Plato's cavemen spoke English
In season three of "Beverly Hills 90210", a football game between the West Beverly High and Shaw, a school in a black neighborhood, is cancelled after two kids are shot to death in the Shaw stadium during a preceding game.
To fix the situation, the white kids host a dance with kids from a black school, but safety concerns at West Beverly are heightened and security officers are put at the door. As the situation escalates, Brandon Walsh, the editor of the West Beverly student newspaper, is told by Jordan, his counterpart at the black school, “They're coming; there may be trouble.”
Brandon rounds up his friends and a teacher and says, “Let’s not keep them out, they’re like us. Let’s have a party, that’s the only way.” After a while, the black kids swagger into the West Beverly gym where they’re met with a cautious welcome. The white kids lead the black kids onto the dance floor; they dance.
I was six when I first saw this episode. It was 1994 and it was one of the first Western TV shows to air in Poland. Poland had become a free country just five years before and, at the time, it was one of the world’s most homogeneous places, having lost its diversity to the Nazi and communist oppression.
Early nineties broadcasts reported on the slow formation of democratic processes and the nation’s early attempts at repairing its relationship with ethnic minorities. Poland began working toward joining NATO and the EU pushing against the West’s concern that the Polish people were more likely to die for their country than to work for it.
Watching, I learnt about the world and our place within it. Poland was a country where there were mostly people like us and we didn’t know how to deal with people who were different. We were poor and looked at with caution. In the West, there was freedom, abundance, diversity. People in the West spoke English and they got along despite a difficult history.
I learnt about communism from my parents. Empty shops and neighborhoods with a single phone line; someone eavesdropping on all the conversations; a risk of prison for receiving a letter from abroad; government banning plays from theatres; militia beating young people to the pulp in broad daylight in the middle of the street.
My grandparents told me about their lives in the first part of the twentieth century: removals to Siberia and sacrifices of the 1918 uprising against Prussia before, twenty years later, the Nazis forced them out of their homes, put them on cargo trains in thirty degree frost and brought them to labor camps.
At school I learnt that, born on the cusp of democracy, I was lucky. For Europe, this was the best time in history. The wars were over. The region was coming together and countries were making efforts to make sure the atrocities of past century didn’t happen again. It was a time of integration, investment, and collaboration.
In 1994, the same year I saw Brandon Walsh prevent a riot, my family went on our first holiday abroad. The fact that the four of us got passports was a cause for celebration, as were the long queues at the border. After hours of waiting, we crossed. None of us were held behind; no one shot at us. “Even the year you were born,” my dad said, “this wouldn’t have been possible.”
Throughout the nineties, true to its collective entrepreneurship, Polish people embraced free elections, developed processes and institutions. In all that we did, we had a Western Dream: we wanted openness and diversity, new roads and packed theatres, the high standards of Oxbridge and the élan of Hollywood, the poise of London and the merit of Washington.
Back then, the Anglophone West in particular seemed like a world of creative and intellectual prowess. It was where people broke new grounds and won Nobel Prizes, Pulitzers, and Oscars while the rest of world watched.
Even Anglophone parliamentary debates were aspirational: people were serious, but somehow friendly, and their discussions were matter-of-fact (according to the voiceover). Watching the cuts from the American to the Polish debating chamber, my parents often said, “Can’t we be more like them?”
Being “Western” was a measure of success, a mark of progressive self-determination. Poland was hungry for it and so became I. With Anglo-Saxons set as examples every step of the way I knew that to offer something to the world, I had to be less like “us” and more like “them”.
I spent my mornings at school and my afternoons in extracurricular English that my parents insisted on though they themselves didn't really speak a foreign language. I was resentful. Brandon Walsh didn’t have to give up his afternoons for a language class. He could play a sport or join a drama club or work for the school paper. He could run around and get into trouble; he could kiss his classmates in the bleachers; he could do anything, really. He already spoke English at home and at school. My mischief had to fit around extra lessons.
I reasoned with myself: just because Brandon wasn’t taking afternoon French, Chinese, Arabic – any of the languages I now had to take as a second foreign language – it didn’t mean his real-life equivalent wasn’t. Surely, I thought, English native speakers were learning languages; it just wasn’t photogenic enough for TV.
Meanwhile, I was learning more about the Anglophone world; I was watching their films and TV shows, listening to their music, reading their magazines. Gradually, I noticed that my pancakes weren’t fluffy; my hot beverages didn’t come in a Styrofoam cup; my school didn’t have lockers. I started questioning my friendships, too; after all, in Anglophone teen dramas, if friendship between boys and girls existed it only did so as fraught romance. At thirteen, my first language stopped being enough; Polish just “didn’t sound right”; it didn’t speak to me and it didn’t express me. I started writing my journals in English.
I longed for the Anglophone. Eventually, I arrived and found myself surrounded by people, many of whom were white, monolingual English speakers. Many of them were of international heritage and, often, significant family wealth. We talked about the Anglophone. Sometimes, with a handful of people from non-Anglophone countries, we talked about our homelands, but those didn’t fill us with much excitement. Plus, what we all globally had in common was English, and our countries just didn’t easily translate. It didn't matter; I was finally a part of the world I had been looking up to. I was at awe. I also felt like a fraud.
