Archive for September, 2011

Parenting at Wartime

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment

How do you parent in a time of war and continuous conflict? How do you parent if you don’t even have a state, if multiple generations have grown in a non-existent country? At the time when Abbas is applying for UN recognition of the Palestinian state after a half of a century of not having a state, I am wondering how generations of Palestinians have done this?

I was born in the country called the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a country that fell apart in the  early nineties. It fell apart in the worst possible way, in the flames of brutal conflict that lasted over a decade. Within that decade I went from calling my country Yugoslavia to Former Yugoslavia to Serbia. I was in my twenties, not quite a child, but without my own children. The whole thing was infinitely confusing, and emotional, and  painful. While I was growing up, of course, I knew I was a Serb, but the dominant label was Yugoslav. It was the Yugoslavian identity that was celebrated widely, it was the color scheme of the Yugoslavian flag that I still remember, it was the  shape of Yugoslavia that I could still draw pretty accurately. Not Serbia. Of course, in my twenties I realized that forming a country like Yugoslavia might have not been the best idea, that many things were quite different from what they appeared to be or from the way I was trained to see them, but all that didn’t matter. The fact that I was born in the country that no longer existed did.

It took some years of confusion and anger to come to terms with this change. Especially when I came to the US. People would ask me what country I was from. I kept saying Yugoslavia despite the fact that that answer didn’t feel quite right. After all, Yugoslavia no longer existed. I switched to saying The Former Yugoslavia, but that sounded silly. Incomplete. Inaccurate. Former – who cares about the former, what is it now? It took me years to start feeling comfortable saying Serbia, and to say it right off the bat, not just as an addendum. I am from Serbia, I am Serbian.

Of course, there was a much more complex process happening within me, but I had difficulty articulating it. I know confusion was the big part, but there was also guilt, and anger, and sadness, and  pain, and a sense of meaninglessness. A point where you stop trying to understand. You try to distance yourself from politics. You try to pretend you are apolitical, you can’t see, you can’t hear, you don’t care.

That’s the place where I was for almost ten years. Serbs were portrayed as the bad guys, and I am sure they did plenty of bad, very bad things that were beyond my ability to grasp (Serbs were killing, people were getting killed, and there were two things here that were difficult to digest: people were killing each other at the end of the twentieth century, and MY people were killers). But then, I knew that the other sides were responding by killing. It was awful no matter what. In addition to all that, Serbia, my Serbia that I still had difficulty referring to as my country, was ruled by a madman, Slobodan Milosevic.

The international community got involved. The US, where I was living now, was a big player.  First, the talks in Dayton. Then, the Kosovo crisis, the NATO forces bombing Serbia. For almost three months.

The international community and NATO were against what Milosevic was doing. So were most Serbs. In 1996 and 1997, students of the University of Belgrade demonstrated for months to get the madman out of his seat. We marched, we whistled, and we even banged pots and pans on the balconies of our apartments if we couldn’t make it to downtown. We didn’t get “international help.” Now, when Milosevic got into Kosovo trying to solve the problems there in the only way a madman could – madly – NATO decided to get involved. And how did they help? They bombed Serbia, they damaged the bridges and destroyed the economy, which probably didn’t affect Milosevic as much as it did the regular people. At the same time, the US was ready to send me home in the midst of that mess. I happened to be in the US when the bombing started, but the “temporary protected status” normally available to those who happen to be in the US when the conflict in their country starts for the duration of the conflict, was not available to Serbs. Despite the fact that NATO bombed Serbia every night. I felt I was treated as a roach, not as a human being.

Yes, I was very angry about that. And confused. And unable to understand. The same way I couldn’t understand how the international community led by the US recognized the independence of Kosovo (a region of Serbia that is mostly populated by Albanians). Simply because in a situation that I considered very similar to this, Srpska Krajina, a region of Croatia that was mostly populated by Serbs, didn’t gain independence (not that I thought it should have, but I expected the same types of issues to be resolved in the same way; it would have been only fair).  Something didn’t make sense.

