He remembers staring out the window thinking he was seeing icebergs floating in the ocean. Thirty-Five thousand feet below, Adam was simply seeing the whitecaps from gigantic waves in the Atlantic. He and his family were flying from Katowice, Poland to Chicago, Illinois. Adam was seven years old.
The country they were leaving and the country they were headed to were completely different. In 1983, Poland was facing severe political and economic strain. Adam’s uncle was a member of Solidarność – Solidarity – which was originally created by Lech Wałęsa as a labor union, but grew into an anti-communist social movement boasting nearly 10 million members, credited with greatly contributing to the fall of communism in Poland.
Solidarity was non-violent, but the tensions between the social group and the government, caused by a variety of strikes and protests, occasionally led to violent riots. In 1981, Poland’s communist government instituted martial law in an attempt to destroy Solidarity. Adam’s uncle and his family were deported, given a one-way ticket to Iowa.
Adam remembers walking home from school and understanding that if he saw a group of people in a line at a store somewhere, he’d better get in it. Why? Because the people were lining up for a reason. When he wouldn’t come home on time, his parents knew to go look for him. They’d find him in line and buy whatever was on sale that day. Tires, maybe. They’d buy the tires, whether they had a car or not, understanding that they might just be able to use them to barter later. They needed currency that mattered.
Because of martial law the government was regulating the prices of everything, and due to poor harvests in the early 1980s, the cost of food stocks like dairy (+50%), meat (+70%), sugar (+100%), and vegetables (+30%) rose drastically. Adam doesn’t fully remember this, but he was told they raised rabbits on their balcony, using them for food when needed. His uncle kept chickens for the same purpose.
A few years prior, Adam’s father had the opportunity to work in the U.S. as a visiting professor teaching physics. Finally, in 1983, after martial law had been enacted in Poland and the political, economic, and social tensions grew, a new opportunity presented itself. This time, a three-year stint teaching physics at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Shortly thereafter, Adam stared out of an airplane window at the ocean far below, unaware that he would never again live in Poland.
The country they were headed to was nothing like Poland. Adam didn’t speak a word of English. However, he was young and his mind was a sponge. For the first few weeks they stayed with a Polish family in Chicago, and while Adam’s dad was applying for green cards for the family, Adam remembers watching Bozo the Clown on WGN. He didn’t understand English, sure, but a loud and colorful clown can be understood no matter the language it speaks.
Soon, they moved to a rental community just south of the U of I campus, surrounded by many other foreign graduate students and visiting professors with their families. Adam started second grade in the ESL (English as a Second Language) school soon after that. Within six months, Adam was fluent in English. In fact, Adam remembers being called down to the principal’s office after he’d been there about six months. There was another little boy who’d just moved to Illinois from Poland and had locked himself in the bathroom, completely overwhelmed by his new surroundings where no one seemed to understand what he was trying to say. Adam became a translator.
After 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, Adam’s family would fly back to Poland every year to visit their relatives. Getting there wasn’t always easy, however. They would usually have to fly into West Berlin, take a taxi to the train station in East Berlin, then take the train to their former hometown, switching trains again at the border. Each summer, one parent would fly with the kids to Europe, stay a few weeks, then leave the kids with their grandparents. At the end of summer, the other parent would fly to Europe to visit their side of the family with the kids prior to flying back to the United States. By the time Adam got to high school, traveling back and forth to Europe was simply second nature.
As a junior in high school, Adam applied for and was accepted into The Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange – a one-year program jointly funded by the United States and German governments that ultimately sent Adam to Germany for an entire year. It was an amazing opportunity, but it meant that he’d miss his senior year of high school. Rather than wait to graduate a year late from high school, Adam opted to accelerate his coursework and he technically graduated high school after his junior year.
Adam credits this year-long stay in Germany with being the most formative time in his life. Moving to America as a 7-year-old had certainly been the furthest out of his comfort zone, but he had his family for support. In Germany, ten years later, Adam was alone.
He didn’t know German prior to moving to the country for a year, but the exchange program put the participants through a few weeks of language training before assigning them to their temporary homes. Adam had been in Germany on multiple occasions, sometimes visiting families and other times just passing through on the way to Poland. He was fairly comfortable there. His host family – a dad, a mom, and four children all under the age of 13 – lived just outside Hamburg. For the most part, they left Adam alone to do whatever he wanted, and Adam did just that. Whatever he wanted.
Adam is a likable person. He’s forward, good at holding a conversation, quite intelligent. Making friends in Germany wasn’t a problem, and before long he was exploring Hamburg with his newfound friends, some of whom were in a band. Adam tells me about a popular battle-of-the-bands competition that his friends would participate in. They’d hop a train to downtown Hamburg and head to the Kaiserkeller – the same venue where The Beatles performed for 56 consecutive nights in 1960, alternating sets with Ringo’s band, The Hurricanes. Adam would watch the bands play for hours, and when the music eventually died down around 2AM, they would head downstairs to the dance club until 5AM or so. Finally, they’d catch the first morning train leaving the city as their final activity of the night. They had to sleep at some point.
