Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My New Identity

I don't have to identify as Polish.  I can be Polish-American, or I can just be an American born in Poland.  Polishness is a part of my past, but it is no longer a priority for me.  I appreciate the culture and the fact that the language has an emotional affect on me, but it is now secondary at best to who I really am.  I'm an American Catholic, a woman made in the image of God.  I am a wife and mother by vocation.  I am a child of God; a daughter of the King of kings.  I am called to be another Christ.

Being Polish is something that has been an integral part of my identity all of my life, but why?  Because this is the identity that was given to me. This is what I was told that I was, without any consideration of my life's circumstances making it virtually impossible to actually maintain this identity long-term.  My mother left Poland at the age of 31.  Her identity as a Pole was already cemented.  It is unrealistic to expect that I would internalize the same identity as her, just because I am her daughter and I was also born in Poland.  I was raised in both countries, and I came of age here, in the United States, outside of a Polish community.  I was not allowed to question my identity because it never crossed anyone's mind that there was anything to question.  It wasn't done out of spite or maliciousness.  My relatives just didn't know any better.  Their experience was that of an adult immigrant (my parents) or a non-immigrant (my grandmother and maternal aunt).  Whereas my experience was that of a child-immigrant.  I had no role models with this experience, so it has taken me 30 years to figure out that the identity that was handed to me simply doesn't fit.  I have no reason to feel guilty about it.  It is what it is.

I don't love Poland any less if I merely say I was born there.  I am no less proud of having this other culture in my background.  However, I must be careful here.  Being proud of my Polish heritage does not negate being proud of my adopted nationality - American.  My loyalty lies with my current nation now.  My "home country" is now the United States.  In Polish, the term is slightly different and carries a different nuance: "ojczyzna", roughly translated "land of my father".  This is still very true.  I can still say, in Polish, that Poland is my ojczyzna.  But not my homeland.  My home is here now.  My heart is here now.  I am grateful for my past, but it no longer defines me.  My past no longer has a hold on me.  It no longer demands loyalty nor guilt.  It simply is my past.  

My future, on the other hand, is where I am now, where my children will grow up.  My future is the United States, and I must put aside the petty judgments and comparisons that I grew up with that were attempts on the part of my relatives to heighten my Polish pride.  There is nothing better about being Polish, or European, or American, or any other nationality or ethnicity, for that matter.  There are pros and cons to every culture under the sun.  I am well aware of the dark side of American history.  Colonization of indigenous lands and importation of human slave labor being two particularly evil aspects of the US.  But those, too, are in the past.  It may make my Polish relatives feel better to focus on our differences, but they don't impress me anymore.  Ultimately, we are all children of God, and ultimately we all return to the Father.  The sooner we realize this and start living it out, the sooner we can establish God's kingdom here on Earth. 

So next time someone asks where I'm from, I won't answer the question with a question, as has been my habit: "Originally?"  I'll simply say I'm from Virginia, which is where I spent the majority of my time until recently. 

I won't brag anymore about our multilingual children, either.  Because both of us now speak mostly English to our daughter, and only supplement with our native languages.  I actually wonder if, instead of "native" I should use a different term here as well.  "First" languages seems to fit much better.  There's no denying that my first language was Polish, and my husband's first language was Spanish.  But we are no longer "100% fluent" in them, and that's the connotation I have with the term "native".

We're not any better than other Americans for being a multilingual family, which we still are, even if our kids end up only receptive multilinguals (meaning they understand but don't express themselves in other languages).  We're not any "less than" either, less than those who are more fluent, more dedicated, more plugged into their communities of origin.  Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  I'll take our current linguistic situation as it is and rejoice that it no longer defines me.

Now there's one more aspect of my drilled-in Polish identity that is on my mind.  My surname.  I made a big deal out of legally changing my name to my mother's much more Polish-sounding (not to mention therefore feminist!) name.  Both my siblings followed suite.  My husband and I compromised by hyphenating each other's names, and our children have both our names.  I've now had this name for 15 years.  And yet it didn't make me any more Polish than when I had my dad's surname.  It didn't empower me as a woman, either.  Because my worth comes from being made in the image of God!  Not from what my name is.  Finally, I regret having caused my father sorrow by abandoning his name.  Even though tradition would've had me abandon it anyway and change it to my husband's, the fact is that I replaced his with my mom's, and that I set an example for my siblings, and now he has a grandson that rightfully should've had his last name but doesn't.

This last one I may or may not be able to get resolved.  But I feel freedom in being able to decide for myself what is most important, and while my past is something I value and am proud of, it does not define me.  It's hard to admit this as it sort of feels like striking out on my own, but I'm turning 40 years old this year - it's high time to strike out on my own, isn't it!?

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