Since then, I stopped expecting things to make sense. Since then, we’ve had the situation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia seeking independence and the US government’s refusal to back them up. The US backed up Georgia. Was I surprised? Not really. ” U.S.-backed oil pipeline runs through Georgia, allowing the West to reduce its reliance on Middle Eastern oil while bypassing Russia and Iran.” After all, everything seems to be about the United States’ interests.

Am I surprised that the US is getting ready to shoot the efforts of Palestinians to finally have a state? Not really. But it makes me sad. And I wonder how it is to raise kids there. To parent while bombs are going off. I was a student at the University of Belgrade when the war in Yugoslavia started. It was not right there where I was, but that didn’t matter. I wrestled with that overbearing sense of disbelief and meaninglessness, and I had only myself to take care of and myself to explain the whole thing to. How would I have explained that overwhelming confusion to anybody, not to say to my two-year-old or five-year-old or ten-year-old kid? Would it have even possible for me to rise above the war to give the children the basic sense of security they need – a sense that they are OK, that they will be safe no matter what, that I will keep them safe at least as long as they need me to impart that belief on them? To impart a sense of hope and beauty of living and loving and being here in this world. How can you do that if you exist in a violent world ruled by injustice and anger? I don’t know if you can. I suppose you enter the survival mode and you just stay there. For twenty, thirty, or forty years. Without any hope that things will change. That the international community will get involved in any meaningful way. And you survive, if you do, and you raise your kids. Somehow.

Note: I’d love to hear from those who have done this – raised kids in a time of war.


Forget the Grammar Please

September 21, 2011 Leave a comment

DrumMy son likes to play with the little girl next door. She is four months older and as persistent as he is. As intense as he is. Maybe that’s why they get along. Or don’t. Andrei tried to hit her a few times and managed to hit her once or twice. Caroline tried to punch him once and she seems to be physically stronger and more capable of wrestling toys out of Andrei’s hands.

This being said (nothing really atypical of two-year-olds), Caroline and Andrei love each other. They genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes they play literally together: Andrei plays the drum and Caroline plays the guitar as they are performing for me; they hide in the tent in Andrei’s room and ask me to look for them. More often they do the “parallel play” typical of two-year-olds: she makes snakes from play dough, he is trying to bounce the ball. When we don’t have a play date for a few days, I am sure to hear all sorts of things, Wonna see Taya; Taya’s house; Taya’s phone; Taya hot (After I ask Andrei if he is hot and after he says, Yes.). Taya poopies. Taya this, Taya that. When they finally see each other, Caroline and Andrei run towards each other in a way that reminds me of Gone with the Wind.

We see Caroline quite often. She stays at home with her dad. Her dad and I exchange babysitting services often (hence the time to actually start this blog). It’s quite a great arrangement. But Caroline, of course, doesn’t speak Serbian. And I am trying to make the time Andrei and I spend with Caroline NOT be English-only time (in a way that’s not imposing, unfair and disconnecting).

At first, Andrei and my time with Caroline was exclusively in  English. After an hour or so of my speaking to Andrei exclusively in English (Andrei might manage to squeeze in vodida, which is Andrei’s version of the Serbian word for water and Andrei’s dominant word for water), something just wouldn’t  feel right. Of course, it was definitely easy, very easy, for me to speak to Andrei (or anybody) in English, words would come easily to me, precise and light, on the surface it was all good. Maybe it was guilt that got me tangled up in that sense of things not feeling quite right. Maybe my determination to teach Andrei Serbian and therefore my commitment to not be without Serbian during the day, which was my primary Serbian time with Andrei.

