Do You Miss Your Country?
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
I don’t often talk about my father’s immigration. If I do, it’s usually because I’ve been directly asked about the “when” and “why,” and while the former response is simple, the latter is more complicated. A “why” conversation can delve into personal territory, and because his experience is not mine, there are too many questions I cannot answer. “What was it like?” “How did you feel?” “Do you miss your country?” The cover of Monika Szydłowska’s new book bears this final question as a title, and proposes a surprising answer: No.
Szydłowska is a Polish emigrant now living in the British Isles. She provides insight into her personal experience by crafting one-panel watercolor comics for her blog, Na Emigracji. Do You Miss Your Country? collects a myriad of these comics, showing Szydłowska skyping with family, visiting Poland with suitcases full of requested goods, and fielding absurd questions asked by nosy Scots. Her comics reveal that leaving home no longer means abandoning family or friends; it means exchanging in-person contact for video chat and occasional visits. However, it also means seizing opportunities not possible at home.
Many of the comics focus on clashes of culture. In one comic, Szydłowska shocks a barista by requesting tea without milk. She also recalls being asked ridiculous questions, like if she will say certain words with her Polish accent (side note: Polish accents are beautiful and I wish I had one) or if she can sing the Polish national anthem. Being an emigrant may frequently feel like being a trick pony, but Szydłowska also seizes opportunities to laugh at the British natives’ odd requests.
I particularly loved the moments in which people randomly tried to connect Szydłowska to other Poles, echoed oddly by the moments in which she runs into and immediately connects with other Poles. Just because two people share an identity that thousands of other people share doesn’t mean they’ll instantly forge a bond; it’s not unlike assuming all queer people will get along, or even want to date each other. However, in certain circumstances shared identity does forge a bond, especially when both parties are feeling isolated. This isn’t something I ever feel in terms of Polish-ness, but it is something I feel in terms of queerness, and Szydłowska expertly captures this feeling each time she depicts such an interaction.
Each comic’s construction is deceptively simple. The backgrounds are largely nonexistent, and characters rarely have facial features. By keeping the details minimal, Szydłowska focuses each comic on the interactions themselves, and replicates the feeling of being removed from one’s regular context. She also writes scenes in both English and Polish depending on the context of the conversation, and includes translations on the side of the page. This constant shifting between English and Polish is brilliantly exclusionary; emigrants who are constantly switching languages will feel completely at home within the comic panels, but those of us who are monolingual feel a sense of alienation.
The culmination of these themes – alienation, code switching, cultural misunderstandings and the unique nature of the emigrant bond – is the real, complicated response to the question, “do you miss your country?” People do leave their homes for a reason. My father does miss Poland; he is a sociologist, and all of his research is about Poland. However, at the time of his immigration he wasn’t just leaving behind his home – he was leaving a communist government that denied him access to the college education he deserved. Does my father miss communist Poland? I’d have to ask him, but the answer is probably no.