– 1 –
Poland is an ancient country whose history is deeply intertwined with that of the western civilization. In its glory days, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth sprawled across vast expanses of land in central Europe, from Black Sea to Baltic Sea. But over the past two centuries, it suffered a series of military defeats and political partitions at the hands of its closest neighbors: Russia, Austria, Prussia, and – later – Germany.
After more than a hundred years of foreign rule, Poland re-emerged as an independent state in 1918, only to face the armies of Nazi Germany at the onset of World War II. With Poland’s European allies reneging on their earlier military guarantees, the fierce fighting left the country in ruins. Some six million people have died within its borders – more than ten times the death toll in France or in the UK. Warsaw was reduced to a sea of rubble, with perhaps one in ten buildings still standing by the end of the war.
With the collapse of the Third Reich, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin held a meeting in Yalta to decide the new order for war-torn Europe. At Stalin’s behest, Poland and its neighboring countries were placed under Soviet political and military control, forming what has become known as the Eastern Bloc.
Over the next several decades, the Soviet satellite states experienced widespread repression and economic decline. But weakened by the expense of the Cold War, the communist chokehold on the region eventually began to wane. In Poland, even the introduction of martial law in 1981 could not put an end to sweeping labor unrest. Narrowly dodging the specter of Soviet intervention, the country regained its independence in 1989 and elected its first democratic government; many other Eastern Bloc countries soon followed suit.
Ever since then, Poland has enjoyed a period of unprecedented growth and has emerged as one of the more robust capitalist democracies in the region. In just two decades, it shed many of its backwardly, state-run heavy industries and adopted a modern, service-oriented economy. But the effects of the devastating war and the lost decades under communist rule still linger on – whether you look at the country’s infrastructure, at its socrealist cityscapes, at its political traditions, or at the depressingly low median wage.
When thinking about the American involvement in the Cold War, people around the world may recall Vietnam, Bay of Pigs, or the proxy wars fought in the Middle East. But in Poland and many of its neighboring states, the picture you remember the most is the fall of the Berlin Wall.
– 2 –
I was born in Warsaw in the winter of 1981, at the onset of martial law, with armored vehicles rolling onto Polish streets. My mother, like many of her generation, moved to the capital in the sixties as a part of an effort to rebuild and repopulate the war-torn city. My grandma would tell eerie stories of Germans and Soviets marching through their home village somewhere in the west. I liked listening to the stories; almost every family in Poland had some to tell.
I did not get to know my father. I knew his name; he was a noted cinematographer who worked on big-ticket productions back in the day. He left my mother when I was very young and never showed interest in staying in touch. He had a wife and other children, so it might have been that.
Compared to him, mom hasn’t done well for herself. We ended up in social housing in one of the worst parts of the city, on the right bank of the Vistula river. My early memories from school are that of classmates sniffing glue from crumpled grocery bags. I remember my family waiting in lines for rationed toilet paper and meat. As a kid, you don’t think about it much.
The fall of communism came suddenly. I have a memory of grandma listening to broadcasts from Radio Free Europe, but I did not understand what they were all about. I remember my family cheering one afternoon, transfixed to a black-and-white TV screen. I recall my Russian language class morphing into English; I had my first taste of bananas and grapefruits. There is the image of the monument of Feliks Dzierżyński coming down. I remember being able to go to a better school on the other side of Warsaw – and getting mugged many times on the way.
The transformation brought great wealth to some, but many others have struggled to find their place in the fledgling and sometimes ruthless capitalist economy. Well-educated and well read, my mom ended up in the latter pack, at times barely making ends meet. I think she was in part a victim of circumstance, and in part a slave to way of thinking that did not permit the possibility of taking chances or pursuing happiness.
– 3 –
Mother always frowned upon popular culture, seeing it as unworthy of an educated mind. For a time, she insisted that I only listen to classical music. She angrily shunned video games, comic books, and cartoons. I think she perceived technology as trivia; the only field of science she held in high regard was abstract mathematics, perhaps for its detachment from the mundane world. She hoped that I would learn Latin, a language she could read and write; that I would practice drawing and painting; or that I would read more of the classics of modernist literature.
Of course, I did almost none of that. I hid my grunge rock tapes between Tchaikovsky, listened to the radio under the sheets, and watched the reruns of The A-Team while waiting for her to come back from work. I liked electronics and chemistry a lot more than math. And when I laid my hands on my first computer – an 8-bit relic of British engineering from 1982 – I soon knew that these machines, in their incredible complexity and flexibility, were what I wanted to spend my time on.
I suspected I could become a competent programmer, but never had enough faith in my skill. Yet, in learning about computers, I realized that I had a knack for understanding complex systems and poking holes in how they work. With a couple of friends, we joined the nascent information security community in Europe, comparing notes on mailing lists. Before long, we were taking on serious consulting projects for banks and the government – usually on weekends and after school, but sometimes skipping a class or two. Well, sometimes more than that.
