Ne razumem, I tell my grandmother. I don’t understand.
A familiar routine follows: I call my father long-distance from Serbia and ask him to translate for us.
“Nana is trying to tell me something; I can’t figure it out,” I say, frustrated with my brain’s inability to grasp a language I once imagined would be instinctive for me.
Born and raised in Yugoslavia, my father immigrated to the United States when he was 30 years old. Though he never spoke Serbian with my sister and I, in 2014 I still chose to move to Belgrade and live with his mother, who spoke almost no English at all. After months of lessons and stumbling through conversations, I still struggled to decipher most of what she was telling me.
“She’s saying that her family is from a town outside of Dubrovnik,” Dad explains. I was deeply confused. “I thought they were from Valjevo,” I said. “Well, not originally,” he explained.
There I was: thousands of miles from home, with a total of zero English-speaking relatives, trying to connect with the place where my family originated from… only to find out that I wasn’t even in the right country!
Of course, to anyone familiar with the Balkans, and especially former-Yugoslavia, this story is a common one. Identifying as Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, or Montenegrin may actually have nothing to do with where you grew up. Or where your parents grew up. Or where your grandparents came from… originally.
That’s why, to my father, this was not a big deal. Not even worth mentioning before my 24th year of life when someone else brought it up. But to me, this was a revelation that sparked a deep questioning of the complex relationship between identity and geography.
Like most people who surround me in this age of disposable technology, where we are bombarded daily with massive floods of information, I desire a more cohesive view of myself. A clear identity. A grounding history. A fully understood image.
Basically, I would like a story with a beginning, middle, and end — in that order, please.
But identity is not so simple. And when we will it to be so, at the very least we miss out on understanding massive parts of ourselves and one another.
It just so happens that the question of self and other has been reckoned with over and over again for centuries in this region. This includes several wars that happened during my lifetime. Now, as refugees traverse, or are contained by, these physical and political boundaries, a new era of questioning begins to emerge. What does it mean to be Serbian if your family originated outside of Serbia’s borders? What does it mean to be Croatian if the country’s perimeter is open, porous, or sealed shut?
I am spending the next nine months exploring identity in Serbia and Croatia to delve into these issues and (hopefully) find some answers, for myself and for you. I will document my family’s history of migration, stories of internal displacement within former-Yugoslavia, and the current refugee crisis in an effort to understand their complexity and relation to one another, rather than further essentializing them.
These stories are part of a much larger global narrative. The questions facing Serbia and Croatia at this moment of history are not so different from those facing us as Americans. The current refugee crisis has brought the United States, members of the EU, and many other nations to a critical place in which they must choose between continuing their perceived historic narrative, and oftentimes mythology, that defines their national identity, or accepting the reality of rapidly changing cultural landscapes and increasingly globalized populations. Perhaps we can begin by recognizing that our own personal histories are more complicated than they appear.
My name is Christiana Botic and I am a documentary photographer and filmmaker as well as a 2016-2017 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. I will be spending 9 months in Serbia and Croatia exploring the complex relationship between geography and identity in the region through still and moving images. This project was born out of my desire to understand the place where my father emigrated from, as well as my family’s history of migration throughout former-Yugoslavia. It has grown into a more expansive look at how the movement of peoples impacts the modern cultural landscapes of this region. Before beginning this adventure, I was working as a freelance filmmaker, photographer, and writer (in addition to a handful of ever-humbling jobs) in New Orleans. Follow along @christianabotic on Instagram or via my newsletter.