I was born in Vienna to Croatian parents who came from Bosnia. So, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when people had trouble placing me. “You can’t be Croatian, you’re Austrian!” says one. “But you’re not Croatian, because you come from Bosnia,” says another. And a third, “You’re certainly not Austrian with that name!”
In my nearly three decades of existence, I have frequently been confronted with statements like these. So which nationality am I? How should I identify myself? Or rather, what is the correct term for people with a history like mine?
Rewind to 1992, when my mother and father had their first – and only – child in Wien-Favoriten. Both had come from a village that today belongs to the so-called Brcko district in the northeast of Bosnia, as part of a Croatian Catholic community there. For this reason, they are often referred to as Croats or Bosnian Croats. I grew up bilingually in Vienna and have always been able to speak German and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian. And while it’s not fashionable to say this, I consider these languages the same.
As a child, I thought of myself as Austrian. And although I had never been a victim of discrimination, per se, my Austrian friends categorized me as a foreigner, even though I didn’t see it that way myself. Later, in my teenage years, I became increasingly aware of my Balkan roots. I found friends from the Balkans, and it wasn’t long before I started going out to bars and pubs that played rock music and so-called “turbofolk” from Bosnia, Serbia, or Croatia. I tried to find a new identity.
Neither here nor there
I discovered the switch had already taken place: I abruptly identified myself as a foreigner and was proud of it.
But the next debacle was not long in coming: Was I Bosnian or Croatian? Whenever non-Yugoslavs asked where I was from, a convoluted explanation always followed, such as, “I am Austrian with Croatian roots from Bosnia.” Then came the puzzled looks. Soon, I noticed that all the “Yugo” kids born in Vienna faced similar experiences. And no matter how much they identified with their Bosnian, Croatian or Serbian roots, they remained, whether they liked it or not, children who grew up and went to school in Austria.
The same was true in reverse – native Austrians often did not feel that the first generation born in Austria could call themselves “nationals.” So, we – the “nationality nomads” as I like to say – share the same fate. Faced with the Austrian and international community in the outside world, our Bosnian, Croatian or Serbian families were waiting for us at home, along with their cuisine and traditions. I realized that we represented a separate social group.
On the one hand, we enjoyed the progressive and individualistic values of “Western” society in Austria, and on the other, we lived in a parallel world, where tradition, patriarchal family values, and to some extend religion, often played an essential role in many areas of life. These circumstances significantly influenced our character – at least in my environment. As a result, there are many in Vienna who dare a kind of spiritual balancing act, incorporating attributes from both cultures into their world view.
Why do former guest worker or refugee children choose only one of the two mindsets? Why is it an either/or between their parents’ homeland or the country where they currently live?
In my opinion, we are both; we are “hybrids” who are not subordinated to one or the other, to “here” or “there”. We are a mixture. In addition, increasingly global networking has brought influences from other parts of the world, which also shape our daily existence, and which make it even more difficult to place us into a single category.
Citizen of the world
Does that mean that the classic image of national identity is over?
For me, probably. I have learned that I cannot, and will not, identify myself with one nationality. Of course, I have characteristics from each of the Bosnian, Croatian and Austrian cultures. Nevertheless, I think it inadvisable to label myself with my countries of origin, because today people from all over the world consume the same media, enjoy similar leisure activities and work in the same professions.
Likewise, people who share the same ethnic roots can have different interests, pursue opposite careers, or have contrasting approaches to family planning.
For this reason, I have decided to identify myself as a so-called “citizen of the world” and to choose my affiliations based on character, sense of humour, and life goals. This has made it easier for me to take risks, because as soon as I stopped identifying with my nation of origin – when I chose different parameters for making connections – friendships quickly formed with like-minded people from all over the world.
This has resulted in valuable bonds with fantastic individuals based not merely on the same country name, but primarily on compatible values and personality traits.
Today, I am someone who no longer cares about country of origin. To me, the construct of nationality as an identity is outdated, inappropriate for the dynamics of today’s world.