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March 30, 2015

On journeys

- 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.

To explore other articles in this short series about Poland, click here. You can also directly proceed to the next entry here.

23 comments:

  1. Hi Michał. An interesting read. Unfortunately, the history of low wages in Poland is longer than the communist rule. The last time they were on par with Western Europe was 450 years ago. Take a look here: https://plus.google.com/+MarcinCiura/posts/Uysmrv3nExu for a chart of carpenters' (I realized too late that my "bricklayers" caption was wrong) wages in grams of pure silver in Krakow and other European cities from the Middle Ages to 1914.

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  2. Thank you for sharing. I'm always keenly aware how literally lucky I am to have just happened to be born in the US. And being allowed to know a little bit of the story of someone I deeply respect, who was not so lucky, just helps hammer that home. The reality of the situation is that first generation immigrants are far more deserving of their status as true Americans than those of us through no effort of our own find ourselves living here.

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  3. My story rhymes with yours in some ways. A fairly poor background in the west of Ireland, born in '79, but I didn't get my hands on a computer until I was well into my teens - I had to make do with hanging out in computer shops - and I didn't have any access to technical info until I got online, at 17 or so. I was entirely self-taught, and I mean myself, I didn't communicate with anyone until then, and then it was only occasional newsgroups posts; the advantage it gives me today is that I don't easily give up on a technical problem.

    I got my degree, however, and ultimately a job offer in the US, which I accepted. But my H-1B was delayed from so much demand, and when I got it the next year, I never made the jump. Instead, I moved to London with my girlfriend, and worked remotely for over 6 years.

    I flew back and forth two or three times a year, for a couple of weeks at a time. I got used to how Californians lived, with everything so spread apart (everything seems scaled up about 2-3x), the flimsy wooden houses (because earthquakes), the rich smell of Eucalyptus (not native, but surprisingly common), the dangers of poison ivy, the overwhelming selection of soft drinks in shops, how reminiscent so much of it is of movies made in California, the whole lot of it.

    But London has things that are much harder to find on the west coast of the US. You mention welcoming immigration. I do not think the US welcomes immigrants. Nearly 40% of London's population is immigrants (albeit usually from elsewhere in Europe). California is a monoculture in comparison.

    It's blindingly obvious that "documented" Californians would be massively poorer without Mexican labour - they are treated as an underclass only a couple of rungs up from slaves, creating wealth at bargain prices. The US debate on immigration is very skewed, most people don't have any perspective.

    I miss the clean air, the wooded hills, the emptiness of the countryside, and to a certain extent the technical depth of available opportunities. On the other hand, London is not without opportunities, and I still have the whole of the rest of Europe close by whenever I want to get on my motorbike. And I get over 30 days vacation without it being a seniority perk. That one was the deal-breaker. Move to the US, but only get 10 days vacation? So I'd have to waste an entire year's worth of vacation just to visit home and just barely make the trip worthwhile? Idiocy!

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    1. There are places in Europe that do feel more cosmopolitan and open to immigration than the never-ending suburbs of the Bay Area; I would certainly mention London, Paris, Berlin, or Amsterdam. But when looking at densely populated cities, I think a comparison with New York City would be more apt.

      That said, I always had the impression that as a whole, the immigrants in the US seem to face much less prejudice and can assimilate much better than in many places in Europe. Of course, we could keep trading counterexamples; for the riots in Paris, for the new wave of antisemitism, for the anti-Muslim nationalism, for the Roma camps - something like Ferguson is an interesting counterpoint.

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    2. I think this really depends on the individual and the community. If you try to build a relationship with the community, they'll accept you: I did this in the U.S. and now doing it in Zurich, and people are welcoming. If you hang around with expats (like I did in Amsterdam), the community will look at you as a foreigner. Language of course will provide challenges in building those relationships, so Europe might be a tougher nut to crack.

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    3. You know, I don't speak from a whole lot of experience, so I may be off-base... but I always had the impression that while you can make friends and be welcomed in most European cities, you are always a foreigner with a very noticeable accent, not getting half the jokes, and not quite fitting in. Even after a decade in Paris, it will probably feel odd to call yourself French.

