poniedziałek, 23 czerwca 2014

On Change. Part 3

5. The slow-down of the new century

The 1990s were both the time of freedom and the time of profit. People who wanted to learn English kept knocking on my door, and it was easy to get a position as a teacher in any state or private school. Being young and naive, I thought that this would continue forever.
The Polish people in general expected miracles and after a decade of working very hard in unstable conditions they were simply tired. Many of them were disappointed, many lost their jobs, many didn’t want to accept the basic fact that the reality got different and it would stay different. I think that the best example will be the situation in the diesel engine factory in which both my parents worked.
The factory employed thousand of people in a town which had around 20,000 inhabitants, and it went through turbulent times at the beginning of the 1990s. There was the inflation, there was the introduction of new taxes – the income tax and VAT were most hated words – so everybody was afraid. What was going to happen next week? What was going to happen next month? What was going to happen to the factory? What was going to happen to us?
It turned out that the Koreans happened. One of the Korean chaebols, Daewoo, took over the factory in the mid-90s. The Koreans tried to introduce the type of work culture which they had in South Korea, but they simply overlooked the fact that Polish people were poor learners and masters of passive resistance. The Koreans had problems with communication: they wanted too much, too fast, but they didn’t understand the local culture. The Polish management of the factory were happy to sign fat contracts with golden parachutes; even the then-retired (!) CEO came back and offered his services which were eagerly accepted. 
Although the Koreans tried very hard to restructure the factory, they constantly struggled. However, this would still be not enough to make the company bankrupt. What actually happened was a result of overoptimistic assumptions and poor implementations. Daewoo acquired another Polish car plant which produced vans. Their strategy was to keep prices low in order to attract customers and the engines for the vans had to have constant prices. They bought thousands of diesel units from the Andrychów factory which had problems with keeping the costs down, and in this way they intentionally – or more probably unintentionally – subsidised the van factory. The diesel engine factory literally bled to death, although this bleeding was not red but green in colour.
The factory went bankrupt and so did hundreds of families in Andrychów. It is no wonder that people were happy to embrace the so-called post-communists. We had a leftist majority in our parliament, we had a leftist government, and of course a leftist president. The economy slowed downed, and the government decided that it had to offer some kind of protection to the people. They introduced the programme of early pensions which they called ‘bridge’ pensions. It worked like this: when you met certain conditions like having been employed for a number of years, you were entitled to early retirement and the government paid you some percentage of your future pension. When you reached your proper retirement age, you started receiving your full pension.
You can now put the pieces of the puzzle together. There were millions of people who were disappointed with ‘capitalism’. These people were scared because they saw factories being closed down. In 1989 they were forty or fifty years old, which meant that they were already too old to enjoy change, and a decade later they were even older. So these people loved the way out which the leftist government offered. Tens of thousands were laid off every year and they were more than delighted to accept a small but steady monthly income. And that is the reason why Poland has the highest rate of pensioners and people with disabilities in Europe.
This solution did for the economy the same thing which a plank does when it is driven through a vampire’s heart. In order to pay billions to early pensioners, the government had to raise taxes. Raising taxes slowed the economy even more and the vicious circled started to spin faster and faster: now, there are fewer people to pay taxes, so they have to be taxed more heavily. More and more young people keep emigrating to the UK, Ireland, Germany, Holland or wherever they perceive a safe harbour. Our national debt is sky-rocketing and nobody has the courage to say: ‘Sorry guys, we have to start paying our debts off. There will be no more money for you.’
Despite the government propaganda which kept singing praises to the EU, things got much worse in Poland after our joining this structure. Or organisation? Or superstate? I still have problems with grasping the very concept of the EU. Nevertheless, prices went up, Polish companies were hit again and the combined effect of introducing early retirement and accession to the EU was disastrous.
This economic slow-down had consequences for me. There were fewer clients, salaries paid by the institutions for which my wife and I worked were ridiculous, we hit the bottom. I was forced to spend a year working in a Tesco Superstore in the UK to help our family budget. It was not easy to leave a wife with a daughter, but sometimes a man has to do what a man has to do. And now I can see that although it was a dark period, it was also a profitable period. My English got substantially better and I learned how the English work. This was an illuminating experience. Although I hated my managers, I admire them because I saw them working twelve hours per night shit without a word of complaint. I saw them struggling to open the store looking clean and neat. I had never seen this kind of dedication and attention to detail in Poland.
I also met a couple of wonderful people, both Polish and non-Polish. I got reunited with my friend who chose to live in the UK in the 1990s. I had time to rethink the first 34 years of my life and I swore to myself: ‘Never again.’ My stay in the UK was also the period when I decided to become a full-time writer. No, I was not walking with my head in the clouds. I wanted to become an ELT writer, producing textbooks for people learning English. And I have been determined on implementing this plan for the past nine years.

