In the United States citizenship and nationality are one and the same thing. You are automatically American if you are born on the U.S. territory or if you are born to American parents anywhere. You can also become American by reciting the oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony. As an immigrant, you can be born to parents of any nationality, anywhere in the world, and speak any language, but if you meet the formal requirements of citizenship, including publicly declaring the subscription to a set of ideas, enshrined in the constitution, you can become not just a citizen of the United States but also an American by nationality.
The American notion of the nation derives from the French civic nationalism, based on territory and language: if you were born or live in France or to French parents, and speak French, you are French. By contrast, in the German, ethnic concept of the nation, you must be born German (to German parents) to be German. There paths to citizenship but even if you become a citizen of Germany you may never become German (the same kinship-based approach applies in my native Slovakia and all the other countries east of Germany).
Where Do You Come From, Bi-National?
A while ago two commentators of an (American) football game had a hard time pronouncing the name of the town in the Ukraine where Igor Olshansky of the San Diego Chargers was born. They tossed around various versions until one of them gave up and said, “It doesn’t matter, he’s American now.”
During one of Team USA’s 2014 World Cup games that I watched at an old college friend’s house, her 8-year old son asked me, “Why are you rooting for America?” Concentrating on the game I absent-mindedly blurted out, “Because that’s where I’m from.” An animated discussion ensued. My friend got upset that I, who like her come from Slovakia, would renounce my roots to such a degree as to say something like that. “You are from Slovakia!” she said. “You’re right” I argued, “I am from Slovakia. But I’m also from the United States now.” I failed to get my point across, perhaps because I didn’t understand it completely myself. I do now.
Stranger in the Homeland
The immigrant always leaves something behind in the country where he was born that can only be found and retrieved there.
Sometimes my friends or family here in the U.S. say, with shock in their voices, “What? You’ve never seen the show XYZ?” I usually respond by saying, “What, you’ve never seen The 30 Cases of Major Zeman? Nu pogodi? Linda? Never heard the hits of Elán or Peter Nagy or even Boney M?” These are pop culture artifacts fellow Slovaks can relate to.
At the same time, when I visit Slovakia, I always see new, unfamiliar celebrities in magazines, spot new TV shows or politicians, hear new bands—and feel like I’ve missed out and will never catch back up. Some of my family call me The American: I live here, I dress like one, and in the first few days of visiting I speak Slovak with the American accent.
The immigrant ceases to be complete in the country he was born, between the borders of his origin. I am no longer 100 percent Slovak—I’ve become a foreigner in my own country.
The Asymptotic American, Always a Foreigner
Yet, American passport or not, deep down it’s impossible to become an American completely. It is impossible for me to ever digest the entirety of pop-cultural fodder my wife’s or friends’ identities are built on, to know all the products and shows and musical acts that formed their consciousness, to completely relate on the pop cultural level (or any other level that defines Americanness, for that matter).
You can become an American in name but, like an asymptote which never touches the axis toward which it forever curves, you can never become American all the way. Even after more than 10 years of full immersion, I learn something new, a new pop-culture reference, a new word or turn of phrase, a new historical factoid. I still get overwhelmed in the supermarket or department store, I still ask for nuances in the meaning of certain words, I still question the unspoken in the natives’ behavior, forever hoping to catch up.
I will never be complete in my new nation—I may be an American but I will always remain a foreigner.
Living in the Crack Between Two Cultures
The immigrant here lives split between two countries, two nations, two cultures: that of his origin and America. He teeters in the crack between them, with one foot in each and his soul in neither. And as the two nations and their cultures evolve, they shift like ice floes and the feet get wobbly.
Not only does the ground beneath the immigrant’s feet shift constantly, he cannot recognize his face in the mirror. I look at myself in America and I am Slovak; I look at myself outside the U.S. and I am American or I am Slovak, depending on where I am or how I feel; I look at myself in Slovakia and I am American. Yes, I can select between these identities, I can choose to say who I am or where I’m from. But in the choosing between the two selves the identity that’s left behind for the moment doesn’t go away: it lingers around the edges, shifted off-center like images with misaligned colors.
I am no longer Slovak and never will be Slovak again—I live in the past. I am not quite yet American and never bill be American—I live in the future. This in-betweenness, the impossibility of the present, is the immigrant’s permanent condition.