      In the US, it seems much easier to assimilate, in part because of the sheer scale of immigration and the fact that tons of people trace their lineage to parent, grandparent, or grand-grandparent immigrants, often still referring to themselves as "Something-American"... and in part because the culture is very diverse and familiar to many.

      Now, there are arguments to be had that the experience isn't the same for all ethnic groups, and it's a grave concern for many western countries - Mexicans can face prejudice in the US, while Jews and Muslims have to put up with violence and threats in parts of Europe.

      Another argument you can make is that the US "melting pot" dynamics are actually detrimental in some ways to one's cultural heritage. In some ways, yup, but I think the benefits are fairly substantial, too.

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    4. Michał, as a fellow expat I can somewhat relate to parts of your story.

      I don't want to piss on your parade, leave any negative feelings or any such thing, so this comment is only a reply to your last one above, *not* to the whole of the blog post - I'm glad you have found a place where you feel "at home".

      A couple of years ago, we were visiting my then fiancée's (now wife) dad in the States. During our stay this[0] had taken place just over 150 miles away in the same state. Sure, these kind of things happen the world over - it's not a competition. What I do mind is the overwhelming ease at which any loon can obtain a firearm and then commit a hate crime with it. Not to mention American Police "shoot first, ask questions later" motto. I'm fairly dark for a Pole, mind you, so I think I'll pass on the US - I'd rather live in the UK, when even regular Bobbies are arms-free. Here, I only have to deal with idiots like Farage at the very most :^) ... and, as Barry had already mentioned, I also very much enjoy my 30+ days of annual leave and don't have to worry that I won't be able to afford medical treatment even if I'm unable to work.

      [0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisconsin_Sikh_temple_shooting

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    5. rjc: it's a fair thing to say. I came from a country with one of the more restrictive gun laws in Europe to one with very relaxed ones, and in many ways, it made me feel a bit queasy. But today, I also think there's also some nuance to gun laws and how they sort of serve as this ultimate proxy for personal liberties, and that thinking of it in terms of redneck sensibilities is an oversimplification (but of course, so is glancing over the direct toll of gun violence or that of the attitudes taken by the police in a heavily-armed nation).

      The scale of this is actually sort of breathtaking - there are around 300 million pieces of civilian firearms.

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  4. Really enjoyed your story. I had the pleasure of visiting Poland about six years ago for a security conference in Gdansk. The city was beautiful and I was so saddened to learn that it had been nearly completely destroyed in the war and then rebuilt to look like it used to. I think I romanticize life in Poland because of that trip, and your story reminds me that there is so much more to the country than what I saw in my limited viewpoint. Thank you again for sharing.

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  5. Thank you. That was a really well written and moving post.

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  6. Michal,

    First and foremost, congratulations. It's heartening to hear that good things do happen.

    As one who tried my best to advocate for you at "that Boston based company", I wish things had ended differently. Please know it wasn't for the lack of trying. If it's any comfort, things ended badly for a lot of people as that office wound down. Some more than others. As we often joked, "Houston, we have a problem." I recall flying to London with a bottle of Kentucky bourbon to visit a teammate. He opened the door with a big smile. "Hello, Dave. I guess this means I'm redundant." The bourbon and the friendship were sweet, despite the lousy circumstances. And of course, there was 9/11, which changed things here in the states in ways we're still trying to sort out. I still have the IRC logs on my hard drive from that day. Sobering to reread and to think about what this country became in the aftermath.

    BTW, we've reconstituted a small subset of the old team under a new umbrella. It's not the same, but nothing is after all.

    Lastly, great points on the immigration. I'm reminded of a teacher who was once asked, "Who is my neighbor?" The shocking answer was, "the foreigner".

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    1. Thank you!

      The circumstances at BindView played the way they did, but I'm pretty sure had no power to change that. If anything, I was grateful that you and Scott were so thoughtful and willing to go the extra mile for the team. Of course, I didn't feel that way at the time, but looking back, I have no regrets. I learned a lot over the past 15 years, and I would have learned much less without taking that crazy risk in 2001.

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  7. Thanks for sharing your story Michał.
    You are one of the main reasons I am in InfoSec right now and have you as my authority since I was 16 years old, driven by your story from some interview in polish hackers community forum.

