I still remember the car ride to the airport in Krakow on June 3rd, 2005. I remember what I was wearing and in fact, 14 years later, I still wear those pants every once in a while. I remember my olive-green Nike backpack and its contents, mainly some radio-recordings on cassette tapes (kids nowadays wouldn’t get it, am I right?!), metal Diddl pen cases, and a diary I had written in since 6thgrade. I remember keeping a detailed transcript of our flights with the Polish airlines LOT, first Krakow-Warszawa, then Warszawa-Chicago. I meticulously noted our seat numbers, the captain’s announcements, movies I watched, meals served, and even the flight information like elevation or outside temperature. I was 15 years old and I suppose at the time, this was the biggest event of my life, one worth noting.
A part of me knew that we were leaving Poland for good, but another part of me believed that it was going to be only a summer vacation and I would be back to hang out and study with my friends in two months’ time. I quickly woke up from my delusion when I realized that my family’s life was packed into 8 suitcases along with my mom’s Tiffany chandeliers and Polish hand-painted porcelain and I don’t know a single vacationer who travels in such style.
We came here on tourist visas and to this day I remember standing in front a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer who was in shock when my mom requested that he stamps our visas for 6 months. He mentioned that school in Poland starts in September and asked for the reason of the request. My mom saved the day and in the few words she knew in English said that we have family in Chicago and it would be a great opportunity for us to learn English. He could’ve turned us away and we would’ve been sent back to Poland, but instead – I suppose we were lucky – he let us in for 6 months. With a sigh of relief and gratitude on my mom’s face we proceeded into the terminal where my dad and uncle were waiting for us.
My dad came here 2 months earlier to look for a job and a place to live. But life is never as easy as it sounds, so for the first two weeks we lived with my mom’s mother in Chicago, who was also housing her two adult sons. Our 5-member family (I have 2 brothers) got situated in the attic where we slept on blowup mattresses while my parents looked for employment, housing, and a car. Given that our status was tourist, they could only work for “under the table” pay so my parents got hired on with a cleaning service company in the suburb of Chicago, Lisle.
Good ol’ Lisle, Illinois. That’s where my brothers and I went to school – my twin and I started 9thgrade, my younger brother 6th. I vividly remember visiting the high school for the first time for registration. We didn’t have social security numbers but they still accepted us into the system – pure amazement! I knew zero conversational English (I guess all those years of drilling grammar in school in Poland didn’t really pay off) but the anxious feeling when a test is placed in front of you was really familiar, as the Registrar gave me and my twin brother assessment tests for Math placement. Easy peasy, though they still placed me in freshman math – from which I tested out a few weeks later anyway.
High school was challenging. Not only in the typical teenage struggle way, but living on emigration with no knowledge of the culture or the language in massive unfamiliarity with innumerable uncertainties can really test a character. For many years I compared my story to others’ and failed to see the value in it. Having put in hard work into who I am right now, I have come to realize that it is one worth sharing. In a society where every thing and every person has a label and immigration is only portrayed as a dichotomous dynamic (either illegal and controversial or highly successful and so-called inspiring), there are the middle persons who do not get heard, so I am here to be their voice. Everyone’s journey is different and I am here to talk about mine. But today, I am just remembering how I got here. Literally.