The Bearable Lightness of Being

If you live long enough and contentedly enough in exile, your feelings of estrangement can evolve into a sense of living two lives at once


Two springs ago my husband got a teaching job in Boston. It wouldn’t start until September, so that gave us plenty of time to do the things people do when they know they’ll be moving. In mid-March we put our house up for sale, hoping we’d find a buyer before the beginning of the fall semester. The day after it was listed, we had three offers. We were overjoyed that in such a terrible real-estate market we’d be able to sell, but dismayed it had happened so fast, since we had to stay in Fresno until the school year ended. The simplest thing to do, we decided, was to sell the house and then rent it from its new owners for a few weeks.

I dreaded the moment when I’d walk out the front door for the last time, weepy and emotional. That was what happened in 1985 when I left Wroclaw, a city in southwest Poland, where I attended college and lived for 13 years. At that time I had no clue under what circumstances I’d ever return to Poland because, after the brutal suppression of Solidarity and the nightmare of martial law, no one would venture optimistic predictions about the demise of communism in that part of the world. It was quite possible I’d never again see the house I lived in. As my uncle was driving me to the airport and we reached the end of my street, I looked back one more time. Although I wanted to return to America to join the man I was in love with, whom I’d met on an academic exchange program the previous year, I was also heartbroken and grieving for the loss of my home. The only place I’d ever left before was my hometown in northeastern Poland, but that was a different departure. I’d outgrown it and was overjoyed at the prospect of going to college in a big city. Though I knew I’d miss the landscape of my childhood, the woods I explored with friends, and the lakes in which we swam each summer, I also knew that I could always hop on a train and go there. After all, as my grandmother said to my mother and father who were ill at ease at my moving so far away, I wasn’t leaving for another country.

I had every reason to believe that I would experience some degree of sadness when we were driving away from Fresno, but nothing like that happened. I was as detached as if I were watching someone else. When we reached the freeway and the city gradually receded into a blurry background, both the house and the place itself stopped existing—they vanished from my consciousness.

Was I surprised at my reaction? Yes and no. I loved our home with its light modern design, its floor-to-ceiling windows, the irregularly shaped back yard, and the eye of a pool surrounded by boulders and tall redwoods. It was the space that over the years had become my refuge, as houses are supposed to be. But I never learned to like the city it was in, even though I lived there 21 years, much longer than anywhere else. Not that I didn’t try.

Before we moved to Fresno we’d lived in a series of rented apartments and houses in two very different but attractive university towns. Those were the first years after I came to the United States, and back then I still felt like a tourist, someone for whom everything is new and riveting but also provisional. Since the two towns would be only small dots on the map of my life, I never tried to form an attachment to them.

By the time we moved to California, though, we already had a baby. Children tend to awaken nesting instincts even in those devoted to nomadic life. And children of immigrants bear an even more serious responsibility. They’re supposed to give these uprooted people a sense of rootedness and belonging. After our daughter was born, I suddenly felt settled in America, no longer sitting on the fence, to use the clichéd metaphor. I still kept looking over it, something most immigrants do, but I felt more connected to my adopted country. I just needed a tangible place, a house, a city, the space and area I would claim and make my home.

Fresno had been uncharted territory for me. I understood that it lay in the Central Valley, flanked to the east by the Sierra Nevada range, but that was the extent of my knowledge, enough to trigger fanciful imaginings. The names Valley and Sierra Nevada conjured images of lush green vegetation, crystalline brooks, majestic mountains. The images were kitschy, but I went there believing they would somehow prove true. When we drove into the town on a sultry August day, I was already disappointed. We’d entered the Valley a few hours earlier, and it wasn’t at all what I had imagined it to be. The fields on both sides of the freeway looked parched, the vegetation was the color of copper, and the mountains were nowhere to be seen because a thick cloud of pollution enveloped the area. We endured what remained of a hellish summer with temperatures hovering around 110 degrees, which, as we later found out, was the norm. Despite those setbacks, though, I hoped that with time I’d grow to like the place and be able to consider it home. I kept telling myself what the city’s longtime residents often said: Fresno may not be appealing, but it’s close to great places. And that was true. We could get to Yosemite or Sequoia National Park within an hour and a half, to the ocean in two and a half hours.

