When The Country Your Family Migrated From No Longer Exists
How could I properly understand my heritage when I didn't know where my dad came from?
It was Boxing Day and like many children of separated parents, I was sitting in my dad's living room pretending it was Christmas Day, again. An almost-cooked turkey was slowly spinning over barbecue coals in the backyard. My boyfriend was sitting on the ground next to the couch in front of an oscillating fan, cold beer in hand. Another faux-Christmas in Australia, where I was born, but my father was not.
Dad is a well-read foodie who never misses a beat when it comes to current affairs and politics. Our conversations are regularly filled with questions like "how's work?" and "did you read about that guy?", but none about our shared Yugoslavian heritage.
For some reason, this day was different. I told my dad that I'd recently tried to Google the town in which he was born. I'd attempted a few spelling variations but nothing showed, no matter how many times I typed "Pakrac, Serbia" into that trusty search bar. "Leave it with me," Dad told me as I hugged him goodbye. "That town definitely exists," he laughed. "I've seen it!"
A few hours later I received a call that I thought would clear things up. I was expecting to have made an obvious spelling error, or find out that the tiny Serbian town had been renamed, but instead the call left me with more questions. Pakrac, it seems, is actually located in Croatia. Fine. OK. Thank you, Google. But what I – and my dad – needed to know was how could his hometown be in Croatia when we're Serbian?
Serbia, Croatia: Once part of the same country, now two very different nations with very different national identities. Which did we belong to?
I wanted to ask Dad a million questions. But with Christmas break over my detective work had to wait, but that didn't mean it stopped playing on my mind.
A few weeks passed and Dad and I arranged to visit my grandmother, Baki, as I call her. We both live three hours away from her small Canberra flat, but we had questions. I wanted to know how different now-Serbians were from now-Croatians before Yugoslavia officially divided in 1992. Was anyone else confused or aggrieved when they saw which side of the border their home fell on?
At lunch, I have my first taste of sarma; pork stuffed in cabbage leaves, which Baki pickled herself. As she and Dad reminisce I note that she has always referred to Yugoslavia as "my country" and I suppose that might be why as a child, and ignorant teenager, I didn't ask more questions. I assumed the past was off limits, since neither Dad nor Baki spoke of it. But I was wrong.
In 1970 my dad, his little brother, and his mother and father arrived in Australia from Yugoslavia. My father was only seven when he made the trip, so I must admit I was surprised by the detail he can recall. My own memories of being a 7-year-old are extremely limited. That said, I didn't move across the world.
The first thing Dad remembers about Australia is the awful smell, which came from the kitchen of the migrant camp where they lived for four months. I assumed the "foul stench" - as Dad described it - was a leaking sewer pipe, damp corner in a crowded room, or smoky fire. But it wasn't any of those things. It was lamb. More specifically, it was the scent of mutton cooking that was so repulsive for a boy who'd lived on pork, goat, and beef (when the family could afford it).
Sitting among framed cross-stitches and delicate ornaments in her cosy apartment, I asked Baki about the migrant camp. "It was really hard," she said, as though the thought had just struck her.
My family moved to Australia thanks to a government policy which called for skilled migrants. From 1945 to 1975 the booming country's population almost doubled. So, that was why we came, but the story of what life was like once my family was in Australia is still unclear. I wanted as many details as possible.
Like so many families who migrated to Australia mine did their best to assimilate. We changed our surname from Jankovic to Yankovich, the latter easier for English speakers to pronounce. Dad was encouraged to make friends with Australian-born kids at primary school, despite their cruelness about his "wog" packed lunches.
So here I am. An Australian, born into a migrant family who did all they could to fit in after moving from a country that no longer exists. But I wanted to uncover a history that my family tried to forget, which brings us back to Pakrac: the small town in Croatia, not Serbia.
My grandmother goes into the next room to find the exact address of the home they left behind and comes back with her passport, issued by the Yugloslavia state that is no more. I pick it up and ask the question I came to ask: Is our family Serbian or Croatian?
"You are Serbian because I am Serbian," she says to my dad, as though there could be no other possible answer.
Baki scoffs each time my dad refutes her assertion. "I am Croatian" he says, highlighting the place printed on his birth certificate. As Baki protests I fear my small cuddly grandma will turn into roaring storm cloud, full of accusations of betrayal.
But in the end she says she is too old for this fight. She tells us we're not the only ones questioning her. She has Serbian friends that can't believe she cooks with seasoning manufactured in Croatia. These riffs run deep.
Though Dad, Baki and I may all technically be Australian now, like so many people in this country, things have happened in our past that will forever define our identities. While many who migrated from Europe came as a large group, my family did not. They didn't have friends or family to check them out of the migrant camp for a day trip when they first arrived. And even now it's just the three of us, arguing over apple cake, with me trying to accept that I may never know if it's accurate to say my family are from Serbia or Croatia, when a simple "Yugoslavia" just don't won't do. I have to leave it at that.
I ask Baki whether she's still angry. Whether she has any dislike for the Croats she's so determined not to be aligned with. Whether she regrets changing and giving up so much of her culture to build a life for her family in Australia.
She explains in slightly broken English she has no time for "resent". It's easier to accept that people will always have their own opinions. Her answer is so simple, so devoid of any arch analysis or lame pop culture reference that it's almost too much for me to handle. It hurts my heart.
"You know, everyone is different, just like fingers," she says, holding up two of her own as proof. What better explanation of multiculturalism can I ask for? I might not be able to label the kind of Australian I am, but really, how many of us can? We're all different. Like fingers.