Displaced Persons

File:1289 Podwórko. Ulica Miernicza. Foto Barbara Maliszewska.jpg
[image source]

Today is more personal — and tangential.

Below is a little piece I wrote 25 years ago, a few years after my arrival in the US. I was reminded of it yesterday while reading an article in the NYT Magazine, An American in a Strange Land, by Jim Yardley who came back to the U.S. after years of work-related absence and realized he did not recognize his country. The article is direct and piercing. Also, depressing. Its alternative title could have been “Inching Toward Dystopia.” Or maybe “lurching” instead of “inching” toward a new, Hunger Games-like reality, soon to come to a suburb near you.

Reading the (much worth reading) comments there, I came upon the term “displaced person” applied to Yardley. It has much significance for me, for many reasons, some of them more clear than others.

Apart from that, and maybe even more so, the thread that tangentially connected in my mind the NYT piece and my little vignette is the recognition of the dark alienation that’s enveloping America, with the intensifying, though not well (if at all) articulated, sense of displacement that grows within and among its citizens who no longer recognize their country as their home, nor feel as though they belong in it.

I remember this mood — stemming from seemingly very different conditions — all too well as we escaped Communist Poland when it was just the darkest (as I thought for a long time), shortly before the fall of the Iron Curtain. (The new, capitalist Poland is not necessarily better, from what I see and hear, and in some respects it is worse.)

But even then and there, as hopeless as life appeared, there was a sense of security that’s rapidly eroded, if not completely gone, in today’s America. We were poor and our lives were restricted, severely so in many respects, but we did not suffer the egregious and unforgivable social ills associated with rapacious capitalism: homelessness; unemployment; poor education; obscene inequality; the gnawing and debilitating insecurity that comes from the lack of social supports and human rights like universal health care; and the inevitably crumbling or already nonexistent, in an inhumanely competitive society, human bonds.

This eroding or already eroded sense of security, and the fear it engenders, combined with a growing recognition that the dream of a better life is unattainable for most while a few enjoy unfathomable wealth, and freedom and safety that come with it, create both intense anger and sense of betrayal, and, with time, alienation and hopelessness when the brewing anger finds no outlet.

These feelings then feed the sense of outer and inner displacement that appears to be one of the major forces behind Trumpism, whose motto promises to bring us back home by making it great and welcoming again, as it was supposedly during our early days. Trumpian America’s future greatness is an assurance of homecoming and belonging once again, as one had (if one did) in childhood, complete with a bizarre and cynical pledge that The Leader / Father will make all our dreams come true once we’re there. When we let him, as we should. The unquestioning hope with which his followers cling to this childish promise shows their level of desperation and hints at the extent of their sense of displacement clamoring for a resolution.

Displacement in its many forms appears to be the condition of much of the world today, where masses of people are driven out of their homes and countries, and turned into homeless, and unwelcome anywhere, wanderers against their wishes and will. Refugees flee their homeland to survive; but their flight, as unspeakably harrowing as it is, is accompanied by hope for a better, safer life elsewhere.

When one has nowhere to flee — because, among other things, one was brought up in a (not entirely unjustified) belief that his or her country is the best in the world, THE place where others flee to — yet one no longer feels at home here, hopelessness sets in, and with it, a feeling of alienation, of not belonging, of displacement. It is unbearable and it requires a resolution — thus, in part at least, Trumpism today.

There are possibly positive elements to (the sense of) displacement and feelings it engenders, something my future post will explore. For now, here is, tangentially, my sudden moment of old truth.


The Displaced Person  

It happened in Assertiveness Training. It is ironic that I, of all people, happened to be a co-leader in AT in a psychiatric ward; I could use the group for my own learning purposes. And I did. One of the patients talked about his unhappy childhood, and when describing his strict, domineering father, he used the term:  “displaced person.”

At first I thought I hadn’t heard correctly. What person?  Displaced? What does that mean? Several people rushed in with the answer, “Somebody from a foreign country, a stranger.”