After about two years, I realized I’d never feel at home there. Our house was a comfortable oasis, but the at-home feeling didn’t continue farther than the back yard. I was familiar with the city; I drove in it every day, had friends and a job, but on some level it continued to be alien, not mine, and for the first few years I felt my foreignness most acutely. Whenever we returned from our travels, I didn’t experience what one is supposed to feel when returning home. I never felt moved like I did when I went back to Poland. I often asked myself whether the overall unattractiveness of the area could account for my sense of homelessness. Would I have felt differently if the place had been more appealing? Aesthetics may have played some role, but liking a place doesn’t translate into feeling at home. Could it have been that the landscape or the climate was so different from that of my childhood? Was I searching for something that I simply couldn’t have, that simply didn’t exist?


We’re all born into our childhood homes as if by happenstance, since we don’t choose the place of our birth. Yet those places, familiar like no others, determine our identity and create the parameters of what we will always search for in a home. A friend once told me that her Irish family had settled on Long Island and had always lived there. It was only when she went to Ireland for the first time that she realized why Long Island had become their chosen place. “I could see,” she said, “that they were looking for the landscape that would remind them of home, and they found something that to some extent resembled what they had left behind—greenery and proximity to water.”

For my father, who was born in Lithuania, the standard of natural beauty was always the scenery he remembered from his childhood. Each time we went for a walk outside the town we lived in, he would point to a clump of birch trees, inhale the smell of wet soil wafting from the meadows, and say, “Just like back home.” He’d lost his birthplace after the Yalta agreement, when his native region was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Since his family was Polish, they decided to join thousands of other “repatriates” and re-settle in the area in Poland that the communists’ newspeak labeled “the Recovered Territories.” He wasn’t an exile in the strict sense of the word. He never had to learn another language and culture, yet every now and then he still grew nostalgic for his childhood landscape.

Sometimes when life forces immigrants to settle in areas that don’t resemble the places they have left behind, they attempt to tame those strange surroundings by giving them names that can conjure up their old country. It’s enough to look at the American map and detect place names such as Frankfurt, Paris, Moscow, Prague, and Warsaw within geographic longitudes that have nothing in common with the ur-places they refer to. Those names are part of the exiles’ scheme that also makes them hang on to odds and ends from the old country: a frayed and faded wall hanging, a picture of their patron saint, a chipped plate, a photograph album. I’ve seen homes whose owners have been adding over the years to the trove of objects they originally brought with them. Paintings of landscapes, folk-art sculptures, rugs, bedspreads, vases—props that can create the illusion of home and subdue the foreignness of the environment.


People who have always lived in the country of their birth, even if they move away from the place where they were born, remain ensconced in the cocoon of their own language and culture. They don’t need instructions to apply for a driver’s license or enroll their children in school. They know that a drugstore houses a pharmacy and that a postman will pick up their outgoing letters from the mailbox. They recognize the elements of their environment. They shop in stores that look like the ones they remember from before their move, watch reruns of the TV shows they watched as children, follow the fortunes of their favorite sports teams. They may feel like exiles from their childhood—who doesn’t—but in all likelihood that’s the only exile they’ll ever know. Their lives are relatively seamless and rarely divided into before and after.

But people who have been forced to leave their homeland or who have left it by choice experience their lives as fragmented. The new reality may be attractive and even fascinating, but they view it from a distance. The election of a politician they despise may irritate them, but it’s an abstract irritation, somewhat lighter than what they would have felt back at home. The reality they inhabit seems remote and causes them little pain or excitement. The poet Czeslaw Milosz, whose own life was marked by displacement, captured that state of mind very well when he said that an immigrant, “locked in his misanthrope’s castle,” interacts with the natives in a superficial manner. And even when he has learned to understand what is being said around him, he will always hear alien intonations. After living in the United States for more than 50 years, Milosz decided to return to Poland, where he could feel at home at last.

