, I thought about how great it was for their kids to learn about their culture and to feel proud about it as well. Then I thought about a Polish friend, who except for his last name, knew almost nothing about his culture and didn’t care much about it either. Finally, I thought of how I forgot my own language and couldn’t help but feel envious.
Since then, I have been thinking of the Goral’s ability to understand the importance of preserving their culture while assimilating in America. That was a young family, yet they somehow knew the importance of their culture. The mother had to have been at least second generation because of her perfect English, yet she knew her native dialect and chose to preserve it and her culture by sending her kids to a cultural school once a week.
Two weekends ago, I visited some new Igorot friends in Elgin, Illinois. Kankanaey dialect, Ilocano or Tagalog, she said, “But how’s that possible?” Well if she only knew how strong the pull to become “American” is for new immigrants and their kids, she would understand just how easy it is.
I can’t help but keep thinking about a stark difference I notice between the Goral people and Igorots here in America: Igorots do not have the same motivation to preserve our culture here in America. We have no such classes that the Gorals have, at least not that I am aware of here in Illinois. Also, I “suspect” most Igorots who immigrate to America would rather raise money to help our people become better educated and more modernized than help preserve the Indigenous Knowledge of our heritage. I hope I’m wrong, and if I’m right; I hope this will change.
If any Gorals are reading this, I take my hat off and salute your efforts to keep your culture alive in America. It is truly an inspiration.