So first I started with the Serbian version of Ring Around the Rosie, Ringe Ringe Raja. Andrei had always liked this (unlike Ring Around the Rosie, which he tended to refuse to participate in when our playgroup leader would sing it). Caroline started liking Ringe Ringe Raja too so every time we got together, Andrei, Caroline and I would do our Ringe Raja circle dance many, many times. Caroline even became the most frequent instigator. I would sing, Andrei and Caroline would even go as far as to repeat the last word of each line, and then we would all squat down at the end and pretend we were falling down, and we would continue to roll on the floor and laugh.

Next I started taking each opportunity to count in Serbian. When we would go up the stairs or down the stairs, we would all count. Jedan, dva, tri, cetiri, … deset. I would be the leader, Andrei and Caroline would do quite a good job of repeating the numbers in chorus. Caroline’s pronunciation would often be quite clear.

Then I tried to infuse even more Serbian in Andrei  and my time with Caroline.

Puppy, Caroline and Andrei would say at about the same time.

Puppy is barking, I said. Kuca laje, I repeated in Serbian.

Now this approach seemed to have some side effects.

A minute later, Caroline pointed to my Franklin Institute “bracelet” that was still on my wrist from the trip Andrei and I took earlier in the day and asked, What’s that?

Narukvica, I answered in Serbian.

Buba Duba Buba (or something that sounds like that), Caroline said. I realized that I switched to Serbian without even noticing. I corrected myself, That’s bracelet. I was shocked that I got confused so fast, so easily. My brain is only capable to handle one thing at a time. Period.

Andrei and Caroline continued to ride their bikes. I followed them and continued to provide comments in two languages. Ray is fixing his car. Rej popravlja kola. Yes, that’s a tree. With pointed leaves. Drvo, sa ostrim listovima. And then, I yelled, Stani! Stani! Stani! Okreni  se, as Caroline and Andrei were heading towards the busy street. Andrei stopped, Caroline didn’t so I ran after her, saying Stani, and then it hit me, Stop! Stop! That was the right word.

There are some major differences between Serbian and English, and I am afraid those are working against me. Maybe I shouldn’t even think about them, but sometimes I do, probably because I am aware of the fact that I am the totality of Andrei’s Serbian (plus some books and some music). I am aware of the fact that there is no real, organic need for Andrei to speak Serbian (after all, I speak English). Of course, I am trying to create some sort of emotional need, but…am I doing a good job? Will Andrei trust my love for Serbian when I write my stories (and this blog) in English? Will he be able to sense and absorb the love that I have ingrained in me and can never part with it because I was born there and grew up there and had Serbian as my only language for quite a few years.

Yet, I can’t help noticing some things that are working against me. Serbian words are long with a lot of “ch” and “sh” sounds. Compare shoe to cipela, fork to viljuska, bowl to cinija, trip to putovanje. Sometimes it feels funny when I say this long Serbian word, and in the second I am saying it, I hear the English equivalent in my head, a single syllable, so easy, one beat. The English word seems to be just so much easier to remember. So…my job here is to somehow motivate my son and teach him to appreciate the melodic qualities of the Serbian word. To disregard the length. And the number of syllables. To like the winding ways of Slavic languages.

What about the Serbian grammar? In English, my son is quite familiar with “that” and “those.” That house. Those shoes. He’s been practicing these two pronouns for many months. In Serbian, I try to say, Ta kuca, simply to indicate the gender and maybe the category of number (singular), and I am trying to forget about the cases (that’s why I wanted Andrei to learn Serbian at the same time he was learning English; otherwise he would actually have to memorize and make sense of twenty-one forms for one English “that” and that just sounds cruel unless it’s your native language). But whenever I say a sentence in Serbian, and most sentences include at least two nouns, at least one of which is most likely in a case other than nominative, part of me feels powerless, My love, I don’t know how to help you with this! You just gotta figure it out! For example, Hoces da zoves babu? (Do you want to call grandma?). He repeats babu, I say baba, because unless it’s used in a sentence, the word babu doesn’t make much sense, the actual word is baba. And I can’t help comparing this to English, where you have one simple form, Grandma, no matter what you say. Grandma is going shopping. You want to show your book to Grandma. You want to see Grandma. It’s always Grandma.

