“I’m blue-eyed, fair-haired, and speak perfect German. It’s only when I tell people my name that there’s a certain reaction.”
Vienna-born Jelena Pantić never thought being bilingual was anything unusual – until her first day of school. Puzzled, she came home and asked, “Mommy, what does ‘Tschuschin’ mean?” Even in the third generation, the old “dis” for ex-Yugoslav immigrants was impossible to escape.
“My parents were of course aware that this day would come,” she reflected. But Pantić’ parents had raised her to “not be defined by any names that others might call you.”
Pantić is still keenly aware of how slow Austria has been to embrace the idea of a double identity. “You can’t call yourself a ‘Serbian-Austrian’ – either you’re an Austrian or you’re not. That’s what I’ve felt and been made to feel.”
She was also frustrated by the representation of Serbs in the history curriculum of the Austrian school system: The only mention was in reference to the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand or the Yugoslav Wars. There was no mention of role models like Nikola Tesla, the pioneering Serbian inventor of the alternating current, born in Smiljan, in Imperial Austro-Hungary.
It’s no wonder that the 27-year-old was drawn to the groundbreaking transcultural Viennese magazine das Biber, whose articles are written by people “who are exactly like me, who grew up like me.” Now the magazine’s managing editor, she has found that she can make the biggest impact by being part of the media, and representing fellow Serbians and other minority communities in a positive light.
In her everyday life, Pantić has developed certain strategies for dealing with racism, such as “creating a protective shield” or “firing back immediately when people say something offensive.” Her greatest wish, however, is that the next generation won’t have to address such situations at all.
“Maybe it’s a bit utopian,” she concluded, “but hopefully they won’t even need any ‘strategies.”