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  8. You managed to find your own path, and can be proud of your achievements. I remember your posts to Bugtraq since like 2000 (or even earlier), then first book coming (Silence on the Wire / Cisza w sieci), and many other interesting articles and analysis of yours on Openwall and around. I think you've inspired lots of folks here in Poland to pursuit our goals, and proven that any obstacles can be dealt with, if we only want - no matter where we come from. Thanks for that, and GL in future - stay inspiring :).

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  9. I was also born in '81 in the Warsaw area (Wolomin). This post almost exactly mirrored my childhood, and I'm sure, the childhood of many other young Poles. The difference comes with my family winning a visa lottery, and having a month to decide if we want to pack up everything we can fit into two suitcases and move to the US, shortly after the wall fell. My parents decided it was best for the future prospects of their kids to leave everything and everyone behind and 'go for it' (naturally, we as kids did not agree). I think, based on reading your closing paragraph, and some of the other posts you have written, we have a vastly different view of how the US treats its own citizens and definitely a differing view or definition of 'welcoming of foreigners' in the US. My experience, and anecdotally the experience of almost all of my immigrant and minority friends (mostly from Mexico and Jamaica), is one of having to endure blatant daily racism, xenophobia, and ignorance throughout middle and high school years (which my parents still face in their lives now). I have a feeling the difference in our socio-economic statuses may shapes these rifts of opinion. Hell, very few, if any of my black friends even feel welcome in the US. I'm not saying bigotry is exclusive to the US, just that, to borrow a phrase from Dave Chappelle, racism seems to be stewed to perfection here.

    > It also makes me realize how small and misguided must be the conversations we are having about immigration...

    I agree with this point.. It's 2015, and I am disappointed, though not surprised, that *citizens of Earth* are still not allowed to travel over these imaginary borders we've constructed, however and whenever they choose, with or without proof of identification or "paperz"!

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    1. It's a fair point and I wrote that sentence very reluctantly. Of course, perspectives differ, not only because of economic circumstances or ethnic background, but merely as a function of where you ended up at. It's different in the fairly cosmopolitan west coast or east coast communities that I experienced the most; different in mid-western metropolies such as Chicago; and different in some rural town in Alabama.

      I'm also not fooling myself that my own adventure gives me insight into the plight of others. In some ways, I came from a relatively disadvantaged background. But I escaped many other hardships simply by being born a white European male.

      The reason I decided to keep that passage is that I feel that the US still fares well compared to much of the old world. On a very personal level, growing up in a bad part of Poland, I witnessed the sort of deep-rooted intolerance and bigotry that is hard to imagine today in the US. In a less anecdotal sense, the anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant sentiments in parts of Europe - in France, in Switzerland, in the UK - seem to have grown into something far more profound and overt than what you see in America, at least as far as I can tell.

      That said, I definitely recognize that many immigrants to the US face hardships or discrimination. The silver lining is that many who overcome the challenges do find a place where they can feel at home. I feel that in Poland and many other culturally homogeneous and traditionalist places, you are different - an outsider - for life.

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    2. > ...but merely as a function of where you ended up at.

      Absolutely true! I ended up initially in the ghetto of North Chicago, and eventually moved slightly over the WI/IL border to SE WI. It's likely my initial experiences of the US were more extreme than others': I went from being the only white kid in school in North Chicago ("that weird European cracker nobody can understand"), to an almost all white school in WI ("that weird wigger that talks and acts black"). It was quite the shock in both cases, especially since I had no idea I was acting or talking anything other than the American way I have learned :-). It definitely made me realize that there is not just a single unified US, and that the different Americas I've been exposed to, despite only being 10-20 miles away from each other, were, I felt, likely not going to see eye to eye anytime soon, each harboring a dislike and fear of the "foreign" world with all of the ignorant prejudices that entails. Ultimately I ended up moving to N.C. not too long ago. A place where a largely racially-dictated eugenics program was in effect well into the 1970's. The state and people here are definitely still feeling and trying to deal with the effects of that program. With all that said, I eventually realized people are people no matter where on Earth they reside (same characters, same flaws, same biases and behaviors), and married a smart, caring, beautiful American girl (my grandma cried throughout the whole ceremony :-D [ she likely still harbored those good ol' anti-American views and stereotypes Poland is full of ]).