Then I try to stop myself. I can’t control much more than the quantity of Serbian I give to my son. So I better just keep talking. In Serbian. Without thinking too much.

I Live in the Best Country in the World

September 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I hope I never hear this one come out of my son’s mouth. Never.

I’ve been hearing this statement way too often. Especially in the past four or five years, since Mr. George Bush managed to spark and engage in another war, and since he managed to significantly damage the economy of the US. I’ve been hearing it from Republicans (from whom nothing can really surprise me anymore) and Democrats alike. I’ve been hearing it from the intelligent people that I actually like listening to on WHYY while my son and I are eating breakfast or lunch, or I am cooking dinner and he is playing around me. That’s what my experience sometimes looks like. I am listening to this great interview, I am impressed with both the interviewer (asking usually great questions) and the interviewee, and then there might be a mention of some book that the interviewer has written, and I am trying to quickly find a pen in our far-from-organized house, and in the moment when I have everything I need, the pen and a piece of paper, I hear something like this:…and we will continue to be…regain the status of the best country in the world.

And that really gets me, “the best country in the world.” What does that mean? How do you determine what country is the best country in the world? What criteria do you use? Is it possible to narrow down the world to one country that is “the best country in the world”? Best for whom? How can one country possibly be best for all different people out there, different value systems, different philosophical orientations? How good is the US for those that are just below or even above the ridiculous poverty level?(Really, don’t you find the poverty levels determined by the Department of Health and Human Services plainly ridiculous? A family of three to live on $ 18,530? I’d like someone, ideally one of the those calling the US the best country in the world, to show me how exactly that could work.) Another question comes to mind: Isn’t it sad, infinitely sad, that so many people – so many people – do not have access to the health system that is one of the best in the world? How about the elderly? How about those like me in 2005, that might have been informed on a Monday that that coming Friday was their last day because the employer could not afford to keep them anymore, and of course, in this best country in the world, the focus is always on the company/profit, and never on the employees/people?

So I’ll stop right here. I don’t want to be overly critical. I have actually developed a liking for this country. After all, it has given me something that was so important to me, and that I wouldn’t have ever found in Serbia, at least not in the Serbia of the nineties: some reasonable education that included basic respect for me as an individual and a student. This is the country where my son was born. This is the country where my husband was born and raised. This is the country where most of my friends were born and raised. So, I have a large investment in this country. But that “best country in the world”  I really can’t take. I simply don’t understand it. And I hope my son never spits it out at me because that will be a proof that I have failed as a parent. I really don’t want him to aim for any kind of general “best,” or to ever believe that’s he has accomplished that ultimate best (what a great recipe for arrogance!). Maybe “best” for him. And that implies that that “best” will never be the “best” that’s best for everyone.

Pro Religion or Pro Choice?

September 15, 2011 2 comments

I grew up with no religion. I grew up in Tito’s Yugoslavia of the seventies and eighties marked by the typical attributes of that era. A red scarf around my neck and a blue cap with a red star badge on my head, which were supposed to be delivered to me in a special ceremony where I would swear to be Tito’s pioneer (something like the First Communion or Confirmation). Unfortunately, I never made it to the ceremony. I had mumps on one side, but I was feeling better the day before the ceremony and the plan was that I was going to attend it the following day. But that evening I started feeling pain on the other side of my head, which meant more mumps, and I never made it to the ceremony. Nonetheless, the first day I was back in school, my teacher gave me the scarf and the hat and I took them home with pride.

I was seven then. I used the scarf and the cap along with a dark blue skirt and a white shirt plentifully in the upcoming years. My mother would “pre-tie” my scarf if she was not going to be at home when I would be leaving to go to an event where I needed to wear the scarf and the hat (my mother wanted to make sure my scarf looked perfect).