6. Challenges of 2010s

The second decade of the 21st century is one big question mark in Poland. What I mean is not the unpredictability of the future, but simply the quickly-rising number of questions which many Polish people ask. Why are they young forced to emigrate? Why are we forced to sponsor the early pensioners? Why are certain groups (e.g. miners and teachers) constantly getting more and more privileges? Why are schools being closed down? Why is our army so weak and inefficient? Why can’t we have effective transportation? Why is our internal and external debt growing at a staggering rate? Why do politicians keep lying to us?
And the last question – Why do politicians keep lying to us? – seems to be the pivot of this decade. For many years we trusted our politicians, partly because there was no one else to trust, partly because we felt weak and inadequate. This is what the forty-five years of communism did to us. The system denied us opportunities for experimenting and making mistakes. The system made us mistrust our judgement. The system taught us that you can trust only your closest family. The system made us feeble and shy. And it took us years to overcome this.
In the past twenty-five years we learnt that we can rely only on ourselves. There is nobody we can go to; the politicians lie and steal, the rich care only about themselves, the Church is spiritual only on the outside. We kept asking questions and nobody answered, so now we understand that we have to seek answers by ourselves. And probably this is the largest change: we learnt to think for ourselves. We know that we can trust our judgement. We know that experimenting and making mistakes teaches us something. We know that we can trust other people. We are no longer feeble nor shy. We fear no more.

7. Change is good

The communist system which we experienced was evil because it led to the fossilisation of the society. It was like a badly-designed machine; you could push it and pull it, you could pour money into it, you could curse and swear, but it would never work properly. And finally it would grind to a halt because this is what you get when you design the ‘mechanism’ of the country according to the principles of communism: a monster which will die because it is not able to support itself.
As a society, we learned to live without hope of a better life. We accepted the idea that life would always be the same, and that any change would mean deterioration of our condition. And I think that this is the most dangerous legacy of communism; goods may be easily imported, factories may be re-opened, the environment may be cleaned quickly, but the sediment in our brains does take a long time to wash out.
Yet, we have to learn to embrace change because when we do, we are finally able to accept life as it is: a never-ending path of ups and downs which brings us new experiences every day. Then we learn to cope with novelty, and we understand that we need to use the good things, and the bad things just need fixing or ignoring.

So, it turns out that my friend was right: as long as there is room for change, there is room for hope.

niedziela, 22 czerwca 2014

On Change. Part 2

3. The Transition

Had all the states in the world become communist, the progress of the human race would have stopped. However, there was another world out there and one day this world came knocking at our door. When the brutal race between the East and the West was over, there was no doubt which economy is more efficient. In 1989, the year of the Transition, I was seventeen years old and half-way through my high school.
Things started to change quickly. Of course, the first changes were improvements on food and clothing. People were euphoric because finally they could buy what they wanted. We were allowed to get and keep (!) passports, and the countries of the West opened the borders for us very quickly. When I started high school, a trip to Cracow, some fifty kilometres off my birthplace, was a major undertaking. Three and a half years later I was on the bus going to Belgium to spend my holiday with a Belgian friend. And I didn’t even need a visa.
However, the euphoria soon subsided and hard reality started hitting us again and again. The rate of inflation kept going up, and so did prices in the newly-opened shops. We were used to inflation, which was actually less severe than the inflation of the 1980s. We knew how to cope with it and at least there was work. Well, was there?
The inefficiency of the communist factory would make any American or Western manager jump out of the top-floor window. The two big factories in my hometown – one producing cotton materials and the other diesel engines – employed several thousand people, which meant that approximately three quarters of the local population depended on them. The factories provided jobs and kindergartens. They also ran health centres and canteens. But they were mismanaged and at the beginning of the 1990s they started to fall apart.
The government did everything to make things worse. There were attempts at privatisation, which actually ended in a massive, semi-legal take-over of national property. Who did the take-over? Frequently, it was the managers – former Party members – who bought the companies for peanuts and immediately sold them to Western companies. Some companies were sucked dry of money and left to collapse. What mattered most to people was that they lost the last bit of protection and learnt what it means to be unemployed.
I think it was hard for the generations born in the 1940s and 1950s, i.e. the generations to whom my parents belonged. They didn’t have the comfort of their parents who were already retired, and they didn’t have the courage and flexibility of their children (or we could say: the boldness and stupidity of the inexperienced). You couldn’t cook your newly-gained freedom in the pot and serve dinner, could you? So these people built a very thick wall, trying to protect themselves and their families. They were hostile to any novelty and by shielding the new, they chose a quiet and undisturbed vegetation.
With unemployment peaking at 25%, the generation of our parents re-embraced the post-communist parties and let the new government make a couple of steps back. When people such as Miller and Kwaśniewski gained power, Poland started meandering. Before, we had had at least some sense of direction, development and unity. Post-communists grasped the mood of the vulnerable and the disappointed, and played the whole thing skilfully, creating the mechanism which keeps the generations and social groups apart. They achieved it in two wicked steps: first, they provided those willing to retire early with the so-called ‘bridge pensions’, and second, they created separate systems of taxation, health insurance and pensions for farmers. To spell it out clearly: farmers pay far less tax than people working in the industry and services. Their health insurance is heavily subsidised and their contribution to the pensions system is negligible. In practice it meant that the young were forced to finance the stability of the old.
When the transition happened, I was completely unprepared for it. My mental set-up was for stability and submission, not for change and challenge. Yet, stability was gone and change was chasing us with all the force of a Shinkansen train. The situation would have been very hard for me but for a rare and useful skill I had: I knew English and I liked teaching it (I still do).