The notion of “alien intonations” works the other way as well. The immigrant’s own intonations mark him forever as alien. Most immigrants sooner or later learn the language of their new country because they know how vital language is to the at-home feeling. They can express themselves comfortably in it, but it can never quite replace the language they learned as children by osmosis, which they grasp intuitively. Being cut off from one’s language is hard, and there’s no question that it exacerbates the feeling of homelessness. It’s hardest, however, for writers. They can’t help but be painfully aware of how the day-to-day living in another language makes the mother tongue slowly erode and pale, and how much effort it takes to keep it alive. In Speak, Memory Nabokov admits his “fear of losing or corrupting, through alien influence, the only thing [he] had salvaged from Russia—her language.” Many writers continue to write in their native language even when they know that their words may not reach the audience back home. They hold on to the native tongue because in their otherwise homeless state it is the only home they’ll ever have. Some writers can’t cope with the separation and grow silent. Others, however—maybe the ones with greater linguistic aptitude—try to make a life for themselves in the language of their new country. Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Samuel Beckett, Milan Kundera, and Ha Jin are just a few of those who gained recognition for the works they wrote in what was at one point a foreign language. Nabokov, Beckett, and Kundera each wrote in his own language before deciding to switch to English or French. Conrad and Ha Jin began to write fiction in English, having never written in their native language.

Conrad, like Nabokov, was fluent in French, since it was the language the Russian and Polish landed gentry spoke. But unlike Nabokov, who had English governesses and learned English as a child, Conrad initially knew only six English words. By the time his first book, Almayer’s Folly, was published, he had not only mastered English but also developed his highly distinctive, hauntingly evocative style. In 1919 he wrote a short author’s note to a new edition of A Personal Record, a book of reminiscence on his early life. The note addresses the question of his writing in English—a question that every writer who writes in an acquired language feels bound to consider sooner or later. Reviews and critical articles often discussed Conrad’s “choice” of English, but he wanted to correct that misconception. He had no choice in the matter, he writes. It was the genius of the language that adopted him and let him discover his natural gift for writing in English. If this seems like too optimistic a picture, we need to keep in mind that Conrad wrote those words when he was at the peak of his career, an admired and acclaimed novelist. By that time, English must have felt natural to him. He goes on to say what many emigrant writers often say: if he hadn’t written in English, he wouldn’t have become a writer. I’m not sure if that statement can be taken at face value. It’s not just the lure of the language that is responsible for Conrad’s and others’ decisions. I tend to think that without the splinter of exile, they wouldn’t have turned to the solace of writing. But dwelling on the experience of disorientation, estrangement, homelessness—those permanent fixtures in an immigrant’s life—is pointless. It’s better to talk about the redemption or even triumph afforded by what was at first a foreign language, particularly when one is addressing one’s newly acquired audience.

Do writers like Conrad or Kundera feel that the language they write in is theirs the way their mother tongue is? Most likely not, if only because they have a double perspective and see the new language through the prism of their original tongue. Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski, a Polish short-story writer and essayist who lived in Italy but wrote all his literary works in Polish, said that when he wrote in Italian, he felt as if he were touching that language through a thick glove, whereas when he wrote in his own language, it was “with the thin and innervated skin of [his] bare hands.” This metaphor perfectly conveys how writers often feel about their adopted language. But for most writers, writing in a non-native language is exhilarating. They may worry, as Nabokov did, that their English prose will never attain the level of their prose written in the mother tongue, but that doesn’t keep them from embracing it. They love the resistance of the new language, the discovery that comes with it, the discipline it demands. They turn each word and phrase over many times, savoring it like a morsel of delicious if somewhat mysterious food. For them their home in a new language may never have all the intimacies and comforts of the old home, but it’s a home nevertheless.