I wore my pioneer “uniform” on all sorts of occasions. Waiting for Tito’s Blue Train (a literally blue train that took Tito all around Yugoslavia and beyond) to go through my town so I and hundreds of other kids could wave to him in a minute or two how long it took for the train to slowly go through the train station (while my lordosis-ridden back hurt even then).  Or waiting at the town square for hours for a few people to carry through the town the torch (something like an Olympic torch) that was going to be carried further, through the rest of the country, to be delivered to Tito on his birthday, in Belgrade, in a mind-blowing massive celebration that included thousands of performers. Or participating in many shows that our school organized for every single national holiday (sometimes I sang in a choir, sometimes I recited a poem about Tito or the Partisans’ heroic fighting in the Second World War, sometimes I read an essay I wrote about Tito). And yes, we wrote essays about Tito around every single holiday. I sometimes wonder how I never ran out of ideas, but I didn’t (I even won an award for two or three essays I wrote about Tito and participated in two special pioneer trips as a reward) . After all, you didn’t really have to say much in these essays, you simply had to describe how much you admired Tito, in a highly appreciated wordy flowery style – the wordier, the better. One time I tried to use this style of writing when I was a student at Beaver College, my teacher said she had no idea what I was saying and asked me to just say what I meant. At some point I started wondering how this flowery style even evolved. Maybe it was easier to crowd a sentence with strings of adjectives and multiple metaphors in a Slavic language than it would be in English. Maybe it was easier to incorporate subverted messages into this style of writing, if anyone wanted to do that. Maybe we were simply trained to beat around the bush and avoid saying what we meant. I don’t know.

Many times I wonder if this ordeal was better or worse than being expected to go to church every single Sunday, like my husband was. I don’t think I even fully understood the concept of religion until my mid to late teens. When I lived in Libya, I knew that Islam was a big part of Libyan culture. I occasionally saw practicing Muslims pray on the street, but I never thought much about my religion – . If I ever walked into a church, that was with my parents, when we travelled, to look at frescos and mosaics. For purely artistic reasons. I admired the pictures of saints, but I never asked many questions. And if I did, I wonder how my parents would have responded. They were not members of the Communist Party (they were way too honest and apolitical for anyone to officially recommend them, which was, I believe, required at the time), but they were a product of the post-Second-World-War times when few city people went to church and celebrated religious holidays. My father was a physician, a lover of mathematics, a lover of science and a lover of chess. He didn’t like to deal with things that were not exact. He laughed at any mention of God and church, and over the years I figured out the perfect way to play with (read: irritate) him: to read him a few prayers and hymns from some church calendar that we happened to somehow always have in the back of a kitchen cabinet. For years I defined my father as a straightforward atheist until he was on his deathbed. As a physician, he knew he was dying (although I didn’t), and I can’t even pinpoint what exactly made me think that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t a complete atheist. All people are good, he kept repeating the last time I saw him, and I knew that was what he believed all his life, when he was wordlessly getting up in the middle of the night and leaving within minutes to go perform some emergency surgery. I always knew, he loved people, he cared about people, all people, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, he was a perfect Christian all his life. And what he was saying, the fact that he was saying it, he, a man of few words, made me somehow think that something changed in him.

My mother I have called an agnostic since that word entered my vocabulary. She always planned not to eat meat and animal products on Good Fridays, but always ended up forgetting about it and eating an  omelet first thing in the morning. She was the one who probably went through the effort of getting that church calendar we always had in the house. And she refused to sew on Sundays and religious holidays. But that was the extent of her “religiousness.”

