Truth is, I don’t know. There was no defining moment, not at the level of awareness nor at the level of government bureaucracy.
Some two dozen years ago, I switched my status from that of a resident alien to a US citizen, but I really don’t remember exactly when it happened. I was never naturalized. At some point, during the looser times of the eighties, I requested a passport and, based on my familial history, too complicated to explain here, I was granted it.
So maybe, technically, I had always been an American, even though I was born and raised in Poland, was eligible to vote in Poland, left the country as a Pole and returned to it as a Pole?
In those early decades of my life, I was so Polish that the idea of a different identity would be shocking. Sort of like finding out that you were adopted. Guess what, you are an American!
When my first American passport came in the mail (when? when?? 1985? later?) I did not relinquish my Polish passport and so I am technically a Pole as well. Technically? I feel my formative mush inside is composed of more Polish identifiers than American ones. Even though, right now, I really have more in common with the folks on this side of the ocean.
Today I wanted to file for a new American passport. I had lost my “real one” back in Italy (or Switzerland?), in May and time was running out: replacement passports obtained abroad have to be switched over to the real thing within a year. I called the US Passport people and asked what it is that I need for filing purposes (it isn’t clear on the web for losers like me. Losers of passports. Losers of identities, maybe).
Easy! I am told. Submit form XXX, two photos, your temporary replacement passport, a copy a drivers license and, you know, because we are going through tough times, proof of citizenship: your birth certificate or naturalization papers.
But I have neither! I am a child of Poland, an adult of America, maybe I was always American, but I certainly didn’t know it until I was close to forty and if not, I do not know when I became an American.
No birth certificate?
A Polish one.
No naturalization papers?
Hmmm. Do you have an old passport? An invalid one? That would do.
Notice to the general public of Switzerland and Italy: somewhere on your soil lies my true identity. I left it there. Could you help me locate it please? It bears testament to the fact that I am an American! (I am American, aren’t I?)
You don’t have any old passports at all, do you?
I remember getting rid of clutter as I moved to the loft a little over a year ago. Does an old passport constitute clutter? And if I trashed it, what now? Where is there proof that I am indeed an American?
I think about how I have made travel my life (or so it sometimes seems). I think how ironic that my traveling days may be over. How can I leave the country if I have no papers giving me permission to return?
I drive around Madison, looking at the land that is suddenly not my homeland or at least not if I leave it, if I can leave it. Snow-covered, blue and yellow land, my favorite colors, snow is blue, sunlight is yellow, am I a Swede?
Of this I am certain: I am not a Swede.
Driving west, driving east, east meets west – I live in downtown Madison now where indeed the east meets the west. In the same way that my eastern roots met my western identity? Am I a median of the two? The halfway point to each? Is that why I like France? Or the ocean?
I pass my old neighborhood where I lived until recently. Until the time I threw out old papers. The snow looks clean and fresh here. It is a child’s neighborhood. A place to grow up, a place to be an American.
Wait, one more drawer of papers and mementos. I can check one more drawer. At the loft, I open it, a drawer that holds my identity. An envelope with a letter written just two years ago. It tells me to protect and take care of my new passport (I failed! I lost it in Italy or Switzerland or in crossing from one to the other!). The letter accompanies an old, canceled, dated passport.
I am American after all. I am, aren’t I? A cancelled identity, broken, rebuilt, resubmitted for a stamp of approval. You're one of us! Am I? You almost didn't claim me. No matter. Confusion is the story of my life. On either side of the ocean.