What happens when your relatives don’t share your multicultural journey?
By Dinka Souzek
Congratulations on your baby boy!” my cousin wrote, “We especially love the name. I know it’s not really our business, but we still wanted to say how much we liked it.”
The sharing of unsolicited opinions about the name of a new baby coming into the family is standard fare falling under the “dealing with relatives” section of parenting. When you add one or two other cultures to the mix, things get really interesting, as now mere personal preferences can be elevated to national(istic) issues.
My American husband and my Austrian (from Croatia emigrated) self had decided to name our son “Ivan” – the Croatian version of John, as a result of a range of many emotions, preferences, opinions and hopes, just like any other parent. My cousin, though, had taken it as a sign, maybe a sign of hope that after all these years I still hadn’t forgotten the country I was born in and both our parents were from. It probably was the first thing I did in a long time that he approved of, or at least he could identify with.
Reading that email I could feel his emotions, as if he was remembering a long lost friend. I lingered a little and then moved on, reliving a familiar emotion. A mix of disappointment, sadness and gratitude.
I have never “forgotten” Croatia, nor have I ever felt like I left behind my Croatian identity or abandoned it or anything else. Images that I know many of my relatives conjure up when they think of me. True, I am not Croatian in its most general and simplest definition, but as always things are so much more complicated. It is impossible, though, to convey when your sense of self of it does not fit into any of the boxes provided. The problem of personal identity versus the expectations of others is universal, but when nationalities come into the mix, the term “complicated” takes another level.
My family left Croatia for Austria in 1984 when I was almost 9 years old. It was not flight, but it was not really voluntary either. I think my parents would have preferred to stay. I had no choice in the matter, and even though I was glad to be in a free country it took me quite a bit of work to adjust in the new environment.
I never became Austrian. I became a Croatian who moved to Austria, or an Austrian from Croatia. Say it any way you will, I was both. It took me years to realize that and once I did, I found some peace in that ongoing identity battle. I didn’t have to pick. I could be both.
Unfortunately people close to me, who did not go through the same experience, beg to differ. No, not beg, they demand.
It took me another set of years to realize that their scorn over me not being Croatian enough and becoming Austrian (“Your accent!” “Your demeanor!” “Your ignorance about Croatian daily news!” “Your… whole… deal!”) was a direct expression of their own values and choices and I had no responsibility for how they felt.
Their identity was directly linked to staying where they were born; their sense of loyalty was defined by living in one country, speaking one language. Not doing that would mean destruction. In their eyes, here I was, destroying what they held dear.
I wish I could explain to my cousin that I became this mix of things so I could stay myself. We don’t live alone and we don’t live in the past. We live now, we live with the people around us and our commitment is to the now and to these people. The more we know about the world the more we know about ourselves. I adapted and I learned and my life grew richer. I learned to express myself in a different language and to navigate a different set of cultural codes, so I could survive and so I could make new friends and let new people into my life. I learned to love my new home.
When I go back to Croatia I feel my Croatian identity revived and I enjoy that. I also feel a little sad because I miss it. Those are the things I would like to talk about with my relatives, but it is usually impossible. It would only be interpreted as regret, as a final confession… something like “I should have never left” or “I wish I could come back”.
I feel there is a waiting expectation for me to finally become what I apparently stubbornly refuse to: An antique Croatian, lost and desperate in the Diaspora, crying for the homeland. That’s when I shake my head, I feel disappointed, sad, because I won’t be that even if it means not being able to connect with my family like I used to.
When I got married, I moved to the US and now, almost 7 years later, I feel I have gone through similar things. Am I American? No, not in the general, most simple definition of it. I am also not “not-American.” I learned to love another home, other people, made more friends. I also probably added a lot more fuel to the fire of some of my family, who thought Austria was far enough.
Then I had a son and gave him a Croatian name. My cousin wrote me the first email in years, because he was happy. About the baby of course, but mostly because of the name. How could I explain? I couldn’t. If I really thought I needed to redeem myself, would naming my son really be the way to do it? My son, who most likely will never speak Croatian, let alone live there? Would it be fair to burden him with that heavy of a legacy?
Yes, Ivan is a Croatian name and I like it also because it is Croatian, but not just because. I don’t feel the need for redemption.
If I knew I could be understood, I would have emailed my cousin back:
“Thank you for emailing me. I miss you all and wish we didn’t live so far apart. I’m glad you like the name. We love it too. I am so grateful to have been born in Croatia and for my Croatian family. They made me who I am today, just like Austria and the USA did. None can be replaced, each is unique and I love them all, so please, don’t make me choose.”
Dinka Souzek is a Croatian-born Austrian, living with her American husband and two children in the U.S.A. She blogs at: www.souzek.com/dinka/.