This article was published October 2014 in The Vindicator.
Home is where the heart is and my heart is thousands of miles away. I remember it as if it was yesterday. Upon discovering a very mysterious letter in the mail, a completely ordinary day turned not so ordinary in the life of a nine year old girl. My father had won the green card lottery; our only shot at moving to the States. It’s still funny to me that my father was the one to win the lottery, and not my mother. It was always her dream and his worst nightmare. I guess he just never thought that he would get so lucky. My mom’s hope and his luck followed us all the way through the consulate’s doors in Warsaw, Poland and into getting our papers. Shortly after, tickets were bought and our apartment was sold. We were ready to abandon all that we have known for something we knew nothing about. Everything happened so fast that I barely remember telling my closest ones goodbye. To some of them, it would be our last. As a child, you forget that life goes on for the people you leave behind and the memories you should keep close to your heart vanish without notice.
August 25, 2004. There is not a more bittersweet date. It’s both my grandma’s birthday and the anniversary of the day we left her. It hurts me that she spent her birthday alone knowing we were gone. Actually, it hurts me that she spends all of her birthdays alone. She’s the only person I truly remember saying goodbye to. It was the first time I have embraced someone for so long while crying upon departure. Yet, I was still expecting a typical, sugarcoated American family movie that does not convey the true hardships of life. The truth is that life is difficult no matter the continent. You simply trade one worry for another; I was just too young to realize it. Back home, no one talks about immigrating to America in any other way but absolutely sweet. What makes this country so alluring to foreigners is the general belief in the American dream, the dream that even people without a higher education can make it. There is a reason for the large amount of immigrants in this country. People believe in the idea of opportunity more than they believe in themselves. Success is rarely ever quick or guaranteed. Besides my father, I cannot recall a person that wouldn’t have wanted to start a new life here.
As a young girl, I too quickly assumed that a ticket to America is a one-way trip to the great wealth I overheard people talking about back home. What I was expecting was a suburban house with green grass and a big backyard. Instead, my first memory of my new neighborhood, my new country was driving down the creepy Fleet Avenue in Cleveland after dark. I felt like I was in a scene from a popular western film, not the sugarcoated family movie I had imagined it all to be; how I wanted it all to be. Instead of skyscrapers, we got run down buildings. Instead of a suburban house, we got a small apartment above a Polish deli. I have not felt less fortunate in my whole entire short life because looking to the future is not exactly in the plans of a nine year old.
I started fifth grade at a Catholic school in Cleveland. At the time, my level of English comprehension was limited to “how are you,” “I like cats,” and “good morning.” I suppose you can already imagine how poor my grades were. Performing so poorly was just another painful blow to my already crumbling fantasy of what my life would be like. For only being nine years old, I knew exactly how smart I was, but my grades did not reflect it. On top of the overbearing smell of smoked sausage emanating from the downstairs store, my school life became another serious frustration. Ever since kindergarten, I loved anything that had to do with reading, but reading with a Polish-English dictionary by my side, evoked tears of disappointment and anger. I was pushed to my limits, but I persevered and tried my hardest. I even tried so hard that I once stole an answer key to a test. That is the first and last time I stole. The funny thing is though, that particular test did not count for a grade. After all, someone stole the answer key.
Being an immigrant at nine years old is a lonely venture, especially not having siblings that can look out for you. Other kids did not particularly understand the language barrier and I quickly became an easy target. Good thing I didn’t understand half the things that were directed towards me. I specifically remember an incident in which I tried talking to a couple girls. Practice makes perfect after all. They did not seem to acknowledge that and coldly responded, “First learn English, THEN talk to us.” Those girls definitely went “Mean Girls” on me and I was stunned as I realized the cruelty of my peers that I found completely unrealistic upon seeing the movie. At least a part of my life played out like a motion picture, right? Another incident that bothers me to this day is the one in which one of the boys I sat next to in class got irritated with my poor communication skills. He stared at me funny and asked, “Are you retarded?” I suppose Catholic school had really taught him a lot over the years. I’m glad I did not know what that word meant back then. Instead, I politely responded, “I’m not tardy. I was here on time.”
I’m the kind of person that does not give up and I did not, not even when I believed my efforts to be futile and not even when I got bullied. I worked through the language barrier and by the next school year I was acing my classes and communicating without too much error. Success felt sweet. The accent stuck with me through the seventh grade, yet now, I wish it never went away. Some people say I sound like I’m originally from Minnesota or North Dakota. Once, I even got Canadian. Now, I just want someone to exclaim, “You must be from Poland!” And I would just laugh and tell them how super Polish I really am without feeling so Americanized. It’s confusing living here and loving somewhere else too.
I respect both of my parents immensely. I see them as two very hard working individuals that have both heart and dedication. They wanted something more out of life and they got it. Sometimes I really look down upon people I know that take what they are given for granted and don’t take opportunities when they can. About three years in, my father took a risk and opened his own construction company. Now, ten years in, he’s a successful man and we do have a house in the suburbs with green grass and a big backyard. Ironically, my father ended up loving America more than my mother. Not every immigrant family is as fortunate as mine. Some make it, some don’t. Risks can make or break somebody. Without them, one will simply stagnate in minimum wage.
Although the quality of our lives improved, I still consider my home to be the small city I’m from in Poland. The reason for it is my family. Unless one comes here with their grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, the life of an immigrant is a lonely one. As time passes, you lose touch, even with those you love and were once close to. Holidays are short, bleak, and lifeless. They are nothing to look forward to, but I know that life goes on everywhere, not just here; people die, babies are born, and couples are married. I could say I traded a language barrier for a distance barrier. I didn’t go to my great aunt’s funeral this summer. I didn’t meet my aunt’s new baby. I didn’t get introduced to my older cousin’s fiancé. I didn’t get to see my favorite little cousin grow up into her teens. I most importantly didn’t get to continue our tightly knit relationships throughout the years. I don’t remember the last time I had a conversation with my grandparents on my father’s side and I definitely don’t remember the last time I talked to my godmother that I was once very close with. This detachment from the location of my heart is bizarre but it is my reality. It’s not that us immigrants love our families any less or our families love us less for leaving. It’s that we lead two separate lives and too many miles apart.
Sometimes, I play the “what if?” game inside my head. What would my life be like if I never moved here? What would I be studying? Would I have ended up with the same personality? Sometimes, pure nostalgia hits and I close my eyes pretending I’m back in my homeland, pretending that I’m looking out my grandma’s window once again wondering what she’s cooking up for dinner. Sometimes, I just simply tell myself that it is what it is and there is no point in playing the “what if?” game or reminiscing with my mind full of guilt for not having relationships with the people I love. But most of the time, I know exactly who I am. I am a young Polish immigrant with a deep love for her country and a deep appreciation for what America has to offer.