These days everyone seems familiar with the assumptions that surround the word “Immigrant”. People have many different views of what it exactly means to be an immigrant, and what being an immigrant means about that person. This presidential election and specifically a certain politician’s views and rhetoric on immigrants has caused me to turn an introspective eye upon my own immigrancy. Most people don’t know that I am an Immigrant, a non-citizen, an alien. It fascinates and deeply disturbs me simultaneously that my race and socioeconomic level give me a certain level of “cover” that other, just as hardworking and deserving immigrants aren’t afforded.

The first time I returned was the summer of 2007. I was 11 years old and about to start fourth grade at our neighborhood elementary school in Richmond, Virginia that fall. Looking back, I don’t know if I can say that going back to Poland meant I was going home. It definitely didn’t feel like home to the 11 year old me that had spent her childhood moving between countries, houses and schools, but then again I’m not sure if at that point I even had a sense of home. As an immigrant, it’s hard to tie your definition of home to a single place, and even harder when you don’t look like a stereotypical immigrant but don’t feel like a native either. 

We stayed with our grandparents flip-flopping between sleeping at my mom’s parents’ home and my dad’s parents’ home. They both lived within the city of Warsaw, in the same homes my parents had grew up in, only a few blocks away from each other. It felt so natural to be in Poland, to be around relatives I hadn’t seen since I left for America in 2000. I felt a special connection to this place even at 11 years old. I had a sense as though this is where I was from. We spoke Polish at home pretty regularly so I never really lost my fluency, and after a couple of weeks in Poland, I was completely comfortable with speaking Polish all the time.

One day my grandpa took me and my siblings to the park outside of their apartment. It was a classic city playground, clear that it had come from the post-communist era. Everything was made out of hard metal, but painted over in a variety of bright colors. Lime green swing sets paired with a pink slide connected to an orange ladder. Different mismatched colors blocked together in an attempt to give the metal structures the perception of suitability for children. You could feel the paint chipping under your hands as you swung across the monkey bars, and they always seemed to smell of rust afterward. Needless to say, I loved it. Some of my happiest memories were spent carelessly playing at these playgrounds with my siblings and the local neighborhood kids.

 I was always the most social of my siblings and the quickest to introduce myself to the local children and start playing with them. It was this trait that resulted in me having a, “who can swing higher competition” with a local boy around my age that I had just met. His name was Tomek; he wore a sleeveless shirt with a pair of shorts, his blonde hair was shaved close to his head, and his quiet, dark haired, large eyed sister, Kasia, watched as we swung. I’m naturally competitive and therefore was determined to swing the highest. Mid-swing, I heard Kasia ask, “gdzie mieszkasz?”, or in English, asking where I lived. Without breaking my rhythm, I responded by saying that I’m staying with my grandparents in that building over there but I live in America. Suddenly Tomek stopped swinging. I was confused, I must have already won. “I won!” I started to exclaim but he cut me off. “You don’t live in America.” He promptly insisted. I didn’t understand what he meant. “Yes I do”, I told him, “I go to school and everything there, I’m just here for the summer”. “Well if you’re from America”, Kasia questioned, “Why don’t you sound funny?” I was so confused, why was I supposed to sound funny? “Yeah you probably don’t even speak English.” Her brother laughed. “Yes I do!” I tried to insist. But it was pointless. They had already finished laughing at what they thought was my attempt to impress them with a made up story and moved on to the monkey bars.

Living in America as an immigrant is a unique experience. It’s so easy to mold yourself to the culture; especially since I’ve lived in America since I was young and never really spoke with a polish accent. But part of me feels as though with every American trait I pick up, I am losing the part of me that is tied to and shares so much in common with my country. With each passing year, I find myself taking longer to say things in polish. I find it a little more frustrating to communicate with my relatives in a language that used to come so seamlessly. Going back to Poland every few years shows me just how much I have assimilated to American culture. But then, not even living in America feels completely natural. I always feel as though I’m a little different, a little out of place, but only I can tell. To most others I seem like an average American girl. But I’m not, I don’t want to be. But when you look like everyone else, how are you supposed to stand out and stand up for who you actually are?

I started my first year of college last year, which meant meeting hundreds of new people. With almost every new introduction came a comment on my name. “Wow so pretty, where’s it from?”, “Marcelina? What is that, Italian?” “It’s Polish” I would respond. But that response never felt like enough, I felt as though I was saying that I borrowed my name from another culture, separating myself from that culture. “I’m from Poland” I’d add. “Oh wow really, like, actually from Poland?” They always seem to ask as if shocked that someone who looks so “American” could be from somewhere else. “Yes.” I’d respond, “I was born there, I moved here when I was young.” “Well I would’ve never guessed; you speak English so well,” they respond as if they’ve just given me a compliment. “I’m not even an American citizen.” I add, in a desperate attempt to prove my authenticity, slightly ashamed that my name was the only part of me that conveyed my true nationality.