4. The roller-coaster of the 1990s

The 1990s were a wild time, yet I felt happy, because finally I was free to learn English. People established bookshops and sold everything – this is when I bought my copy of Thomson and Martinet’s grammar. I also acquired Murphy’s English Grammar in Use. I discovered Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and I have loved it ever since. But freedom was not only about buying books.
The cage in which we had existed for so long was now open. You could travel to Austria or Belgium without a visa and this is what I did. I spent weeks in Belgium, staying with my pen-pal and his family. This was one of my formative experiences; I saw with my own eyes that people may and do live differently.
However, the greatest freedom was the freedom to think. We could talk about anything, we could watch films which were forbidden no more, we could embrace life with a tight hug. This was difficult for many of us, as our skills of adaptation had been suppressed. To give you an idea what what it was like, I will tell you a story.
In 1992, after one year at a newly-established private college in Bielsko-Biała, I was admitted to Teacher Training College at Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Entrance exams were so difficult that only two or three students were those who graduated from high school in 1992; the others were people who spent a year somewhere polishing their English and getting ready for the ordeal of surpassing nearly twenty people competing to get a place. How brutal, how Darwinian.
The College was a new invention, we were the second class admitted, so it had to work out the rules and ways of teaching, particularly the ways of teaching how to teach. For that purpose, the College hired English-speaking teacher trainers. The first person we met was an energetic fifty-something Oxford graduate who had spent half of her life teaching English all over the world. She had several children and she was an extremely eccentric teacher with a passion to change the world. She had this peculiar talent which all the British possess: she felt superior and knowledgeable, and she was completely uninterested in learning about the local people and their habits. Maybe this is the right mix if you want to change the world (or at least a fraction of it).
Sandy – this was her name – decided that the best way to make us into teachers was to line us up along the pool and then kick each person in the butt. What a series of splashes that was! She established a Saturday School where students taught for free. She organised a field trip for pupils from her Saturday School. In her classes, she ripped our heads open and remodelled our brains with her bare hands. She made us come to her on Friday evening with our lesson plans for Saturday and she did not care how we were going to get back to our places. She juggled many eggs and, surprisingly, it worked.
Do you get the picture? There are those reserved and stiff twenty-year-olds and there is the teacher trainer who wants them to shine. Inevitably, there were many clashes. The director of the College, a strict, academic lady with distaste for any form of humanity with intelligence lower than hers, hated her innovative teacher trainer. Polish teacher trainers were partly in awe, but secretly hated this woman for her wild inventions. We, the students, were caught between Sandy the Hammer and Staff the Anvil. And, unsurprisingly, we were brutally reforged.

Yet, I think these were happy times. Our teachers, regardless of their approach to English and the ways of teaching it, enjoyed this freshly-gained freedom with us. Now I understand that they were as happy as we were to gloat over English, to gorge on books and dictionaries and films and whatever stuff that was their favourite poison. In a way, we studied simultaneously; they learnt something on a Monday and immediately passed it on to us on a Tuesday. They were eager to experiment with us and on us. They were passionate to explore all things English. So, we marched together discovering the new, emerging, post-communist reality.