All of the sudden, I was facing an odd choice. I could stop, stay in school and try to get a degree – going back every night to a cramped apartment, my mom sleeping on a folding bed in the kitchen, my personal space limited to a bare futon and a tiny desk. Or, I could seize the moment and try to make it on my own, without hoping that one day, my family would be able to give me a head start.
I moved out, dropped out of school, and took on a full-time job. It paid somewhere around $12,000 a year – a pittance anywhere west of the border, but a solid wage in Poland even today. Not much later, I was making two times as much, about the upper end of what one could hope for in this line of work. I promised myself to keep taking courses after hours, but I wasn’t good at sticking to the plan. I moved in with my girlfriend, and at the age of 19, I felt for the first time that things were going to be all right.
– 4 –
Growing up in Europe, you get used to the barrage of low-brow swipes taken at the United States. Your local news will never pass up the opportunity to snicker about the advances of creationism somewhere in Kentucky. You can stay tuned for a panel of experts telling you about the vastly inferior schools, the medieval justice system, and the striking social inequality on the other side of the pond. You don’t doubt their words – but deep down inside, no matter how smug the critics are, or how seemingly convincing their arguments, the American culture still draws you in.
My moment of truth came in the summer of 2000. A company from Boston asked me if I’d like to talk about a position on their research team; I looked at the five-digit figure and could not believe my luck. Moving to the US was an unreasonable risk for a kid who could barely speak English and had no safety net to fall back to. But that did not matter: I knew I had no prospects of financial independence in Poland – and besides, I simply needed to experience the New World through my own eyes.
Of course, even with a job offer in hand, getting into the United States is not an easy task. An engineering degree and a willing employer opens up a straightforward path; it is simple enough that some companies would abuse the process to source cheap labor for menial, low-level jobs. With a visa tied to the petitioning company, such captive employees could not seek better wages or more rewarding work.
But without a degree, the options shrink drastically. For me, the only route would be a seldom-granted visa reserved for extraordinary skill – meant for the recipients of the Nobel Prize and other folks who truly stand out in their field of expertise. The attorneys looked over my publication record, citations, and the supporting letters from other well-known people in the field. Especially given my age, they thought we had a good shot. A few stressful months later, it turned out that they were right.
On the week of my twentieth birthday, I packed two suitcases and boarded a plane to Boston. My girlfriend joined me, miraculously securing a scholarship at a local university to continue her physics degree; her father helped her with some of the costs. We had no idea what we were doing; we had perhaps few hundred bucks on us, enough to get us through the first couple of days. Four thousand miles away from our place of birth, we were starting a brand new life.
– 5 –
The cultural shock gets you, but not in the sense you imagine. You expect big contrasts, a single eye-opening day to remember for the rest of your life. But driving down a highway in the middle of a New England winter, I couldn’t believe how ordinary the world looked: just trees, boxy buildings, and pavements blanketed with dirty snow.
Instead of a moment of awe, you drown in a sea of small, inconsequential things, draining your energy and making you feel helpless and lost. It’s how you turn on the shower; it’s where you can find a grocery store; it’s what they meant by that incessant “paper or plastic” question at the checkout line. It’s how you get a mailbox key, how you make international calls, it’s how you pay your bills with a check. It’s the rules at the roundabout, it’s your social security number, it’s picking the right toll lane, it’s getting your laundry done. It’s setting up a dial-up account and finding the food you like in the sea of unfamiliar brands. It’s doing all this without Google Maps or a Facebook group to connect with other expats nearby.
The other thing you don’t expect is losing touch with your old friends; you can call or e-mail them every day, but your social frames of reference begin to drift apart, leaving less and less to talk about. The acquaintances you make in the office will probably never replace the folks you grew up with. We managed, but we weren’t prepared for that.
– 6 –
In the summer, we had friends from Poland staying over for a couple of weeks. By the end of their trip, they asked to visit New York City one more time; we liked the Big Apple, so we took them on a familiar ride down I-95. One of them went to see the top of World Trade Center; the rest of us just walked around, grabbing something to eat before we all headed back. A few days later, we were all standing in front of a TV, watching September 11 unfold in real time.
We felt horror and outrage. But when we roamed the unsettlingly quiet streets of Boston, greeted by flags and cardboard signs urging American drivers to honk, we understood that we were strangers a long way from home – and that our future in this country hanged in the balance more than we would have thought.
Permanent residency is a status that gives a foreigner the right to live in the US and do almost anything they please – change jobs, start a business, or live off one’s savings all the same. For many immigrants, the pursuit of this privilege can take a decade or more; for some others, it stays forever out of reach, forcing them to abandon the country in a matter of days as their visas expire or companies fold. With my O-1 visa, I always counted myself among the lucky ones. Sure, it tied me to an employer, but I figured that sorting it out wouldn’t be a big deal.
