International Uncategorized

Soccer and the Expat Identity 

For Women United by Pola Henderson pola@jettingaround.com

Sports have always been about identity for me.

Or at least since my expat life began.

I live in Paris, where I am ‘Pola from Chicago’ to French people. But I wasn’t born in Chicago, nor the United States for that matter. So who am I? ‘It’s complicated,’ I answer when someone asks the question. I identify as Polish-American, even if I no longer live in my passport countries.

Poland is where I have roots, and that never goes unacknowledged. But America is where I spent most of my adult life. It’s the place that shaped who I am today as much as (if not more than) my Polish upbringing. That includes sports affiliations.

***

In June 2018, I attended a friendly between USMNT and the French national team. For Les Bleus, it was the last warm-up before the World Cup. For the young American side, a chance to gain experience. For me, a way to stay connected to the US.

(Because filing annual tax returns shouldn’t be the only tangible link.)

As I was in the stands at Groupama Stadium, surrounded by 58,000 charged-up French fans singing the Marseillaise, I spotted a few American jerseys and flags. Next to me was defender DeAndre Yedlin’s grandfather. My badge started a few friendly chats, not only with him, but also the French who wanted to know where I was from.

There I was again, Pola from Chicago.

I wondered what it meant for the team to see US expats supporting them on the European tour, even though they were not playing in the World Cup. I had a chance to get an answer from midfielder Tyler Adams.

“For me it’s unbelievable when you can walk out for a warmup or a match in a different country and see all the people,” he said. “No matter where you go, you have the support from back home. I think that the pride of the country comes from the fans, they’re the backbone of the team.”

Looks like the connection works both ways.

***

I remember telling my Polish family a few World Cups ago that I am 51% Team USA and 49% ‘reprezentacja polska’(they were fine with it). Over time, that proportion had shifted towards the former, thanks to stadium experiences like the one in Lyon.

The effect of sports, in particular soccer, on my expat identity has been even stronger on the club level. First there was baseball and the Chicago White Sox, then the Chicago Fire, and finally Paris Saint-Germain.

Following local teams – wearing jerseys, going to away games and becoming friends with other fans – has been a major part of my assimilation in new cities. Without sports, it would have taken longer to feel at home, to feel like a Chicagoan and ‘Parisienne’.

Even if I had to break a few barriers along the way.

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