English has become such a home for me, too. When I came to the United States, I was in the comfortable position of knowing the language, since I had an MA in English literature and had been reading books in English for many years. But my English at the time was the English I had learned reading Jane Austen, Henry James, and James Joyce, and it had little to do with the living language I heard every day. I was fine when writing papers and often drew praise from my professors, but I was aware that I sounded formal and therefore distant in casual social exchanges. Now and then I had the eerie feeling that the person speaking English wasn’t really me, that it was a badly translated version of myself, and that I was playing a scripted role in which the words I used were unable to confront my true self. I even wondered if my husband knew the real me.

Gradually, as English became the language I used at home all the time, I grew comfortable with the nitty-gritty of it and gave up my metaphysical musings. I was in love with English, elated and obsessed, as if I’d again fallen for a person I used to know but had underestimated and he’d just returned from a 10-year sojourn abroad. To test my newly acquired linguistic confidence, I decided to try my hand at translating a Polish novel, Annihilation by Piotr Szewc. It was a long process, even though the novel is short, and I quickly discovered that the word confidence should remain outside the translator’s vocabulary. After Annihilation was published, I slowly moved into translating poetry and have been doing it ever since. But like Nabokov, I began to worry about my Polish losing its vigor as English dominated my daily life. To prevent that, I started keeping a notebook in my native language and a few years later began one in English to keep me writing in my acquired language. In English I wrote mainly about books I’d been reading, whereas I wrote more personal entries in Polish, as if English were still a somewhat more public language for me. If anyone requires proof of how schizophrenic an immigrant’s existence can be, this is it.

In 2006, my fear that I would lose my native tongue led to a decision to translate Philip Levine’s poems into Polish. That year I wrote the last entry in my English-language notebook. I still keep the other one, but have noticed that increasingly the Polish entries are interspersed with English. It seems that I have stopped evading some parts of myself and my life when I write in English, that the internal division is gone. Will I ever stop writing in Polish? I doubt it, but as of now my two linguistic identities seem to coexist happily. A few years ago, in Krakow, I attended a J. M. Coetzee reading. He read in English from his novel Slow Man, but I had a hard time focusing on his words because I sat close to an open door through which I could hear the simultaneous Polish translation. Gradually, my hearing adapted and I managed to follow the novel, although I had to continue making an effort to block out the sound of Polish. At that moment I had an epiphany: this is my life.


We have now lived for some time in a little town north of Boston. The surroundings have an air of familiarity that Fresno never had. The vegetation is very much like the vegetation in Poland and so is the climate. The first blizzard here transported me back to my childhood when winters in northeast Poland were snowy and unrelenting. The smaller scale of things also reminds me of the place I come from. The distances are shorter, and there are no lengthy uninhabited stretches like you find in California. The preponderance of sloping roofs as well as many church steeples also adds to that sense of the familiar. Why, then, isn’t my feeling of homelessness gone?

It would be easy to say that I’m one of those immigrants who no matter the situation feel alienated in their new country. Easy but incorrect. The sense of estrangement, a given in an immigrant’s life, doesn’t always translate into misery and unhappiness. My life feels full and satisfactory, and I’m not unhappy. I follow the political and cultural events here. I have many friends, more American than Polish. I do try to stay abreast of the Polish scene, now and then cook Polish food, and visit Poland every year. I don’t, however, wallow in nostalgia and pine for Poland, weeping into my borscht on Christmas Eve. I’m well adapted, assimilated, yet the feeling that this isn’t mine persists. It sometimes surfaces during exchanges with others. I become aware of the gap separating us when I am unable to follow the conversation. Even though I share a lot of cultural references with my fellow Americans, there are many I’m not familiar with. I didn’t play the same back-yard games, tell the same jokes, or hum the same songs. I witnessed different events from the ones they did, or if the events were the same, we viewed them from different perspectives. We were told different stories by our parents and grandparents. Our collective memory and our dreams are different. I didn’t live under the Nazi occupation, but to this day I occasionally have dreams in which I’m being chased by the Nazis or hiding from the Gestapo.

