Sunday, June 18, 2017

What Makes You an American?

What makes someone an American?  Is it merely American citizenship?  Or is that just a technicality?  What makes anyone associate themselves with a given nation?  I think a given country's culture is what makes that country unique.  This includes history, geography, traditions, food, clothing, religion, music, values, language.

I was born in Poland to Polish citizens.  I'm ethnically Polish (albeit about 75%, per my dna test results!)  I speak Polish and I'm Catholic (which highly correlates with Polishness). On the surface, this makes me Polish.  To boost, I hold dual citizenship, so my European Union passport likewise identifies me as Polish.

But over the years, I've struggled to put my finger on why this simplistic formula just wasn't working for me anymore.  I'm an immigrant, and as such, I'm essentially a cultural transplant.  I started my life on one trajectory, but at age 8, the trajectory of my life changed drastically.  Sadly, it was a much bigger cultural shock than my parents could've prepared me for.  They assumed a Polish-born, Polish-speaking daughter of two Polish-born, Polish-speaking parents would grow up to be - what else? - a Pole (Polka).

Whenever I did anything "Polish", I would be praised for it, in particular by my maternal grandmother.  My letters to her would always be praised, albeit with a grade attached: "You only made X grammatical mistakes, your Polish is still very good!" (Gee, thanks for judging and editing my letters instead of just reading them for pleasure, and for making me feel as though every letter "home" was a test of my Polishness.)

I hate to say it, but even though my parents adopted the United States as their new countr by virtue of moving our little family here (it was just me and my parents when I immigrated here), they never embraced it to the exclusion of our country of origin.  Unbeknownst to them, their Polish daughter was quickly becoming an American teenager, something no expat parent could possibly be prapared for.  I grasped at proverbial straws wherever I could, trying to make sense of the world I was living in, the world I was coming of age in.  My parents weren't able to prepare me for American adulthood - how could they?  They weren't American adults themselves.  Even my dad, who did become a naturalized citizen when I was 14, still only knew what he learned from colleagues and television about American culture and values.

I grew up trying desperately to please my Polish parents/family while at the same time making sense of the often contradictory values I was met with in my American school and among my American peers.  I had no Polish community to fit into, as we settled in an area without a Polish presence.  Now I know that community is crucial.  Humans are social beings.  We must feel that we belong.  One way or another, we will make it so that we feel we are a part of a community, any community.  This is why kids join gangs.  This is why people join cults.  Less extreme, this is why there are cliques, and why sports fans can be each other's mortal enemies.

So where did I belong?  We attended church, but that's just what it was - attendance.  It was not participation.  There was no fellowship.  I never made any friends through our church.  It was in and out, Sunday obligation fulfilled.

My parents worked very hard, so they were very busy.  My younger siblings were born 15 months apart when I was still a "tween", my dad worked overtime or two jobs in addition to a crazy commute, and once my siblings were in school, he and my mom started an alteration business for extra income.

I get that they were concerned about providing for us kids the economic opportunities they didn't think we could've had in Poland.  I cannot know how founded this concern is, because I only know life here.  But money was a big deal.  Making it, saving it, being very selective when it came time to spending it.  The assumption was made that the ticket to a happy life is a certain socio-economic status, and the higher one's formal education, the better one's chances at said status.

I'm a pretty literal person.  I set my sights on something and I'm not easily swayed to reconsider.  And so, having heard from my family that education is crucial, and since I was a pretty good student and - as an introvert - enjoyed studying, I took it upon myself to pursue a doctoral degree as my life's mission.  All because I simply assumed that having a PhD would mean employers would seek me out and offer me work.  It took many years of higher education - five years on top of my Master's Degree - to finally come to terms with the reality.  The truth was, there was nothing magical about a doctoral degree.  There was no guarantee of employment upon defending a dissertation, and even my own college professors were making no more annually than my dad, who did not have a college degree of any kind.

I withdrew from my doctoral program after many sleepless nights, lots of tears, and facing a total loss of identity.  Up until that point, I was the good little Polish daughter who would be "Dr. Karolina".  In fact, when we visited my grandmother and godmother in Poland shortly before I made the decision to quit my PhD program, I received gifts and congratulatory cards on account of the degree I didn't even have!  It was just assumed that I would follow this trajectory.  That was a lot of pressure, because what did I have to fall back on?  Absolutely nothing.

Being done with higher education after 11 years of post-secondary schooling was the beginning of the end of my primary association with the nationality of my birth.  By then, I had changed my name to my mother's because it was typically Polish.  When we became parents several years later, there was never any question I would speak Polish to my kids, but even choosing a baby name included considering if Polish-speakers could spell and pronounce it.  I was going to raise Polish kids.

And then, I started parenting.  And while I do speak Polish to my kids, when it was time to name our second, I was already disillusioned enough with the Polish aspect of my identity to not let that determine what we would name our son.

What was holding me back before?  On some level, I was still trying to please my Polish parents and relatives.  I was still trying to prove that I was Polish enough.  I was still trying to live up to an impossible standard.  I could no more claim 100% Polish identity than I could claim any other nationality.  Except American.  At one point in recent years, I thought I had figured it out.  I wasn't 50/50, I was 100% Polish AND 100% American.  But now I see that this was merely wishful thinking.  The truth is, I AM 100% American.  By virtue of my citizenship.  By virtue of my English fluency.  By virtue of my having served in the US Army.  By virtue of my understanding and appreciation of various (though not all - still learning!) American traditions and passtimes.

But I am no longer any more Polish than other Polish-Americans.  I used to differentiate between Polish-Americans and Polish expats like myself.  I followed my relatives' cues in judging myself to be more Polish than them. I no longer deem my language ability as some sort of secret handshake that gives me the priviledge of Polish idetity.  Nationality is circumstantial.  There is no reason to boast of one's national identity.  No nationality is any better than any other one.  I thought I believed this when I would call myself a global citizen, but really, before I was more like a nomad with no home base.  NOW I can truly call myself a global citizen.  An American, first, but with international ties and interests.

  What makes YOU an American?