Tuesday, June 27, 2006

What's in a Name?

I have given quite a bit of thought to the meaning of national identity here in the United States, specifically to those of us with immigrant backgrounds (I suppose that would be all your non-full-blooded-Indians out there.) My family came to the US around the turn of the 20th century, mostly people from Eastern Europe with a little Lebanese thrown in for good measure, all trying to find a better life through hard work and opportunity. And since I'm not slaving away in a factory somewhere, or working my fingers to the bone on some farm in Poland, I'd say they succeeded not only for themselves but for their families and descendants.

But how do I identify myself? I am an American. I was born here. My parents were born here. My grandparents were all born here. I feel no connection to Europe whatsoever - even when I lived in London, I didn't visit any of the places from which my family emmigrated. But geneaology is a hobby in my family, and although I don't get into it like my mother and grandfather, I certainly find it fascinating. When I was in New York, I went to Ellis Island and found my ancestor's names on the wall o' immigrants there - that is the familial connection I feel, the one that drove them from Poland to the US to look for something better.

It's interesting because during our family reunions, especially on the Polish side, we do Polishy kinds of things - eat Kielbasa, wear the Polish eagle on the family reunion shirts, and so on. My grandfather is in the Polish club, and he went back and learned Polish (again) so he could talk to our Polish relatives (and, I suspect, for his own enjoyment.) Since his parents came from Poland, they spoke Polish in the home, so learning it was never a problem. He's got the Polish flag in his house, and boy howdy don't you dare say anything negative about Poland in his presence.

But here's the rub: I don't really see myself in that context. Maybe it's because I'm more of a mutt when it comes to my ancestor's nationalities than he is (German, Hungarian, Lebanese, etc.) but I've always identified myself as an American first and foremost. I've struck up a friendship with some gamers in Poland, and they thought it was kind of funny that I mentioned I was "part Polish" to them, because in their eyes, I'm an American and that's it. And in my mind, that's how I feel too.

I haven't always felt that way, though. In college, I struggled with the national identity thing, especially in my time abroad when Americans were not terribly well thought of in Europe thanks to our involvement in Kosovo (and frankly, I saw plenty of Americans doing dumbassed shit anyway.) But it's something I've been stumbling towards for a while, and yesterday I think I finally cemented how I feel about it.

My Polish gaming pal pointed me towards the Polish Wikipedia, which has an article about the Fallout PnP RPG I wrote back in college (which is apparently huge in Poland.) The article cites me as an author, but it doesn't use the Polish spelling my last name - which would be MicaƂ - rather, it uses the Polish version of the Americanized spelling and pronunciation, Micala. My first impulse was to edit the article to reflect the Polish spelling of my name, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that would be dishonest. Mical is the last name some Ellis Island official gave my family when they were huddled masses yearning to be free, and it's been our last name ever since. And although I hadn't thought about it in quite some time, that is certainly how I see myself - the third generation product of immigrants, American through and through.

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