The same dates provoke dissimilar associations. If I say “Remember how things were in 1968?” my American friends will most likely think of campus unrest and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, while I’ll think of the anti-Semitic hysteria provoked and fanned by Poland’s communist government. I’ll also think of the Prague Spring and its aftermath—the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. I’m aware of those gaps even with my husband of 23 years. I sometimes have to remind him that we were raised in different cultural environments and that I can’t identify certain names, facts, and allusions. Do I feel bothered by that? I have to say that I don’t. Does it contribute to my feeling of homelessness? Possibly so.

If someone asks where home is, to spare them a lengthy explanation, I’ll say that America is home, as if I could readily claim the whole country but not a specific town or community. Maybe it’s easier to feel at home on a macro rather than on a micro scale. The local, however, if it is ever to be transformed into a place we call home, requires a sense of mine-ness. Yet even in this new more congenial environment, I don’t experience it beyond my physical home.

In Poland, where I haven’t lived for 26 years, this mine-ness still exists. The country has undergone many changes since my emigration, and I have had to re-learn plenty—from political parties to stores’ return policies—but it hasn’t lost its familiarity. I can still recall and recognize its sights, smells, sounds. I can name the trees and the weeds, the birds and the bugs, and find shortcuts in places I haven’t been before. But despite all this, the feeling of homelessness besets me there too. My own sense of belonging and others’ perceptions of me have changed. I’m no longer included, no longer part of “we.” Friends and family members often remind me of my outsider position when they address me as “you in America.” They cannot know that once I return to the United States, this “you” doesn’t change to “we,” that I don’t metamorphose into an insider, even though outwardly I’m included. I pay taxes, vote, and have the same rights as everybody else. And when I get together with my immigrant friends, all of whom have American citizenship, this exclusion continues as neither they nor I use the first-person plural. We talk about the Americans.

Should someone wonder about my provenance, my accent will dispel any doubts as it loudly announces that I don’t belong here the way those who were born here belong. Naturalization’s magic works only so far. I have the right to express myself freely, but I have to practice the kind of caution that most natives would find crippling. Even when I am among people who just a few minutes ago were slamming the excesses of America’s corporate power, I don’t feel free to make negative comments about some absurdity of local public life, denounce the vacuity of popular culture, or mock the widespread gut-level approach to elections. Even with America’s openness to outsiders, I would meet with disapproval. I am perceived as a guest: a guest of long standing, but someone who nevertheless should always be on her best behavior. And guests by definition aren’t at home. In Poland it’s still okay for me to castigate boorish and corrupt politicians, complain about the pathetic state of health care, or bash the political ambitions of the church. There, however, people assume I’m out of the loop. I live abroad, how can I know much about Poland’s reality? So I’m automatically relegated to the role of a foreigner and silenced. If I were to re­turn, I know I’d soon be treated like everybody else. But it would take me a long time to learn to fit in. Or I might never be able to. I see, feel, think differently now. My perspective has changed. My compatriots and I would speak the same language, but our vocabulary  wouldn’t be the same.

Wherever I am, I’m constantly reminded of the caesura that ap­peared in my life when I immigrated. In America my life before doesn’t exist. I have no past—as if I had been born only after I arrived here. Few people show interest in my previous life. Poland hasn’t been a major player in world politics, so maybe its minor role on the world stage could account for this lack of interest. But my foreign friends who come from places that are major players have the same experience. It’s not because Americans are provincial and self-centered or because the country is so big. This lack of interest is only natural. People everywhere, even in places with claims to cosmopolitanism, live in the here and now, and are interested in what pertains directly to their lives. When I visit Poland, the situation repeats itself. No one seems very interested in my life in America. I feel like Irena, a character in Kundera’s novel Ignorance, who on a visit to Prague invites her old friends to a restaurant in hopes of reviving their friendship. She would like to tell them about her life in France, but they want to talk about their own concerns. She feels that “by their total uninterest in her experience abroad, they amputated 20 years from her life.” In the same way, my life can be said to have been cut short both in Poland and in America.