For a long time, I hid that I didn’t understand references to the struggles of this or that character from the Anglophone canon. Dickens, Dickinson? The names rang a bell, but I never read any of their work.
Once, with an American friend, we were discussing Hamlet and I admitted that I had never read Shakespeare in English. “What? What do you mean you’ve never read Shakespeare in English?” she said. “I just don’t understand the language,” I said and I knew I was close to being exposed.
I rarely brought up references to my own canon. There was a time when a Polish classic was pertinent to class discussion. We were talking about cultural trends and I brought up Julian Krzyżanowski.
“Excuse me?” the English-native teacher said. My classmates rolled their eyes. I explained my point, which was not in line with the conclusion we’d already drawn based on the assigned readings. My classmates groaned. The teacher brought us back to the discussion we’d been having and my point was dismissed.
I looked around – I was in a classroom with about twenty people, a minority of them native-English speakers, though they were the people dominating class discussions. All discussions were conducted in English and the readings were drawn predominantly from an Anglo-Saxon canon.
Huh, I thought. So the world was expected to learn the language and to also learn the culture. Fair enough, though in this classroom it seemed this was only the beginning. Understanding of the Anglophone was a pre-requisite for the rest of us to participate, but very few of our English-native classmates and (later) colleagues saw a need to reciprocate. There seemed to be an implicit expectation that the world sees itself through the Anglophone; things that this point of view didn’t allow were discarded. As a result, I felt, we were all speaking English but rarely talking about the same thing.
At the time, I accepted this. Speaking English was a ticket to privilege, a license to action. The world was being examined in English and decisions about it were made in English, too. I wanted to participate and if I had to distance myself even more from my own heritage, it was the price I was willing to pay.
Nevertheless, I asked some of my English-native friends and colleagues why they didn’t want to learn another language. “Why bother, everyone speaks English,” they all said. Sure, I said, but what about other cultures? “There are so many films and books in English, you can never run out,” they said.
It was true; I was the first one to agree. I was still under the powerful spell of the Anglophone. But how about understanding how people live in other parts of the world, how they solve problems that you’re trying to solve? How about getting to know them? How about getting to know me? “Everyone speaks English,” they said.
I immediately thought of all the Americans in Paris saying to a garçon at increasing volume, “I asked for a gin and tonic and you brought me a gin and lemonade. No English? You stupid?”
This Anglophone reluctance to learn about the rest of the world seemed odd given their global involvement; but the Anglophones weren’t just resistant. The English-natives spent a significant proportion of their time discussing their foreign counterparts’ command of English and their assessment of others’ abilities was often derisive. I was flattered to be privy to this native-English mockery of global English; if they did it with me, my command of the language must have been good enough to let me fly under the radar.
For some time, this made me proud. Listening to people trying to figure out “how I learnt such good English” was a compliment. However, their reaction to how I did it (in a classroom, in Poland, with an occasional holiday abroad) made me uncomfortable. “Polish, really? No way, but you’ve lived in Northern America, right? So which one of your parents is from there?” people often said.
I tried to understand. A friend suggested that people were protecting themselves with cognitive dissonance. “Poland is a second-class country and the Polish people are second-class citizens. You don’t look second class,” she said, “so it doesn’t add up. Nonsense? Sure, but that’s how people think.”
Second-class country? In 2017, after over twenty-five years of democracy and development, was the West still more of an aspiration than a destination? Were we still trying to catch up?
Between 2004-2015 Poland’s cumulative economic growth was the highest of all the countries of the European Union; the 2008 recession left Poland mostly unscathed despite taking down countries in comparable economic circumstances. In 2014 Donald Tusk, Poland’s former Prime Minister, became President of the European Council. In 2015, a Polish-language production won an Oscar for the best foreign film. Why was Poland still seen as second-class?
I looked to the mainstream. Mentions of Poland in foreign and international press were rare, but decisive; they confirmed what the world already thought they knew. News that didn’t fit that narrative wasn’t fit to print.
Reading the British GuardianI saw Polish people as the migrants oppressing the English working class, forcing people out of jobs, benefits, and houses. Occasionally, Polish migrants were portrayed as victims of prejudice and violence at high risk of retaliation; a group to be protected but also examined with suspicion.
Looking at us at home, the British press saw a nation that elected a government of paranoid representatives publicly stating that “displays of patriotism” like the Warsaw uprising of 1944, which killed over two hundred thousand, should happen periodically to “strengthen the nation’s attachment to its country.”
From the American New York Times I learnt that we were a group of raging, backward-looking Catholics refusing refugees and pushing for a complete ban on abortion. We were spending vast amounts on chapels and statues; we were low-skilled workers driving down standards and wages. We were anti-Semites re-writing history. Our visa requirements should be maintained.
My friends and colleagues often knew little about Poland, and the little they knew was often incorrect or outdated. The country, considered by many a former Soviet republic, was seen a sinkhole for foreign investment, the people as plumbers at best and poor, racist thieves at worst. Marie Curie could not have been Polish; there could be nothing valuable about Poland. Stories of success, if featured, appeared mostly in niche blogs where they were thoroughly analyzed in specialist language that I, a member of the general audience, struggled to understand.
