A Part & Apart - June 1, 2023
Leave a comment

O pripadanju // On Belonging

By Saša Crkvenjaš



In August 2018, I packed my bags for a transoceanic flight not knowing it would be the last time I had a singular identity. I had no idea what was waiting ahead of me, and my worries about the English language were trivial in comparison. Five years later I still don’t know what it is in me that has always sparked a curiosity for the unknown and a desire to travel. Of course, like every typical Sarajevan and Bosnian, I know there is no future in our country – it died in 1992. But, as an atypical Sarajevan and Bosnian, I did not go to Germany as true diaspora, but ventured a little further with no concrete goal in mind. At times, it feels like my only goal is simply to avoid permanently returning home.

After a million flights, five years, and two semi-identities, I’m unsure if I feel more complete than before. Over time, I built my second, American identity, but at the cost of my Bosnian one. The more I practice my American identity, the Bosnian atrophies even though I try to keep it in shape. And not only does it atrophy, but it takes form of the latter, partly because people ovdje (here) understand and use both languages. Still, I’m here for nine months and ovdje for three. Over time, you forget the words of the language you’ve spoken for 24 years, you lose conversation topics with the people you grew up with. You forget the streets, buildings, and bars, and you feel like a tourist in your hometown. Then again, you don’t feel at home even on the other side of the world. Something is always missing.

It’s challenging to write in my native language because I haven’t done so in years. I have to think too much, look for words and ask myself, “jel’ se to tako kaže” (is that how you say it), and Google the answer. Bosnian is too informal and isn’t meant for writing but for speaking. On the other hand, in English, I feel like a robot communicating in learned phrases, without flexibility or freedom of expression. In some ways, Bosnian is everything English isn’t; it has a soul and energy. I both hate it and find it funny that I often forget simple everyday words and can’t articulate a coherent sentence in my mother tongue. The longer I’m away, the more time it takes to restore my language when I return home.

It’s not just talking that’s a problem, but I also lack topics to converse about. What do I have in common with the people I used to spend every day with and now only see a few times during those three months I’m back home? They live their lives in Sarajevo, and I live mine in America. We reside in two distinct universes, and over time we grow further and further apart, no matter how hard we try to stay connected. All we can do is talk about the same topics on repeat and reminisce about how things used to be. We don’t have the time or the appropriate words to describe our respective universes to each other. The difference is that one universe is somewhat smaller and better defined, while mine spans half the world, two languages, and two cultures. Nobody who hasn’t lived this way can comprehend what it’s like to find oneself in another language and culture without changing the core part of yourself that has been there since the beginning.

All aspects that constitute identity – suddenly, before you realize they are changing at all – begin to change form without your conscious choice. The metamorphosis begins with the very arrival to another location. A completely new image is created in the eyes of a new culture, from your name, appearance, nationality, and the way you talk. Although you still feel like the same person inside, you sense that the perception of others, at least partially, does not match your perception of yourself. When you talk to people, you say what you had in mind, but the words that come out of your mouth sound like someone else’s. At first, it’s awkward because you feel like a stranger to yourself, but over time, that stranger becomes a good friend.

However, what happens when you find yourself stuck between your two identities? What if you feel like there’s a wall separating you from both cultures that you partially belong to? When you live between two spheres, you can’t fully belong to either. When I’m home, I’m premalo naša, and when I’m here, I’m a bit too foreign. Ovdje, people ask me “Saša? A čija si ti?” (who do you belong to), and here they say “Sasha? That’s such a cool name!” but more often than not, I’m reduced to just “Sasa.” As a result, Saša with a male Serbian name is lucky because no one will stop a Saša from entering America. Suddenly, Saša from Sarajevo becomes Saša from “Where is that?” and “Boston is so far away!” and “Is the war still going on?”, so much so that Saša eventually becomes Saša from Europe and Saša from far away.

I recently spoke with a friend who is also an international student. We complained about our struggles here and “the big unknown” that awaits us after graduation. I wondered, what makes us do this to ourselves? What made me decide to cross the ocean for college at 18? Why couldn’t I stay where I was like everyone else did? Why couldn’t I live a simple life where I was born and raised? Why did I decide to complicate my life by going so far away, where I don’t know anyone? Part of the reason is that I never felt at home in my hometown. For some reason, I always felt like an outsider, so maybe I left hoping to escape that feeling.

Surprisingly, this damned country makes me feel alive, challenges me, and pushes me into the unknown day after day. But it also exhausts me. Makes me sad, angry, and frustrated. It makes me want to run back home. However, when I do go back home and finally detox from America, I no longer feel alive. I’m filled with emptiness, and inspiration and motivation leave me. I feel like something is missing. I feel listless and dead. And so, every year, I move from one extreme to the other. I live to feel dead, and I die to feel alive.

It doesn’t get any easier every time I return to life. Somehow, the first time was the easiest because I had no idea what I was in for. Now, every time before departure, rivers of tears flow longer and longer. It feels like I’m preparing for a nine-month war, and I’m not sure who I’m fighting against or why. Of course, there are opportunities, future, and success, but the goal is very unclear. I don’t think I will know what the goal is until I experience it, until I recognize it.

And so… Until I find what I’m looking for, I keep wandering, and belonging to everything and nothing.

Saša Crkvenjaš is a graphic designer pursuing a Master’s degree in Graphic and Experience Design at North Carolina State University. Holding a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from the University of Florida, her passion lies in intercultural experiences, humanistic design, and innovative technologies. Her artistic journey began in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and expanded through experimental techniques and photography at United World College in Mostar. Saša’s work aims to connect people, places, and information, drawing inspiration from her experiences in two diverse cultures. She specializes in UI/UX design and has a keen interest in leveraging AI and ML technologies to create practical and visually pleasing solutions that promote well-being, accessible education, and cross-cultural understanding.


Leave a Reply