      > In a less anecdotal sense, the anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant sentiments in parts of Europe - in France, in Switzerland, in the UK - seem to have grown into something far more profound and overt than what you see in America, at least as far as I can tell.

      I completely agree (well, there is definitely some downright overt shit going on here in the southeast). I was incredulous when I saw some of these countries (France especially) pass their anti-burqa law under the guise of security. I was always aware of the anti-Polak views of a good chunk of the UK and it seems, western europe, but the anti-immigrant crowd now seems to be not only institutionalized but organized and actively *in* Parliament! I'm reminded of the rough time my good Eastern Orthodox friend had in Poland as well. Interestingly, most of the ignorance came from the parents and not our friends. :-)

      > The silver lining is that many who overcome the challenges do find a place where they can feel at home. I feel that in Poland and many other culturally homogeneous and traditionalist places, you are different - an outsider - for life.

      I agree here as well. The Americans have an idiom that I've always loved - "Home is where the heart is"... so simple, so beautiful, so true.

      Also, just wanted to say besides all of the head-nods, happy, and bitter-sweet memories reading this post evoked, this paragraph rang with truth the loudest for me:

      > 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...

      This brought back memories of an 11 year old me, shortly after moving to the US... old dictionary in one hand, pen in the other, eyes glazed over, translating as best as I could at that time, a job application and insurance paperwork for my mother...

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  10. Thank you Michal for your very well-thought-out post. I'm of the opinion that people are the same wherever you go. We all have flaws and prejudices, but hopefully, are enlightened enough to admit it and work on them.

    I'm a programmer, from Chicago originally, and my mom is a Zalewski. Her grandfather Szczepan came to Chicago in the 1890's and was naturalized around 1920. I'd like to find out where he was born but it seems that the names of villages have changed again and again. How might I track this down?

    Your English is amazingly good. It's very hard to acquire a new language as an adult so I'm just stunned at how good your skills are! I've been taking Pimsleur Polish lessons, but they only made 30 of them, dang it. I've done them all but still only know a fraction of the language. Sometimes I go on google street view in a Polish town and walk around to see the signage. Of course, I know all the foodie words, heh heh.

    Thanks for putting your observations into writing. I often wonder what people in other countries think of us, and what differences an immigrant notices.

    Laurel (Dankowska, Zalewska, Losninecka, Urbanska, Wasilewska, etc...)

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    1. Thank you!

      Unfortunately, I'm not very familiar with the process of researching your ancestors in Poland. I'd start by asking around on Polish genealogy forums (searching for "forum genealogii" should give you plenty of hits). You will probably need to narrow down your grandfather's region of origin. Historical maps can help, and in the US, you may be able to get immigration / port-of-entry records.

      Equipped with that, it may be possible to find something in the national archives in Warsaw, or in local church records. Some records are searchable online, but more likely than not, you will need to send some e-mail or make phone calls. Good luck!:-)

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  11. For genealogy, being myself, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mitt Romney's 'Mormon Church), I would strongly recommend trying out FamilySearch.org. It's free. And, if you ever happen to actually convert to Mormonism, THEN, access to many of the genealogy sites elsewhere have become 'FREE', since so much of what ALL of them can get from well over a century of Mormons collecting family history data, is a treasure trove for most anyone, and most everyone.

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  12. I found your article on PREPAREDNESS (the 'lazy' approach) to be actually interesting, and insightful. 'Mormons' have for also well over a century, been taught and pushed to keep a food supply on hand. It use to be two years' supply. Then it became one. Now, they try to get members to get at least a 3-month supply. My 'little' family of nine have always strived to keep a year's supply, and we still do.

    Interestingly, in LDS scriptures, way back in 2005, I found out that among other calamities we believe God has had his prophets prophecy will happen, the EMP or Severe Solar Flare scenario is actually one of them. This same prophecy, though, is also found in the prophecies of Isaiah's contemporary of the 8th century BCE, Micah - in the same chapter, in fact, that his prophecies about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem, and him being pilloried by being hit in the face with a reed, which Jesus was, just prior to being crucified (Micah 5).

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