I've been focusing a lot on my faith since launching this blog, but it's not the sole tenant of my mind. So I thought I'd briefly touch on something completely different that I carry with me as if it were my very skin, something that most people don't notice, but I cannot shake. It's something that colors my perception of the world, starting with my childhood, extending over my values and experiences, and including my identity and self-perception. It's something that few people can relate to, at least few people that I've met. This "thing" that I carry with me is the fact that I am a child immigrant.
Note that I used the present tense with that statement. I "am" a child immigrant. Even though I'm no longer a child, my life took a huge turn when I was just 8 years old, leaving me forever with one foot in my country of origin, and the other in my adopted host country. The remnants of this identity are visible whenever forms ask for my place of birth (Poland), or when they ask for my citizenship status (yes - naturalized), or - though much more rarely - when there's an inquiry about my native language. Whenever I answer these and similar questions, I am taken back to December 19th, 1986, when I deboarded our plane in New York. It is these times that I am reminded that I'm not like everyone else around me.
I was born in a country far away, with a different culture and language, history and value system, where I spent the first 8 years of my life. Yet at the same time, it is not a place where I grew up. It's as if my "Polish upbringing" was uprooted, incomplete, and I was instead transferred to a sort of "finishing school" of life in the United States. While my homelife remained somewhat similar to what I was used to "in the old country" - I had my parents, who spoke Polish to me and who maintained all the Polish traditions I remembered and loved - life outside the home steadily became more and more important to my growing up. Never fully committed to either culture, my so-called "inner child" remains that 8-year-old immigrant girl who left everything she knew behind to stay close with her parents.
Note also that, in spite of having lived in my adopted country for over 25 years now, having served in the US Army, having finally become a US citizen (which was an ordeal in itself), and having come to the realization that my native language is no longer my strongest language, I cannot pretend that I am somehow no longer an immigrant. I will forever have a dual identity. I am Polish-American, 100% both. My roots are outside this country's borders. Of course, most Americans can technically say the same, but in my case, I don't mean that my ancestors' roots are elsewhere.
I'm well-adjusted enough, so what's the big deal? one might ask. I think the big deal is multifaceted. For one thing, I do not neatly fit into any category of people with whom I associate. I do not share the adult-immigrant status of my parents, who out of their own free will chose to leave their native country and seek a better life in a new land. I did not get to weigh the pros and cons of staying versus going like they surely must have done, before committing to this life-changing decision. This decision was made for me. And while I am certainly grateful for it, as life in the United States has afforded me opportunities I never would have had back in Poland, it remains nonetheless a decision that was made for me, without my input or consent.
Nor do I fit in with my younger siblings, both of whom were born in the United States shortly after my mother and I were reunited with my father. They have the same Polish heritage that I do, but they do not have the same sense of loyalty that comes from lived experiences in my hometown. While my sister and brother get to sort of pick and choose which aspects of "being Polish" they want to appropriate for themselves, I cannot change my early childhood experiences, which defined me as very clearly Polish and nothing else for the first 8 years of my life.
In a way, I relate a bit with my husband, Alex, who also came to this country as a child. However, even with him, we do not quite have the same experiences as child immigrants. Perhaps due to his slightly younger age (he was 5 when he came over), perhaps due to a difference in our personalities (he doesn't tend to dwell on things the way I do), he seems to only have an internalized storyline of how he came over that helps him situate himself in the context of having originated somewhere else. But he doesn't really have many memories of life in his native El Salvador that would remind him of how he used to belong to one reality, and then he started living in another one. What's more, his family left due to civil war. The bits of memories he does have are nothing to be nostalgic about. On the other hand, my family left mainly for economic reasons; life in Poland was actually quite nice for both my mother and me. I miss it.
I remember my maternal grandmother seeing us off to the airport, and on that trip, telling me that if I didn't like the new country, in 15 years, I could return to Poland. I have no idea why the magic number was 15, and I don't remember if I actually verbalized anxiety over being in a new place. Of course, I was sad about leaving my 3 grandparents and aunt with whom my mom and I lived at the time we made the big move. But I'm not sure I realized that life would be any different from what I had known up until that point. Still, some years back, I did the math and realized that the magic 15 years had passed, that I was all grown up, and that I could return to Poland if I so chose. But this is where it becomes tricky.
