SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2008        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Irena Cembauer

The Picture

        When I was about ten years old, my mom announced that the family was moving from Bosnia where we lived to Croatia. It was 1986 and these were just two republics in the Federal union of country of Yugoslavia. I had just started fifth grade, switching to a higher education organizational system. My grandparents who helped raise me, lived near by and were very much part of my world, my friends and everything I knew was there and I felt very much as if someone was trying to rip me out of my environment where I physically belonged.

    Oddly this terrifying situation came out of the best of intentions. My mother had recently remarried, my brother had been born two years earlier and my step-father had gotten a military transfer. My mom only wanted to keep her new family together. And I being only ten, nobody really asked me for an opinion. The decision was made and even my threats and pleas to be left to live with my grandparents so I can still go to my school and play with my friends, didn’t help.

     We moved and promptly I was taken to my new school and after a short introduction left with my new school principal to be placed in my new class. The most terrifying moment happened when I was put in front of the entire class to introduce myself. Not thinking much about it, I did so but then noticed that everyone was staring at me as if I was some strange exotic animal that can be seen only on TV. Now, this was much more intense than just meeting a new classmate. I did not realize until later that I was a kid who almost looked like the rest of them, but when I spoke it was with a different accent, using some different words and expressions.

    When I think about it, even today, it really does not sound like much. Bosnian and Croatian are even today, when the old republics are divided into separate countries, very similar languages both with Slavic roots and using the same alphabet. For months to follow I was stared at and repeatedly asked to speak, about nothing in particular just to speak, in a circle of curious kids standing around me. The circle seemed to be closing on me by the second.

I go to the River
The River listens and
the River understands,
for it has the secrets of its own  (1)

    When I was ten years old, my best friend moved away. I think we were always meant to best friends, we were born in the same hospital, only two days apart. Once, the nurses switched us as infants during feeding time. I don’t have a sister and she was as close as you can get to it. She was my very best friend. And then one day, she moved away.

    It was at the beginning of fifth grade, I was going to meet her before class so we could go get snacks. She was already waiting for me, and she was crying. Told me that she has to move away because her step-father got transferred with the military. She said she hated the military and Croatia, where she had to move, and she was angry with her mom for making her go.

    I was trying to calm her down saying that it might be interesting to see a new place and meet new friends.  She didn’t agree. “People are supposed to stay in their own towns, where their grandparents live and where they can play with their friends” – she said, still crying.

    Today, I understand how all the ethnic and cultural differences were very overwhelming for a ten-year-old girl. All attempts to fit in, including the language assimilation, clothing style and cultural traditions, did not help her feel like she belonged. She was not one of them.

I like it down by the River
It is peaceful and cool
and nobody else is there
I like it that way

I still remember standing in front of at least thirty kids my own age, and the teacher and the school principal, I feeling very much alone. I remember feeling endlessly desperate, the notion that started that first day and lasted just about through the entire stay in Croatia. I knew that as a kid, I had no choice and this had just about driven me nuts. I hated the place where we lived, hated everything and anything about it and I hated being a kid, having no voice of my own.

Everyday reminders of ethnic differences made me feel as an outcast even more. My family was as many others, multicultural and multinational. My stepfather was born in Croatia, majority of his family lived there and was catholic. My mother never really elaborated on it, but I know that her mother had snuck her out as a baby, to get baptized in orthodox Christian church, which enraged my grandfather when he found out. My aunt is Muslim, and I still have fond memories of visiting her mother who was always dressed in traditional Muslim clothing.

It is nice when it rains
 Heaven seems to merge with the River,
They become one
And flow together into the Sea

    In attempts to answer why this specific event has affected me so much, I look at the broader picture. Socio-political and economic circumstances in both countries are included, as well as the aftermath following my incident which on the greater plane led to the wars in Croatia and in Bosnia. It seems as if mystery almost cast a shadow of a prophecy for the dark times to come.

        The issues of ethnicity were not, at the time, familiar to me. I had basic understanding that there are different republics in my country and later on, after the separation, that these became separate countries. This awareness was very basic and based on geography alone. People moved, or were moved all over the place, which blended the ethnic borders even more, almost to the point of no recognition. It became very confusing to understand and hard to possibly feel as a part of one specific group. Especially if, like me, you never felt like you belonged to only one ethnic group in the first place.

    Many years later, I moved to United States. I lived in New York, Miami and Phoenix, experiencing one the biggest melting pots in the world. Still, I have not, for one moment, felt out of place or singled out based on my ethnic and national heritage, as I did in “my” own country (at the time) and amongst “my” own people.


Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage