Friday, August 22, 2014

Global Citizen

I have been known to get stuck on choosing the best label for something that I see as defining some aspect of my identity.  I say "stuck" because rather than allowing me to fully immerse myself in whatever the given aspect is, I feel as though I must first establish an identity marker before I proceed, so that I can associate whatever activities, behaviors, or beliefs with said label. 

It's not all my doing, mind you.  I've had people tell me that I shouldn't call myself this or that, and so I'm hyper-vigilant about it now, because the last thing I want is to be accused of being disingenuous.  But why bother with labels at all?  Good question.  I know that everything is transitory, and that we are not who we think we are.

I've become aware of this after my recent trip "back home" to Poland.  I remember myself at the age of 7, preparing to emigrate with my mother.  I remember myself "back home" at the age of 11, on my first trip back for the summer.  I remember myself "back home" turning 18 in my hometown.  (I took great pride in knowing that I "became an adult" in the same town where I was born.  I even made sure I was "independent" - going to visit the recent grave of my great-grandmother on my own - at the precise time marking the anniversary of my birth.)  It gave me some joy to become engaged to Alex in "my home country" as well, at the age of 22.  A few additional trips "back home" and I grew to expect the feeling of "coming home" at every subsequent trip to Poland.

During my most recent trip back, Alex, Maya, and I (plus my parents) stayed in a hotel instead of with family, as was our usual set-up.  Perhaps that was the single biggest mistake, albeit unavoidable considering there were five of us showing up to surprise my grandmother on her 80th birthday.  But try as I might, in the two and a half weeks we spent in my hometown, with my closest extended relatives, I never felt "at home".  In my grandmother's house, where my mother and I lived for a couple of years leading up to our emigration, we were mere visitors.  We were waited on hand and foot, treated quite hospitably to be sure, but I did not want to feel like a guest.  I wanted to feel at home, among "my people", and I never did.

I digress this much to say that upon my return, I realized that I cannot go back to my childhood, that what I remember of my hometown is mere memories, accessible only through my own mind, with some assistance from old photographs, perhaps.  I realized that who I am today is no longer who I was when I left Poland, or even who I was at each of my subsequent visits.

I say all of this why?  Because "who I am" is transitory.  It makes little sense to assign a label to a moving target.  And yet, it is the nature of our ego to insist that it is "the real me".  Hence, my apparent need to label various aspects of my identity.

My nationality identity has been taken care of.  My recent trip solidified what I had already suspected.  I have a hyphenated national identity (Polish-American), and I no longer fight with the fact that most others who self-identify this way don't speak Polish and/or have never visited Poland, much less lived there or were born there.  I used to pride myself on being "more Polish" than Polish-Americans, though I wasn't quite as Polish as the Poles of Polonia (the Polish diaspora that my parents identified with for a time) or obviously the Poles still living in Poland. I have made my peace with this, and I'm happy to focus on the American identity over the Polish identity.  The former is who I am now, whereas the latter identifies where I come from.

If anything, I now see the Polish-American identity marker as a spectrum, with those who can awkwardly spit out the words "pierogis" (with the inaccurate English plural marker "s" at the end of the otherwise Polish word) on one end of the spectrum, and recent immigrants on the other end.  With time, I have slowly slid down the spectrum, away from the recent immigrant end and closer to the middle.  I still speak Polish and am literate in the language, and I have many fond memories of the country.  So I'll never be at the other end of the spectrum, but I no longer feel any need to lord this over those who, by circumstances of their birth and ancestral heritage, do find themselves at that end.

I may hold dual citizenship, but my dual identity is anything but equally weighty on both ends.  Polish is where I come from.  It has had an inescapable influence on my upbringing, values, thoughts.  For better or for worse, I did not have an American upbringing.  I cannot identify with my native-born Anglo-American peers, because we come from different cultural home bases.  But I am no longer immersed in the Polish culture.  I do not live in a Polish neighborhood, I do not worship regularly at a Polish church, I do not cook traditionally Polish food (generally speaking).  I do speak Polish to my daughter, Maya, but honestly, it's not so much to link her to her mother's heritage, but rather to give her an edge linguistically (since knowing a second language at an early age makes learning subsequent foreign languages later on that much easier, not to mention the broadened horizons of being able to learn about the world from the vantage point of a different language and culture).  I also speak Polish to Maya for the sake of the few Polish relatives that are still in my life, primarily my mom.

I don't expect Maya to identify as Polish-American, and I think this realization has helped me distance myself from the label as well.  After all, how can my daughter and I not share the same national identity?  Then again, that's precisely what happened between myself and my own parents.  They retained a lot more of our mutual Polish roots (How could they not?  They were fully adult by the time of our migration.) whereas I was also heavily influenced by my American peers growing up.  Perhaps this is another reason that, until I had my daughter, I tried desperately to emphasize the Polish in Polish-American so that I would have that generational link to my parents.  But now, I find myself emphasizing the American in Polish-American so that I can have that generational link to my daughter.

In the end, none of these labels ought to matter, because patriotism taken to an extreme breeds racism, hate, and international violence.  Deep down, I consider myself a citizen of the world, with no one country holding my loyalty without question.  Yet, to be fair, at least for me, I'm only able to see myself as a global citizen because I've had the advantage of being exposed to people and ideas from around the world, something truly uniquely American.

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