Over the years, I've been back to visit 6 times. The first time, I was 11 years old, and it was easy for me to simply let my grandmother take charge of where we'd go and what we'd do. I didn't really sense any difference between the Poland I left and the Poland I was visiting. The second time I visited was for 5 months, as my high school graduation present. I was 17, and I looked forward to turning 18, becoming an adult, in the very city where I was born. I planned it out so that the exact time of my birth, not muddled by a time change, would occur when I was alone, in public, on my way to do something "worthwhile". As it happened, my great-grandmother had passed away the month before I turned 18. At 11:20am on October 24th, 1996, I found myself alone on a trolley, on my way to visit my great-grandmother's grave. I distinctly remember looking down at my watch and being aware of becoming an adult. But this trip was also sheltered, in that I was on vacation, staying with family members, not having to really do anything.
Just a year later, I was back for my cousin's wedding, the month before I was due to report for basic training with the U.S. Army. Even now, at 19, I felt the usual stares of people looking at me as an American, like some sort of tourist attraction. I represented "America" to many people, and what that essentially meant was that we had money and that we didn't have savoir vivre. Only upon reflection was I able to realize that I didn't know if people were being nice to me because they were nice people, or because they somehow thought they could benefit from befriending "an American". It saddened me that they didn't see me as one of their own, a fellow Pole.
On my 4th trip back, this time with my then soon-to-be fiance, came the final realization that maybe I would never again feel at home in my native country. My shy personality clashed with my role as translator. Alex was eager to take in as much of Poland as possible, but I proved to be a poor tour guide. Not only did I frequently not know the answer to a question, I also found myself lacking the correct words in Polish to be a good translator. When we visited Zakopane, a mountainous city where we would get engaged, I remember walking together down a little street and Alex pointing out in a store window a food that resembled tortillas. Having previously tried unsuccessfully to explain to my curious aunt what typical Salvadoran food was like, he wanted to be able to make the comparison with what he saw in the window.
Without thinking, I went up to the lady behind the counter and asked her, in Polish, what "this" was. She looked at me for a moment as if she were waiting for me to add "just kidding", and then, in all seriousness, she replied "nalesniki". Immediately, I was mortified and turned on my heel and pulled Alex out of the store. Nalesniki (crepes) are one of the staples of Polish food. For me to call myself Polish and not recognize nalesniki felt like cheating, like I didn't really deserve the label "Polish". After this incident, it only became more and more apparent to me that, not having been brought up to adulthood in Poland, I was not in the know about a lot of things. Even my Polish was limited to the familial, safe, "home" Polish that I used with my parents. I picked up a little bit of slang from TV and my cousins, but by my next visit, using it only brought taunts, as it had now become outdated.
My 5th trip back was with my mom and my siblings - their first visit of their "ancestral home". The focus was on family, and I don't recall many awkward moments. I do remember with how much ease my brother, having never lived in the city or used Polish outside the home, would jump my grandmother's fence and run down to the corner store to buy whatever he wanted or we needed for dinner, making change in foreign currency and communicating as best as he knew how. He never even flinched. I envied him. In those moments, it would seem that he was more Polish than I was.
Then again, it's also those moments that make me grateful that my parents did bring me to the United States. I don't think I could've survived with my temperament in Poland. I think I either would have had to develop a hard exterior and become what so many Europeans are accused of - snobism - or I would've been metaphorically eaten alive by my peers due to my social limitations. I don't know that I would've liked the "all-Polish" version of myself. I wouldn't have had the opportunities to be exposed to a wide range of thinking about the world. I wouldn't have made friends with people from all over the world. I wouldn't have had the freedom to come to the conclusion that maybe there is such a thing as too much freedom.
On my last trip to Poland, my husband Alex and I took a quick weekend break to visit with my grandmother and aunt while we were staying in Germany for a few months for Alex's work. We wanted to take the two women out to eat, and as we were out on the town, I quickly realized how very different our approaches are to, well, life. Neither my aunt nor my grandmother would use a public restroom, apparently due to cooties, so they refused to drink anything so as not to tempt their bladders. Of course, in order not to dehydrate themselves, they had to take it easy and not sweat by, say, walking too much. So we were limited in where we could go or how long we could stay out, which annoyed me, especially since it had been several years since my last visit, and I was only there for a weekend, and I wanted the chance to take in a bit more of my hometown. But c'est la vie.