But I don’t feel incomplete. Quite the contrary. I feel sometimes as though I’d been given a gift of two lives. I draw sustenance from two cultures, read books in Polish and English, write and translate in both languages. And while I’m fine with that situation, others’ perceptions attempt to mold my image to their own expectations. A few years ago during our stay in Poland, my sister was telling me that a mutual Polish friend who lives in Germany had become “very German.” I said I hadn’t noticed. After this exchange I turned to my younger daughter and asked her how she saw me. “Oh, you’re definitely Polish,” she said. To her, a young American, I’m just as Polish as I am to other Americans, who sometimes—out of courtesy—will call me Polish-­American. They have no way of knowing that I don’t feel hyphenated. People in Poland, on the other hand, proclaim that they see an American in me, even if they’d be unable to say what makes me American. I seem different, as anyone who’s been away for a long time must seem, and their way of dealing with that is to replace the real me with a cluster of stereotypical national characteristics. I don’t have two different identities that I turn on and off depending on where I am. I am the same person here and over there, but as an outsider in my native country, I tend to provoke simplistic generalizations.

I’ve learned to cherish my outsider status, that bosom friend of homelessness. I won’t claim, though, that homelessness is a desirable state. What sane person would want to be homeless if he or she had a choice? Home is something we all long for, no matter our personal histories and backgrounds. But homelessness can also bestow unexpected benefits. It gives me the kind of freedom that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I don’t feel boxed in by national boundaries, don’t feel beholden to a sense of communality or collectivity, or compelled to follow the accepted cultural obligations. With no pressure to be loyal to any particular group, it’s easier for me to avoid engaging in group think. I never liked feeling swept by national euphoria or mourning, and I remember my discomfort during the heady days of Solidarity in Poland when unwavering allegiance to the nascent movement was the order of the day and criticism of any kind was treated like betrayal. Being homeless, I’m less likely to succumb to the pull of national orthodoxies, Polish and American alike, which, like any orthodoxies, stifle independent thinking. I still have Polish attachments, affections, predilections, and propensities, but I hope I’ve discarded the unwieldy baggage of ethnicity and nationalism and escaped the narrow and often constricting local perspective.


Today more and more people experience the state of homelessness. It’s no longer reserved for immigrants, exiles, victims of history or fate. It’s a feature of modern life, a result of globalization, of the world becoming more uniform. When I left Poland, America seemed like another planet. To young Poles today it’s not so. Mass media are the same all over the world. We watch the same shows and movies, hear the same news; the same ads assault us everywhere. In Paris, Prague, Budapest, New York, or Calcutta, we can watch the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl on TV, eat Chinese takeout, buy a T-shirt made in Indonesia or earrings from Morocco. English has become the modern lingua franca, and communication is possible no matter where we are. This trend toward greater uniformity should make it easier for us to feel at home, since the world has become more predictable and recognizable. But even though we may feel comfortable and at home, paradoxically, we also feel homeless. When more and more of the world becomes the same, we lose our underpinning and our sense of rootedness. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to feel at home in a world that has suddenly become too big, but at least today the feeling of homelessness is not as acute as the feeling earlier generations of immigrants or exiles must have experienced.

Jean Améry is the adopted name of Hans Mayer, a Jewish writer born in Austria. A survivor of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen, he changed his German name as a sign of radical separation from his birthplace and his rejection of German culture. For many years after the war he refused to visit Germany, although he continued to write in German. He had no choice but to be an exile, yet he always experienced a profound sense of loss summed up in his own words: “Home is the land of one’s childhood and youth. Whoever has lost it remains lost himself, even if he has learned not to stumble about in the foreign country as if he were drunk.” I lost the land of my childhood and youth, my home, and I don’t stumble about in my adopted country. I don’t feel, however, that I have lost myself. In the tally of my life’s losses and gains, the gains are more numerous.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough is an essayist and a literary translator. Her collection of essays, Objects of Affection, was published in 2018.


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