I was shaken. I could hardly wait until the end of the group, and I didn’t remember much of what happened in it after the incident. Displaced. Just like me. Dis-placed. Like disowned. Disabled. Disadvantaged. Dissociated from her past. Disconnected from others. All of a sudden nobody, an alien. Someone out of context. Somebody whose experiences are so strange that they couldn’t even be translated.

How can I talk to others about my past and be understood? How can I describe my childhood to anybody without mentioning podwórko? There is really no word in English to which translate podwórko. The closest one would be “playground,” but it isn’t the same. My podwórko is a dirty space between old houses with a broken swing, a bunch of kids hanging around it; an old coal shed with a loose, shrieking door; old women looking out the windows and chatting about their neighbors; and the overwhelming slowness and feeling that time doesn’t exist there.

If I spoke with my friends from Poland, we would understand each other immediately. We all have them in our memory – our podwórka. They are part of us. Our memory, experiences it contains, is a thread connecting us and giving us a sense of belonging, of togetherness. When one becomes displaced, one has to give up that collective part of herself. And then one loses it. I could try to keep it inside like a precious souvenir and treasure it hoping to pass it someday to somebody else – maybe to my children. Maybe to a stranger who will have enough patience to listen.

A couple of days ago I wanted to tell my son about a cat I had when I was very young. So I started, “When I was a little older than you are now, back in Poland…” And then I realized that he doesn’t know what Poland means. It is just a name to him. He is still too young to even understand a concept of a country, but when he grows older how can I explain to him what it was like to live there? Will he be interested at all? Maybe it will become a distant, exotic place in his mind, an ancient “old country,” a country which language he once learned but decided to forget it, since it was useless.

What values and traditions do I want to pass on to my son – American or Polish? Since I don’t know too much about it yet, I won’t be able to teach him America – he will learn it from others. And because this is his place, the only one he knows, he will become one of “them,” the strangers. (I still make this distinction: us and them.)  Has anybody ever inquired about the loneliness of immigrant mothers?

My adjusting to this still foreign country could be divided in three stages so far.

The first one was related to a tremendous culture shock – everything was so different that not being able to understand, I despised it. I hated everything: food lacking taste and full of preservatives; huge, ugly cars; commercials on TV and in magazines; being called by my first name; the striking omnipresent urge to impress everybody around with one’s possessions and status. My first impression of America was depressing: it seemed to be a country being destroyed by mighty commercialism, and deeply split along the lines of gender, race and class. A place populated by salesmen, where everybody was in the never ending process of buying or selling something with the highest profit, hardly appeared friendly or hospitable. Those temporarily not involved in the selling circuit were busy trying to get in touch with their inner victim.

My perception of America has grown milder with time. I entered the second stage, when I was able to accept the differences. I no longer felt offended when people asked if Poland was in Africa, and told me that our president, Gorbachov, was a really nice guy. (He really was — a nice guy, though not Polish.) I learned to ignore Polish jokes, for my own sake. I even convinced myself that cottage cheese is edible and Fannie Mays taste like real chocolate. I’m still working on bread, milk and strawberries.

I started to see that under superficial friendliness there was a real interest and concern, and often surprising tolerance, even care. And I noticed that I was becoming less critical and cautious, and more concerned about creating my own place in the new environment.

This has led me to the third stage, in which I’m now: insecure and blunt, hopeful and full of doubts at the same time, struggling with forming my new identity. I’m still very critical – I’ve always been; often bewildered and embarrassed, unable to express my ideas and feelings, trying to master the new mysterious language and even more complicated codes of social behavior. I’m still displaced. I have the feeling that I will always be.



38 thoughts on “Displaced Persons

      • This part: ” Has anybody ever inquired about the loneliness of immigrant mothers?”
        My mother eventually committed suicide because of her depression from the relocating, even though she was only about 25 at the time of the move. Some people cannot adapt to a new place. If only those who receive refugees made the effort to understand that. As children we didn’t have any problem at all adapting to a new, open and wild country, even when there were hungry days.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I am so very sorry, Sha’Tara.