Other times, Adam might buy a train ticket and take a weekend trip to another city, or maybe even another country. He took advantage of his familiarity with Europe and made a point to explore as much as he could. While his friends back in Ft. Worth, Texas, were finishing their senior year of high school, Adam was learning how to take care of himself. How to be independent and self-reliant. Things that his friends wouldn’t necessarily learn about until they went to college. But he was also learning an important lesson about people.
I sent Adam a handful of follow-up questions after our conversation because I was interested in some of the lessons he learned during his year spent in Germany. As someone not native to the United States, I wondered if he might have a different perspective on things. I tried to weave his responses into story form, but his answers were simply too good to mess with. I asked a question about patriotism, and part of his response struck me:
I do think the U.S. is a pretty special place and it bothers me when I hear people talk about how terrible it is. “We’re so rich and yet there is such poverty.” But at the same time, objectively, that statement is true and the U.S. should feel exceptional enough about itself to do something to fix that issue.
I also am reminded that the U.S. is not per se unique or god-given in some regard. It’s a special place because of a lot of culture, a lot of luck and a lot of smart decisions. But none of those are forever.
But none of those are forever. Culture, luck, and smart decisions. In fact, only maybe one of those three items is even quantifiable. What an interesting and terrifying thought.
Another question I posed: “What was something you learned during that year that helps you now as an adult?” (emphasis below is mine).
This is not that unique an insight of course but I learned that people are pretty similar everywhere you go. There are racists and ideologues and drunks and nerds everywhere. People are just trying to live and have a good time. Thinking that somehow one people or another people are different is bizarre to me. What is different is how people see each other.
I just deleted a bunch of examples that didn’t add up to much so I’ll put it this way: I learned that people’s shared experiences matter and it influences the way they see themselves and each other. And – not to get too political here – it’s why the shared experiences we are creating in the U.S. matter.
This gets at the heart of this story, why I told you about 1980s Poland, why I explained Adam’s stint in Germany. I was initially interested in Adam’s story because I knew he and his family emigrated to the United States, and I was interested to learn a different perspective. But as I wrapped up writing his story, I realized what truly captivates me about it.
People are people. Each of us has our own beliefs, attitudes, biases, behaviors, etc. But the fact of the matter is that my rival breathes the same air as me. He’s human, just like me. We’re made up of bones and muscles and blood. We both have scars. We both have fears. Whether I agree with him on core values or religious beliefs, while important, isn’t crucial to my own survival. It’s important to remember that, despite the differences between me and my rival, he is a human being. The way we see each other matters.
I was encouraged by Adam’s answers to try shifting my perspective over the past month. For example, a couple weeks ago as Notre Dame in Paris burned, it dawned on me that I was sick to my stomach. I have no significant relationship to France or to Catholicism – frankly, I’m not huge on history or the arts, either – but as I watched Notre Dame burn, I felt heavy for those people. And that’s where Adam’s story changed something for me.
I realized that the church, the art, and the history didn’t matter. It was the people who mattered. They are the reason I felt sorrow. I could empathize with them. Have you ever tried empathizing with a building? Can’t do it.
Our shared experiences inform the way we see each other. The way we see each other matters because it helps shape our culture, for better or worse. Today, sharing experiences with others has become possible on a world-wide level. As I watched the spire of Notre Dame fall, millions of people from across the planet were watching in the same horror at the same moment.
But more often, the people I share experiences with are in close proximity to me. I sometimes find myself complaining about what our country has turned into. I see fighting all day every day and it gets depressing if I don’t log off Twitter or Facebook every once in awhile. It feels like our “culture” in the United States is eroding. I’m not old enough or wise enough to know whether this is truly unique, or if every generation feels this way. Regardless, it’s not a pretty sight. “Luck” is something none of us can put our finger on. And making “smart decisions” seems to mean different things to different power structures.
So how do we best preserve our culture? What does that look like? Is it treating others with dignity and respect, recognizing that everyone breathes the same oxygen? It is realizing that everyone has experienced a sneeze that simply refuses to come out? Or understanding that each of us has thought and/or screamed profanities after stubbing our little toe? Does it look like being able to empathize with someone whose kid is melting down in a grocery store because, shoot, I’ve been there before? Or maybe it’s swallowing our pride when a joke we tell unintentionally offends another person, and rather than fighting about why it wasn’t offensive, we apologize and realize the power of our words and actions? Maybe it’s recognizing the similarities between whitecaps and icebergs.
Adam told me he took some crap from his German friends for being an American. He smiled, knowing he grew up about an 8-hour drive from where they were hanging out. They weren’t all that different, were they. ♦