I grew up not even knowing what Christmas was. Really. A family friend once told me not to take my “New Year” tree apart until mid-January (she didn’t explain, but I now know that her idea was to keep the tree until after the Orthodox Christmas and New Year). I had proclaimed myself to be a non-believer until my late teens. But secretly I believed in God. My version of God. A vague, ethereal  God. Loving God. Accepting God. And I prayed. Sometimes I prayed while my parents were fighting. And I always prayed after they finished their fights.  I prayed for them never to fight again knowing that was not in the realm of possibility. Sometimes I even knelt down on the floor. I kept the palms of my hands against each other, and that somehow comforted me.

I don’t know when was the first time I admitted to others that I actually believed in God. My God. That I needed God (although not religion). I think I was already an adolescent. It was after the breakdown of Yugoslavia, when people started going to church again and celebrating religious holidays. Some of my friends who grew up with a little more religion in their lives than I did started inviting me to go to church. Occasionally I went, but then I started backing off. I preferred to do it my way, to stop by while on my way to somewhere, or on the way back from somewhere, for a few minutes, when the liturgy was not in progress, when it was quiet.

I do have some attachment to Orthodox Christianity. That is not a religious attachment, or philosophical.  It’s mostly emotional and cultural. It’s part of my Serbianhood.  The Bible is still just a collection of stories that I read and reread when I was studying literature. They helped me understand literary references and I enjoyed reading them. My God is my God. I need my God to remain nameless, ethereal, accessible to me.

My husband is culturally Roman Catholic, but fundamentally an atheist. He grew up in a strongly Catholic household, went to church every Sunday until he was maybe sixteen. After that he was allowed to go to church by himself, and that’s when he started to stop going to church. Today he professes to be Catholic culturally and he knows The Bible in the way I don’t. But, fundamentally he is an atheist. And, he seems to have one of the characteristics of a “recovering Catholic” (the term I first heard from some man I dated years ago): Anger. He is angry about quite a few things related to the Catholic church, including some of the teachings, the damaging concept of original sin, the values imposed, hypocrisy, the abusing priests, and who knows what else. And I understand why. If someone forced me to sit on a bench for an hour or more every Sunday morning of the first sixteen years of my life and listen to something that never felt right for me, I would have been angry too. Furious. And I would rebel. It’s only natural.

We have a two-year-old son whom we are raising with no religion. Someone once equaled this with “no values.” I was appalled. And a little sad. No values? Do we really need a religion to teach us values? Of course, that’s one way, but is it really the only way?

Would religion, a specific religion, help my son along the way? Keep him grounded? The answer is, I don’t know. I cannot know. My son is two. I am curious to find out who he is and I am trying to find out – I might analyze his personality and his temperament at times and conclude, Oh, he is really intense and really persistent! But overall, I still don’t know who he is and who he is going to become. My husband and I definitely try to embed certain values in him, those that we think are important: hard work and perseverance; internal motivation for work rather than external; honesty; self-reliance; problem-solving; care about the planet; and a few others. But we don’t want to mold him. After all, we want him to understand it’s his job to find out who he is and develop himself into a complete human being.

I don’t know whether my son is going to need God or not. My hope is that he will be OK either way. If he doesn’t need God, that’s fine by me. If he does need some sort of open God, I hope he will discover it. And if he turns out to need a religion, I’ll acknowledge his feelings of incompleteness and encourage him to find a religion (and hope he will not allow any religion to control his basic values).

In the meantime, I am expecting questions such as: What is God? Does he wear diapers? Does he like to eat broccoli? Does he love me? And I hope I’ll be able to handle them.

And my husband and I are already dealing with the practical issues such as, for example, Christmas celebrations. We like getting and decorating  a tree, but we don’t call it a Christmas tree. We go to my in-laws’ house for Christmas Eve, and we enjoy spending time with the family. We go through the gift-giving thing, and this is something that we have decided to simply accept as gift-giving. It’s not a bad thing to once in a while give and get presents.

And we continue to hear passive, passive-aggressive, and direct comments, and we try to keep in mind that these are not serious offenses, just simple boundary violations. Luckily, we are not children anymore, we have resilience and a sense of self.