That proved to be a mistake. In the wake of 9/11, an agency known as Immigration and Naturalization Services was being dismantled and replaced by a division within the Department of Homeland Security. My own seemingly straightforward immigration petition ended up somewhere in the bureaucratic vacuum that formed in between the two administrative bodies. I waited patiently, watching the deepening market slump, and seeing my employer’s prospects get dimmer and dimmer every month. I was ready for the inevitable, with other offers in hand, prepared to make my move perhaps the very first moment I could. But the paperwork just would not come through. With the Boston office finally shutting down, we packed our bags and booked flights. We faced the painful admission that for three years, we chased nothing but a pipe dream. The only thing we had to show for it were two adopted cats, now sitting frightened somewhere in the cargo hold.
The now-worthless approval came through two months later; the lawyers, cheerful as ever, were happy to send me a scan. The hollowed-out remnants of my former employer were eventually bought by Symantec – the very place from where I had my backup offer in hand.
– 7 –
In a way, Europe’s obsession with America’s flaws made it easier to come home without ever explaining how the adventure really played out. When asked, I could just wing it: a mention of the death penalty or permissive gun laws would always get you a knowing nod, allowing the conversation to move on.
Playing to other people’s preconceptions takes little effort; lying to yourself calls for more skill. It doesn’t help that when you come back after three years away from home, you notice all the small annoyances that you used to simply tune out. Back then, Warsaw still had a run-down vibe: the dilapidated road from the airport; the drab buildings on the other side of the river; the uneven pavements littered with dog poop; the dirty walls at my mother’s place, with barely any space to turn. You can live with it, of course – but it’s a reminder that you settled for less, and it’s a sensation that follows you every step of the way.
But more than the sights, I couldn’t forgive myself something else: that I was coming back home with just loose change in my pocket. There are some things that a failed communist state won’t teach you, and personal finance is one of them; I always looked at money just as a reward for work, something you get to spend to brighten your day. The indulgences were never extravagant: perhaps I would take the cab more often, or have take-out every day. But no matter how much I made, I kept living paycheck-to-paycheck – the only way I knew, the way our family always did.
– 8 –
With a three-year stint in the US on your resume, you don’t have a hard time finding a job in Poland. You face the music in a different way. I ended up with a salary around a fourth of what I used to make in Massachusetts, but I simply decided not to think about it much. I wanted to settle down, work on interesting projects, marry my girlfriend, have a child. I started doing consulting work whenever I could, setting almost all the proceeds aside.
After four years with T-Mobile in Poland, I had enough saved to get us through a year or so – and in a way, it changed the way I looked at my work. Being able to take on ambitious challenges and learn new things started to matter more than jumping ships for a modest salary bump. Burned by the folly of pursuing riches in a foreign land, I put a premium on boring professional growth.
Comically, all this introspection made me realize that from where I stood, I had almost nowhere left to go. Sure, Poland had telcos, refineries, banks – but they all consumed the technologies developed elsewhere, shipped here in a shrink-wrapped box; as far as their IT went, you could hardly tell the companies apart. To be a part of the cutting edge, you had to pack your bags, book a flight, and take a jump into the unknown. I sure as heck wasn’t ready for that again.
And then, out of the blue, Google swooped in with an offer to work for them from the comfort of my home, dialing in for a videoconference every now and then. The starting pay was about the same, but I had no second thoughts. I didn’t say it out loud, but deep down inside, I already knew what needed to happen next.
– 9 –
We moved back to the US in 2009, two years after taking the job, already on the hook for a good chunk of Google’s product security and with the comfort of knowing where we stood. In a sense, my motive was petty: you could call it a desire to vindicate a failed adolescent dream. But in many other ways, I have grown fond of the country that shunned us once before; and I wanted our children to grow up without ever having to face the tough choices and the uncertain prospects I had to deal with in my earlier years.
This time, we knew exactly what to do: a quick stop at a grocery store on a way from the airport, followed by e-mail to our immigration folks to get the green card paperwork out the door. A bit more than half a decade later, we were standing in a theater in Campbell, reciting the Oath of Allegiance and clinging on to our new certificates of US citizenship.
The ceremony closed a long and interesting chapter in my life. But more importantly, standing in that hall with people from all over the globe made me realize that my story is not extraordinary; many of them had lived through experiences far more harrowing and captivating than mine. If anything, my tale is hard to tell apart from that of countless other immigrants from the former Eastern Bloc. By some estimates, in the US alone, the Polish diaspora is about 9 million strong.
I know that the Poland of today is not the Poland I grew up in. It’s not not even the Poland I came back to in 2003; the gap to Western Europe is shrinking every single year. But I am grateful to now live in a country that welcomes more immigrants than any other place on Earth – and at the end of their journey, makes many of them them feel at home. It also makes me realize how small and misguided must be the conversations we are having about immigration – not just here, but all over the developed world.