Meanwhile, in the last fourteen years, Poland flourished. Investment of nearly sixty billion of European funding between 2007 and 2013 turned Poland into a country with safe, convenient and reliable infrastructure. It renovated historic buildings and monuments; it built centers of research and innovation; it built museums that showcase our heritage bringing citizens and visitors closer to the country that throughout its history was involved at war or in love with every country from the region.
The influx of funds allowed to support culture in a way that made opera and classical music affordable; shows are now selling out. Local governments allocated portions of their budgets to citizen initiatives leading to the development of projects that the citizens see as most pressing. As a result, the quality of life in many Polish cities now compares well with some of the best places to live in the world. “What’s happened to this country,” my dad said. “it's some kind of dream.”
Brain-drain is still significant, but there is hope the tide will change. More jobs are being created; since 2004, the unemployment rate fell from nineteen to six percent. These are better jobs, too, with the wage gap slowly closing though requirements are often higher in Poland than in the Anglophone West. (Most entry-level jobs require fluency in one or two foreign languages in addition to advanced degrees.)
Changes in attitudes followed. Poland launched campaigns challenging some of the most closed-minded thinking that has often been ascribed to us. Many of these attitudes are globally universal, but Poland is leading charge in facing up to reality.
In 2015, before the vote on the European Convention Against Domestic Violence, the UK’s "Daily Mail" reported that Poland didn’t want to ratify the convention because it “threatens traditional family structures”. Yet, the Convention became law after overwhelming vote in favor and what followed was a campaign in which the nation’s most recognizable male figures say, “real men don’t hit”. Bodybuilders, comedians, front men of heavy metal bands and other well-known figures, come together showing that violence isn't strength and "real men" are “as powerful as they are tender”.
Poznan’s “36,6: Replace tolerance with respect” is a campaign that puts up a mirror and unabashedly exposes ethnic and social stereotypes that have gone unchallenged for generations; it cuts through all groups and layers of society. It shows a young man labeled: son, student, twat; an old lady labeled: grandmother, senior, crazy Catholic; it shows the different ways we can describe the same thing, and it uses street language that jolts because it’s never been used on TV.
This reality doesn’t make it into the Anglophone press. Of course, what the American and British papers report is true. The claims made by our government are bizarre; we do like to invest in our places of worship and the Catholic Church has a greater influence over the public life than it should in a secular country. But this is only a snapshot of a very complex picture of contemporary Poland. When I moved here earlier this year, I was surprised to learn how non-representative this picture is.
This realization scared me. I wondered – having chosen English as my own, having looked to the West as the be-all-end-all, having consumed Anglophone culture and having looked through the Anglophone prism – how distorted did I allow my worldview to become?
Back in Poland and dusting my French, I’m slowly discovering another point of view. A point of view that is more moderate, more nuanced though, at the same time, with a bigger punch. It’s not a point of view that provides different answers, but one that asks different questions. Poland, frustrated by what it considers its slow rate of progress, still looks to outside of itself for solutions, but it looks wider than the Anglo-Saxon.
“American scientists” have become synonymous with outrageous claims; “American attitudes” with an inability to recognize, analyze and solve problems; “British ways” with an inability to act. Gradually, we look to broader influences and appreciate what we know and do better than others.
Nevertheless, the Anglosphere’s belief in its own power persists and it revitalized with Brexit and Trump. The United States is still being pitched as the “greatest country in the world”; Britain, too, wants to be Great Again. Looking closely, this Anglo-centric point of view seems to be falling short and will not be inspired by closer collaboration between countries where English is an official language. Proposals to tighten the relationships between English-native countries are silly not because they ignore global geography, but because they ignore the people within each patch of land.
Many native-English speakers currently live next to people of foreign heritage; people the Anglophones often lack tools to understand demanding that migrants learn “proper” English though migrant English is never considered proper enough. At the same time, there are things that just don’t work in English; even in translation, they need to be seen from another point of view.
When I recently rewatched that "Beverly Hills 90210" episode I saw it differently. I noticed that there is only one black student at West Beverly and that Brandon Walsh is the only one of the white kinds to go to the black neighborhood. It’s a place where he’s never been before, which, in the carefully edited footage, shows poverty and neglect worlds apart from the majority of the shots from the show.
Brandon’s friends don’t care about the reality of the people on the other side of their own city. The school headmistress hints at the fact that the Shaw kids aren’t welcome at West Beverly, violence or no violence. The (seemingly) only black students says, “this isn’t about the color of your skin; this is about where you live, how you talk, how much money you have”. As for the rest of the teens, the doom that cancelling the dance would bring upon their social lives dominates the dialogue.
In his editorial, Brandon remarks, “Why are we all so concerned with ourselves, without ever crossing over to the other side?” He appeals to people to come together. For that, he’s ostracized by other West Beverly students and also by the faculty.
A quarter of a century later, we all have yet to go to the other side of town. Speaking another language, having a different way to talk, would help. Without it, we're all but Plato’s cavemen.
This essay was originally published by Drunk Monkeys.