It was on this trip that I think I made my peace with never being able to return to the "fully Polish" person I once was. I walked the streets of my hometown and took it all in, basking in the history, in the very idea of generations of my family before me walking these same streets. I observed people with the luxury of an outsider, and I had to admit that that is exactly what I was now - an outsider.
And yet, I cannot pretend that I am only an American with Polish heritage, as that would put me in the category of polonia (Poles living abroad) that links to "the old country" by tracing their genealogical lines and not much else. I cannot put myself in the same category with people who have Americanized their surnames so that they are neither spelled nor pronounced in a way that any Pole would recognize as their own. I cannot put myself in the same category with people whose only Polish words are "kielbasa", "pierogi", and "czesc". I cannot put myself in the same category with people who cannot correctly pronounce key places in Polish geography or key Polish historical figures. Of course, you may be wondering.... why not, exactly? Why can't I just call myself Polish-American and think of myself as in the same group as all the others who maybe once were Polish, or maybe not even, but who might've been had circumstances turned out differently?
Interestingly, I think the answer is two-fold. One - I speak Polish. This is a source of pride for me. I not only speak it; I am literate in it. I may have only a 2nd grade education in Poland, but I spent the rest of my youth writing letters to my relatives back and forth in Polish, which proved to be enough to maintain a decent sense of grammar and spelling. I still make mistakes, to be sure, and this is often met with much embarrassment on my part, but when I hear Polish, I am listening to my mother-tongue. It soothes my soul to hear the first language I ever heard, I ever spoke, I ever read, I ever wrote. Knowing Polish is a deeply rooted part of my identity. So how can I possibly feel any kinship with people who do not share my love and knowledge of the Polish language?
The second reason I think is much simpler. I have memories of Poland and emotional ties to certain areas that no one in this Polish-American group does. They may think it's neat to visit the place where their grandparents came from, but it will never have the same emotional tug for them as it does for me. Poland was my life for 8 years. I was old enough to remember it. When I left, I had already memorized and internalized the famous patriotic poem all Polish little children learn, titled Kto Ty Jestes (Who are you?):
Kto Ty Jestes? Who
Polka mala. A little Polish girl.
Twoj? What’s your sign?
Lilia biala. A
mieszkasz? Where do you live?
Miedzy swemi. Among my own.
W jakim kraju? In what country?
ziemi. In the Polish land.
ziemia? What’s this land to you?
Ma ojczyzna. My fatherland.
Czym zdobyta? How was it conquered?
blizna. With blood and scars.
kochasz? Do you love it?
Kocham szczeze. I love it sincerely.
A w co wierzysz? And what do you believe in?
W Polske wierze! I
believe in Poland.
Cos Ty dla
niej? What are you to it?
Wdzieczne dziecie. A grateful child.
winien? What do you owe it?
Oddac zycie! To give my life.
If this isn't enough to convince you that my Polish identity was already well-established when I emigrated, consider one final fact: my faith in God, my religious associations, were first introduced to me in Poland, in Polish. The hymns and prayers that move me the most are in Polish. I leave you with links to two Polish religious hymns that envelope my heart every time I hear them.
The first, Czarna Madonna (Black Madonna), is about Mary, in particular referring to her miraculous painting found on Jasna Gora. I chose this version because it features children close to my age when I left Poland singing this familiar hymn, as well as showing the miraculous painting.
The second, Barka (Bark), I actually didn't come to know and love until our Polish Pope was on his death bed and the faithful serenaded him at the Vatican with his favorite hymn, to accompany him on his journey to meet Our heavenly Father. I chose this version as it shows the faithful masses singing to our beloved papierz. It should be clear, then, that having been named after The Polish Pope when I was born just two weeks after his election would likewise hold a strong patriotic link for me to my homeland.
I add one more song, Goralu czy ci nie zal? (Mountaineer, aren't you sad?), a song written in honor of our Polish Pope as he inevitably left his native Poland for the Vatican. I chose this version as it shows the beautiful mountains where Karol Wojtylo came from, as well as images of Polish mountaineers and JPII in his element. It of course resonates closely with all Polonia, all Poles who for whatever reason have ever had to leave Poland.
Now that I've gotten started, I could go on with more musical associations that tell me that indeed, no matter what, I am still Polish. Yet, in Poland and among authentic Poles, I can't help but feel uncomfortable, different. Such is the lot of a child immigrant, forever with each foot in a different culture, forever both and neither at the same time.