Asking questions at the Portland Polish Festival

Chernova rocks the Portland Polish Festival on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014.

Chernova rocks the Portland Polish Festival on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014.

On Saturday night, a few friends and I attended the Portland Polish Festival in Portland, Oregon. For weeks I anticipated the celebration of Polish culture, if only because of my very Polish last name: Wastradowski. But once I walked through the gates, it only took 10 minutes before I realized how little those 12 letters meant.

After taking stock of the food tents and vendor booths, I waited in line for beer. A couple behind me talked about the pair of Polish offerings, with the man lamenting the absence of a particularly potent beer that had been offered in years past. “They only have a porter and a light lager,” he said before delivering the punch line: “I guess they can’t trust a bunch of us Polacks with a 9.2% beer.”

Without really thinking about it, I chuckled before returning to Twitter and text messages. But as the line inched forward, my brain whiplashed back to that joke: “Why did I just laugh?” I asked myself. “What about that was funny? Is it a stereotype that Polish people drink a lot? And if I don’t even know the answer to that, what else don’t I know about Polish culture?”

I was so overwhelmed by my own laundry list of disparate reactions, I didn’t even think until hours later about his use of that word: Polack. Growing up, my Dad desensitized our family with the occasional “dumb Polack” joke, but I never understood that stereotype or told those jokes outside the house. I get that it’s an ethnic slur and the anti-Polish sentiment dates back hundreds of years, but it seems like such an anachronistic word to throw around, especially at a Polish festival. (Then again, he obviously thought it would be most appropriate at a Polish festival.) Would he have made the same slur if he thought a Pole might hear? He obviously knew enough of the word’s connotation to drop it in conversation, so why would he use it or find it funny? I had no idea. I felt like we were speaking different languages.

Armed with so many questions and so few answers, I wondered why I had been so eager to “play up” my Polish heritage when I didn’t know anything about the culture I was celebrating.

I wish I had an easy answer for that question. Growing up, I knew little of my genealogy, and my immediate family never embraced Polish culture: We never ate Polish food, listened to Polish music, spoke Polish, or talked about the history or culture of Poland. I mean, I joked about rooting against Germany during the most recent World Cup, but that’s as far as my Polish pride went.

Still, I assumed that my last name gave me license to experience the festival as some kind of insider. Without really thinking about it, I fancied myself a tour guide of that culture and those shared experiences (whatever those might be), but I never stopped to think about what that meant in practice. I could only get so much enjoyment out of commiserating with others about our long last names; once the laughter died down, what else did I really know? That exalted “insider” status sounded great in theory, but it only took one crude joke in the beer line for me to confront the reality of my shallow assumptions.

At that moment, I decided that I could either pass myself off to friends as some kind of cultural ambassador, hope they didn’t question me about anything happening around us, and continue to blindly champion a culture to which my connection was fishing-line-thin … or I could be honest with myself, plead ignorance, and soak up as much knowledge as possible over the next few hours.

I chose the latter.

Following a friend’s suggestion, I stepped into the festival’s makeshift bakery and tried ordering a paczki. I so badly mispronounced the name of the fruit-filled pastry, a polite Polish lady directed me to the line outside for potato pancakes (I asked for a “pack-ski,” rather than a “ponch-key”).

Elsewhere, I browsed the handful of vendor booths and inquired about a few items that looked interesting. I asked one vendor about the significance of the traditional Polish hat he sold—essentially a red beret adorned with sticks—but his halting English and my non-existent Polish prevented any real connection. I considered buying a Poland soccer scarf but decided against it when I remembered that it would collect dust on my shelf while I continued to ignore the national team’s matches.

I enjoyed the evening’s headlining band (Chernova), but I couldn’t tell you what, if anything, made the group particularly Polish. Early on, the lead singer introduced one tune as a “traditional Gypsy song,” yet I never heard him call out a “traditional Polish song” throughout the set. I get that, by its nature, gypsy culture encompasses more than just Poland. But what exactly is the connection between gypsies and Poland? Is the traditional polka music I heard earlier at the festival more emblematic of Polish culture or more authentic than the self-styled purveyors of “infectious dance-and-drink music” on stage? While I enjoyed the set and made a mental note to check out Chernova’s live set again, the experience raised questions for which I had no answers.

Over and over, I realized how little I knew of this culture I’d eagerly—yet naively—embraced just hours before. But in a way, that feeling freed me to experience the newness with an open mind devoid of assumptions. Once I owned my ignorance and dropped the pretense of expertise, I enjoyed the festival appreciably more. That naivete paradoxically is what gave me the confidence to try a paczki, ask about traditional Polish garb, and seek out the evening’s headlining act; I could only learn by admitting what I didn’t know, which in this case was everything.

That thirst for knowledge remained in the days that followed; I want to study Polish history and culture, and I want to go beyond a cursory Wikipedia search in learning not just about the country, but my own family’s history.

When I return in 2015, I won’t approach the festival as a wanna-be insider; my last name will continue to mean nothing. Rather, I will happily (and humbly) experience it like the outsider I am: asking questions, enjoying good beer, trying new foods, and doing my best to converse with vendors.

But at least I will be able to order a pastry. And that’s not nothing.

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