        I hope to write some day about the trauma of displacement caused by immigration — because this is what it is.

        A friend, doctor who has been working with refugees all over the world for decades, told me about conditions in refugee camps. They are hideous and traumatic of themselves. But the psychological pain of forced homelessness — and economic migration is not very much different — is worse. Mental health problems of refugees and immigrants everywhere are woefully under-recognized and generally un-helped.

        My friend told me of parents, especially older ones, killing themselves in the camps. They have fulfilled their mission, they thought — of securing a safer life for their children — but couldn’t cope with the pain themselves.

        Traumas like these leave their mark on generations to come, whether we realize or not. Maybe especially when not.

        There are reasons for, for example, documented spiking rates of psychosis among second-generation of African immigrants to Europe. Not the immigrants themselves, but their children.

        It is heartbreaking, really. We must make a better world.


      • Compassion and care, I think. I have no others, Sha’Tara.

        That is, I could come up with a long list, but it would boil down to just those two — or is it just one? — solutions.


      • Of course there are more, likely in the millions. I was being… “funny” as in, well, funny! There are always stories surfacing of wonderful, amazing self-sacrificing individuals all over the world. They seem few, but as I learned in catechism, there are those who are the yeast in the dough. On that note, I’m going to reblog Polymath’s story about her sister – just waiting for another topic to die down so it doesn’t get lost in the traffic. What a story! You must have read it?

        Liked by 1 person

      • No, not yet — thanks for letting me know!

        I’m swamped and away from the webz for most of the time these days, but will check it out ASAP.

        Yes, yeast in the dough — the good people everywhere. Makes sense.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The problem with America is that it is a refugee camp, never was a country. A country has a name. An alien government located in the tiny country of Washington, District of Columbia, sought to impose a “melting pot” kind of society over rag-tag groups of diverse refugees from all over the planet. To make room for these refugees who would become the supporting slaves of the Hegemon, the slaves were armed and sent to decimate the original inhabitants to take their lands and homes. And so it was done throughout the nameless land. The refugees ganged up in small states but were never free, being kept firmly under the rule of the Hegemon. There was a war of independence by some states but the Hegemon won (just as in The Hunger Games). Today these groups are waking up to several factors: that the Washington Hegemon was always an alien government and their real enemy. They are no longer seeing a cohesive united whole as the propaganda wears thin, and thinner, and the crumbs from the rich man’s table in Wall Street-Washington are getting scarcer and so on. It’s the old story of empire building and collapsing. Will there be a coup, a successful revolt, against the aliens in Washington and will a real nation arise from the ashes of the old empire? I guess it all depends on how deep the Washington corruption and filth is discovered to run, how offensive to the denizens of “America” their economic, environmental and security-state imposed pillaging becomes and when too much is finally declared to be enough.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. Pingback: Culture Shock | Nan's Notebook

    • Thank you, Nan — for the reblog as well.

      Now that I reread it, I see that not much has changed, within or without. If anything, the without part — the state of America — has gotten worse, which is why Trumpism “works” for so many and why Hillary’s assurances that “we’ve always been great” fall on deaf — or rather knowing better — ears.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Great personal piece. Touched a part of me, I was displaced in my own country many times. Going through a divorce (my parents obviously) when I was 12 or so, being in an owner operator trucking family as a kid, moving all over the damn place. I would get to be in a place long enough to make a few friends and start to feeling normal again when I’d get yanked up and moved somewhere else. So a lot of this tripped a breaker in my neuron bank.

    While our displacements were different, they do evoke many of the same sentiments.

    Oh, Nan sent me. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, shell.

      I am sorry to hear about your childhood.

      You bring up another aspect here that’s so often minimized, especially in the American society which routinely uproots people, and that’s the negative impact of moving on children’s mental health.

      There were recent studies showing just that, to much discomfort of many.

      We so blithely dismissive of our children’s needs, justifying what we do to them by our “Oh, children are resilient” mantras.

      Children need roots and stability, just like adults do, along with love and care.

