Neither Nor

I spent the better part of my afternoon today, a brisk not-so-Spring-like day in Boston, curled up in bed with tea and Netflix. While perusing through my personalized recommendations, I found a movie that Netflix claimed was similar to a recent favorite with Rachel Weisz, The Whistleblower, so I cozied up to my laptop and watched Welcome to Sarajevo, a 1997 film about one war journalist’s impassioned journey to save children from an orphanage on the front lines of Sarajevo during the city’s 44-month long siege. It got good reviews when it aired in Cannes for its use of real (gruesome) archival footage of the war and realistic portrayal of a city in debris (a good portion was filmed on-site in former Yugoslavia basically right after the war). 1997 was the same year that me and my parents left Tuzla, Bosnia’s second biggest city, for Washington D.C..

I don’t often get asked about the war or Bosnia–I suppose it’s because I’ve assimilated all too well. I have no accent, no tell-tale foreign quirks (aside, perhaps, from not knowing too much about American culture pre-1999, but more on that in a bit) and to an American that hasn’t seen too many Eastern European women, I look pretty American. But when I am asked about the war or Bosnia (usually by overly curious professors and other old people), I’m always annoyed by the assumptions forced upon a history that remains muddled even to the people that lived it. People always want to know if I blame Serbians or if my parents do or if I think any less of other ethnicities–not only is it difficult to explain that I come from a somewhat mixed background, but it fascinates me that people assume I have such a strong opinion after having left the country at age five. It’s irrelevant to me who started what. Either way, a country fell, people killed, people died and these are the memories I have of the place where that happened:

I remember watching Tom and Jerry on the TV that we had in the biggest room in our apartment which served a sort of living room and my parent’s bedroom, if memory serves me correctly. I remember the couch that folded out into their bed and the black and red blanket that covered that couch. I remember having a Tom and Jerry puzzle and putting it together when I would watch the cartoon. I remember playing outside on the balcony one stormy afternoon with a girl that must have lived in the neighborhood. I had set up a blanket on the hard concrete floor of the balcony and proceeded to line up every single toy I had along the rails for a tea party. But then the sky got very, very dark and gray and I had to rush to take everything back inside before it rained. I remember going to daycare/school and hating the young woman that looked after our class–she had short blonde hair and long painted nails. She wore a pink apron and was mean when we couldn’t fall asleep during a designated nap-time. I remember the shampoo bottle shaped like a turtle that I became attached to and brought to the daycare. I think I lost it quickly though. I remember one day when my uncle Zoran brought me toys, legos I believe, and he and my mother sat with me as I built things, likely trying to recreate the pretty house on the front of the circular pink case the blocks came in. I remember buying my first pet with my dad, a little bird we think we called ptičica (Bosnian for bird, also what we say instead of “cheese” when taking a photo). I remember visiting my uncle Muhamed and his wife Hasija, perhaps when the were first married, and the box of toys she had for me to play with. She had thick black hair almost down to her waist back then and now she wears her hair cropped short in a pixie cut.

I remember sitting on the balcony of a house in Makarska just before leaving for the U.S. in the fall of 1997. It was really sunny and we were eating after being at the beach. During that same trip, I remember walking by the beach front, being jealous of all the children that were riding around in rented plastic cars, you know, the kind that were realistic Jeeps made to be kids-sized (and I got one!). I don’t remember the beach itself really, but there are photos of me with a little girl I made as a friend that day. I don’t think we stayed very long; it wasn’t a vacation, my parents had been preparing to arrange our move to the states with a program for families like mine (“mixed,” if you will).

I remember sitting at the kitchen table in our apartment when my mom showed me pictures in a book of American school children eating lunch in a cafeteria and riding big yellow busses. I remember packing in the middle of the night to leave our apartment and being upset that I couldn’t take my big stuffed bear. He was a golden brown color with a checkered bow tie.

I don’t remember having to say goodbye to my dad before the few months he would leave for military service, though I suppose that explains why he’s absent in some memories. I don’t remember my mom taking me down into the basement when there were occasional bombings, I was too young. I don’t remember being afraid or being aware that I should be afraid.

In the same light, I don’t remember too many “American” things after I moved state-side. I grew up in what was a small Bosnian community that formed in D.C. after several refugee families were resettled there. My parents had these families over for dinners of pljeskavice and pita (no, not the kind you eat hummus with), cookouts at Rock Creek Park where we would roast whole lambs on a spit. There was one family we met on the plane that we stayed in touch with for years. The couple was about my parents’ age, and they had two sons, one my age and one younger. If I remember correctly, they were resettled from Serbia. I went to elementary school with the boy my age. They live somewhere in Pennsylvania now. It was these people I grew up among. Us kids would watch Johnny Bravo on Cartoon Network as our parents smoked and spoke in Bosnian in the next room over. When dinner was ready, we’d join the adults and the chatter would be loud enough to drown out the Bosnian music that played in the background (unless my dad was drunkenly singing along to it).

Over the years, I stopped speaking Bosnian regularly and lost a good portion of my claim to bilingualism. It happened somewhere between being pushed on an accelerated track in school and my parents being granted U.S. citizenship. And yet, I’ll never really feel wholly American–or wholly Bosnian.

I can’t connect with my place of birth and the tragedy that gobbled it up because I was too young to have been conscious of any tragedy at all. I supposed that’s a blessing in some sense. But I can’t quite say I connect with the ideal American youth because I didn’t live it–sure, I was here, but I lived in my own little Yugoslavia, blissful. I think that’s why I like watching movies and documentaries about the war and such, no matter how bias or Hollywood they may be–it’s my small attempt to reconnect with a country that fell apart before I could call it my own. Sometimes I do indeed feel like a bit of a homeless mutt, unable to understand either of the two cultures I claim to come from. And other times, I think I’m perhaps one of the lucky few that’s seen two vastly different perspectives of the world. I’ve got my single-family-house-debit-card-collage-loans security. I’m thankful for incredible health insurance and delicious American-ized Chinese food. But I’m critical of the money-hungry attitude that drives one of the most powerful nations, of the absurd laziness that prompted the creation of drive-through fast food chains, of the general unfriendliness of certain parts of America and of the rampant lack of cultural knowledge. I’m privileged to have been a part of a society that functions under a distinctly different mindset. There’s an unparalleled friendliness and warmth to the Bosnians I’ve known and met. You can walk into a small convenience store in Tuzla and the owner will greet you personally with respect, strike up genuine conversation, aid the elderly or handicapped. I can’t say the same for the disgruntled teenagers employed at most American convenience stores. And perhaps what I like most about this mindset is the sense of humor, albeit often black humor, which frames even the most desperate of situations. The portrayal of that quality is what I liked most about the movie Welcome to Sarajevo. There’s a running joke in the film about Sarajevo being named the 14th worst city in the world during the siege and one of the Bosnian characters in the film, a musician, jokes that when Sarajevo moves up the list be 1st, he will hold a public concert in the center of the city and his audience will come despite the danger of being shot at by snipers. The movie ends with his concert–he plays the cello atop a hill and his audience did indeed come.

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