Reflections on Art and Life
What thoughts come to your mind when you hear the word “migration” or “immigration”? Is it adventure, exploration, and discovery, or danger, political conflict, and refuge? Perhaps you imagine what it would be like to start over in another country or to reinvent yourself. I am sure you have considered these issues if you have ever interacted with a foreigner or if you can trace your ancestral lineage to another continent. Perhaps you are an immigrant yourself and if so, then you are well acquainted with the psychological aspects accompanying leaving your place of origin.
It has been twenty-four years since I received my citizenship and pledged allegiance to the American flag for the first time, but nearly thirty years since I left the country of my birth, Poland. I have now lived abroad longer than I have ever lived in my homeland, and I feel more fluent conversing in English than I do in Polish. Over the years, intellectually, my assimilation to a new, foreign culture has become easier, but emotionally, the anniversary of the swearing ceremony always brings a mixed bag of personal reflections, now with a new and improved flavor, while I am visiting my native Poland.
My decision to immigrate to the United States was deliberate and I was excited about the new life that was unfolding there for me. Having grown up in a socialist country behind the Iron Curtain, I saw America (I know there are two of them but in this context, there is only one) as a promised land of freedom and endless possibilities. I still feel this way about my adopted country and I recognize how very lucky I have been to have lived there, to experience the kindness of friends and strangers, to have been educated, and to have my career unfold there.
But all these things have come at a great personal cost. Despite the outward assimilation, there persists the feeling of alienation, of being the other, of always remaining on the outside looking in, of never being fully rooted or fully belonging. We extol the virtues of globalism, the accessibility of travel and exploration, of the richness of cultural exchanges, but do we truly understand the long-term consequence of our increasingly nomadic lifestyles? For me, immigration became fertile soil for creative work but quicksand for emotional well-being.
I envy multigenerational families. I envy their reunions. I envy their tribalism. I envy their ancestral stories and how they claim the connection to the land on which they live. I know I will never have this kind of support or framework for my identity. I will forever float in some proximity to an idea of a home I will have to chisel, reexamine, redefine, and fence off with my own two hands.
Over the years, having polished my English pronunciation, I have reached a point where I can go for weeks without being asked by a stranger about my origins, but if I have skipped my fish oil supplements or when I experience stressful situations, my accent immediately thickens and I am inundated with nosy interrogations. I understand that for the most part, people mean well, but there is something truly discriminatory about being constantly reminded that “Ye ain’t from around here, are ye?”.
You might think that my visits to Poland bring some comfort in the matter but you would be mistaken. After a thirty-year absence, I feel out of place here, as well. I feel disconnected. I don’t understand the new political or cultural reality, even though I understand the language perfectly and I make some effort to remain informed.
A few years ago my mother told me she could detect a twinge of an American accent in my speech but seeing my consternation, she was kind not to bring it up again. I am a curiosity, an exception, an entertaining tidbit, a temporary glitch. I have been gone for too long and I have changed too much to pretend that I could ever fit here again.
Nevertheless, I have grown to accept that I am a hybrid; part American, and part European, outgoing and modern but reserved and conservative, enjoying luxury but content with scarcity, excited for the future but idealizing the past. I embrace these contradictions and out of them forge my own meaning. With age (I am told) comes an insight into who we truly are and I have learned to accept myself. I have built my own narrative from a patchwork of places in which I used to live. I have reconciled with my story.
Or so I thought until last summer.
Last summer, I received expanded results of an ancestral DNA test that have thrown me for a loop. I had taken a DNA test several years prior but only the one tracing my maternal lineage. Its results were underwhelming as I was described as 100% Eastern European (no surprises here). But now, with the pool of samples broadening every year, and with my paternal lineage also examined, the results allowed for a more in-depth view of my origins, and my identity began to wobble anew.
But first, a short history lesson. I was brought up with a firm understanding that both my parents were ethnically Polish and therefore Slavic in their culture and lineage. Both families had been pushed out of the former Eastern Polish territories (the so-called Eastern Borderlands) when at the beginning of World War II, Joseph Stalin, in agreement with Adolf Hitler, annexed them to the Soviet Union. Today those regions belong to Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus, with a Polish minority still present.
My ancestors’ stories are not unique. There are millions of native Poles whose parents and grandparents were forced to migrate with the shifting borders. They fled for their safety but also to be a part of rebuilding their devastated homeland after the war, to freely speak in their native Polish language, to receive Polish education, and to live with other native Poles. This was always the narrative that I received during my upbringing, one that naturally shaped my identity.
As an adult, I felt that I was a part of a broader Slavic family. It was obvious that our languages stemmed from the same root, our cuisine was full of cross-over recipes, and our pre-Christian pagan traditions had a common origin. Our folksongs and musical sensitivities were similar so it was only natural that the music I composed was characterized as having Slavic influences.
Imagine my surprise when the ancestral DNA test showed that, considering both the lineage of my mother and my father, I am only 27% Slavic, and that the predominant component in my ancestral makeup is 60% Baltic (modern Lithuanians and Latvians).
At first glance, this discovery can be easily explained. Given that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was established in the 14th century and dominated Eastern Europe well into the 18th century, it was expected that our nationalities would intermarry and that our DNA would mix. I should be satisfied with this explanation and put the issue to rest, except that I am not ready to overlook a profound sense of loss.
If the percentages were reversed, let’s say 60% Slavic and 27% Baltic, they would better align with my long-established identity. If the Balts were just another subgroup of the Slavs, I could stop fussing about it. But the Balts are a separate ethnic group with languages that are, well, not Slavic, and history and folklore I never bothered to understand.
The idea of my ancestors being ethnically Polish and Slavic may have been culturally correct in the short-term, in a handful of recent generations, but biology has uncovered massive cultural assimilation of one ethnicity by another. In the best-case scenario, there was love, marriage, or a gradual merging of societies, but just as easily, there could have been violence and forced integration.
A friend asked me, “What now?”, and I answered, half-jokingly, “Therapy”, but, truly, this revelation is profound to me and I must come to terms with it while rebuilding a new understanding of who I am. I have some reading to do, more soul-searching. Will my music be affected? Will my painting? Who are my people and where am I from? Where do I truly belong? I feel that my entire historical narrative has shifted and that somehow, I must give voice to those DNA sequences in my body that have silently waited all this time to be discovered.
I wonder how much we really know about ourselves, given our incomplete, selective memories from our childhood and the faulty narratives handed down to us from our parents and grandparents, based on their selective memories. And then, of course, there is the perennial issue of history always being written by the victors. How can we be sure that what the textbooks describe in confident detail, actually took place? Since Poland regained her independence in 1989, the modern narrative of the 20th century alone, including World War I, World War II, the Soviet occupation, and the fall of the Iron Curtain, has changed at least three times, and historians of different factions still argue about their heroes and their traitors. If the 20th century is a mess, what about the earlier periods? How reliable are the historical accounts on which we build our provenance as individuals and as entire nations?
Who am I? Ethnically Baltic, culturally Polish, and by choice, American, I am an amalgam of these contrasting worlds, centuries apart, continents apart. While looking back, I am intrigued by the discovery of who I am now and who I will become in the future. And although the idea of a singular external home might be elusive, I feel that the answers await within.
©2022 Dosia McKay
Image by Sergei Tokmakov