      Oh, and thank Nan. 🙂


      • Well it wasn’t all bad. I got to see and do many things that a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to do. I could probably write a book of my adventures in life, I suppose there is a good story in all of us. But I did learn through it all that stability is a very important aspect of life for kids. Because I had lived it. While I have been tempted to move out of Tn to a less redneck populated area several times, I have stayed put for the kids.

        I carried a lot of resentment for a lot of years though for being bounced around, sometimes that resentment creeps on you and smacks you upside the head, but you move on. Or take it out on your guitar.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Those are among the positive aspects of the experience you list, shell — thanks for it.

        Definitely take it out on your guitar and/or other instruments of creative self-expression. Like blogs.


  3. Thank you for posting this. The “first impression” of America is very accurate, though I’m glad to know that the milder perception arose over time. I was born and raised here, and I feel very much like an outsider in the same terms you’ve described.

    “…insecure and blunt, hopeful and full of doubts at the same time, struggling with forming my new identity. I’m still very critical – I’ve always been; often bewildered and embarrassed, unable to express my ideas and feelings…”

    I feel like I could be writing that very paragraph. I’ve always felt like the good parts of America were ones appreciated by a majority, but this election has saddened me. I see that far more people are eager to take the good parts of the country and run them into the ground while expanding the racism, capitalism, inequality, bigotry, and sexism. Although I see so much of this today, I’m happy to come to this post and know that I’m not alone. I know it was about displacement, but what I get out of it is the displacement of the people of this entire country. We are all looking for a comfortable home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, polymath.

      Would you want to know that you inspired me to post this piece? Yes, really. 🙂

      It’s kinda complicated, though maybe not, but it would require more explanations that the time allows me now. Suffice it to say that it was your “Pianist” post. I’d like to be like you when I grow up. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I can only compare your story with my father’s. He came in 1935 from Moldova to the US at the age of 10. He quickly assimilated but I believe there was always a fear in him, despite becoming a staff sergeant in the Second World War, that he had to be the perfect American. The family assimilated so totally, that many did not know we are Romani (Gypsies). I was missing a huge part of my culture, growing up, and my mother, especially, would throw away anything that appeared anti-American. It was hard for her to keep up with me, though, since I was a hippie and outspoken. I guess I mean to comfort you about your son. It is good that he is assimilating, but I believe that as he matures, he will appreciate any of the Polish culture you can share with him.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for sharing your story, poeturja.

      I can sympathize both with you and your mom. I know what she felt and why.

      My sons (yes) are grown now, and as lost in America as proper Americans are. They are figuring out what it means to be a man — surely there has to be more to it than making money, right? But what it is, is not quite clear, as this culture — like, in fairness, many others in the world — does not teach well (if at all).


  5. Having read your story with interest Emma, I would like to tell you mine. It is related with three countries, and I ended up not really belonging “completely” to any of them; however, that has not disturbed me.
    Let me make a long story short: I was born in Indonesia, at that time a Dutch colony. After WWW II, the inevitable decolonization process took place in a very unfriendly way, to put it mildly. I then lived in Holland to finish my secondary studies but I had no desire to remain there. Unable to return to Indonesia, I emigrated to Argentina instead. Here I have many descendants, and it is actually “my country”, although I did not take their nationality (I maintain the Dutch citizenship for practical reasons).
    Now that we are living in this house since we bought it 42 years ago, I look back at my previous 42 years (pure coincidence!) during which I have lived at 30 addresses in 15 cities of the 3 countries mentioned.
    What I wanted to tell you, is that none of the many changes I have mentioned, were really forced upon me, Which leads me to the fortunate conclusion that somehow, it is possible to be a displaced person without having traumatic experiences or feelings. Wish you all the best.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much, koppieop — and for coming here and sharing your story as well.

      Yes, I’d see how this is possible. It depends on people and circumstances (because doesn’t everything everywhere?). Taking on this journey voluntarily, for one, makes a big difference.

      30 addresses in 15 cities in three countries…? My head’s spinning!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: “The Inner Soul of the People” | good marriage central*

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