One Language or Two?

September 7, 2011 4 comments

So if I had had a child ten years ago, soon after I came to the US, raising my child with bilingualism and biculturalism in mind wouldn’t have even become an issue. I went through a strange process when I first came to the US. I simply wanted to belong. I wanted to belong to no matter what. I wanted to be same as people around me, and I mostly went for the Americans who looked most American to me, those who wore shorts and sneakers like the tourists I saw in Belgrade, ate pizza for dinner and spoke accent-less English (here I mean the absence of a foreign accent as I was definitely not able to distinguish between different American accents such as, for example, Southern versus New York).

Maybe it was all about English. Maybe I felt that if I changed myself on the outside (put away my flowing flower-patterned dresses and skirts and switched to shorts and sneakers), English was going to flood my mind and lodge there, grammatically perfect, beautifully fluent, and accent-less, and Serbian, which many times felt like an obstacle to speaking perfect English, was going to be pushed into the far background. Little did I know that seven or eight years later I was indeed going to reach a point that looked somewhat like that (minus the accent and occasional grammatical uncertainties that were still present) and that I was going to feel like I was missing a limb, or even maybe an entire half of my body.

I sometimes wonder if other foreigners go through this process. And if the process I went through was indeed driven by my idea of complete immersion in the English language. The more I think about it, the more certain I am that English was the main force. After all, I only came to this country because it was one of the few countries where people spoke English and that was, at the same time, going to let a Serb in for an extended period of time (a year in my case, as an au-pair). Before I came to the US, I was a student of English language and literature at the University of Belgrade and I left the country before I graduated. After seven years of studying English language and literature at the university level, and six more before that, I was not fluent in English – after all, in most of those years I had very few opportunities to speak English. The language classes at the University of Belgrade consisted of lectures, translation and grammar exercises and some useless essay-writing classes, and the literature classes included endless lectures about books and texts where you were told what they meant and at the end of the year you were supposed to spit the same information back at your professors, mostly in Serbian. You took an exam at the end of the year, and then you were able to keep retaking it depending on how many times you flunked, and nobody ever – ever – questioned the ability of your  professors to teach, even if ninety percent of their students failed. While taking an oral exam, you had one or two or three professors sitting in front of you and a room full of your fellow students (thirty or forty on average) sitting behind you, waiting to take their exam, and in this lovely, stress-free setting you were supposed to let your English shine.

Well, my English didn’t shine. I was terrified, numb with fear, and I made grammatical mistakes that I knew were mistakes the second the sentences came out of my mouth. It felt like my mouth and my brain were never in sync, my brain frozen more often than my cheap Dell computer, and my voice unreliable, stuck in my throat.

I felt terrible about the whole thing: I, a-straight-A-student in my entire school career before the University of Belgrade, who managed to be one of the fifty-five students accepted in 1991 by the University of Belgrade to study English, felt like a complete failure. And at that point I didn’t even care if I were ever going to graduate, but I desperately wanted English, that English that I fell in love with years before, when I was in seventh grade, to flow easily from my brain to my lips, like a language should. And I wanted to be able to relish in the process.

In the only other country in which I lived for an extended period of time, Libya, I never went through the same process of abandoning my Serbianhood. The whole experience was very different. I was much younger, only thirteen when my parents and I came to live in Benghazi in 1985 and fifteen when we left. It was in Libya that I received my first English lessons. Unlike with German that I started studying a few years before that, and Arabic that I studied at the same time I studied English, I loved the magical flow of English in my brain and my mouth, and I even tried to keep my diary in English as soon as my vocabulary reached about 100 or 200 words.

The Libyan world was vastly different from the world I grew up in, and I never even tried to compare the two. My parents worked for the 7th April hospital in Benghazi, and we lived in a village located right next to the hospital, completely separated from the Libyan world. I went to Yugoslavian school and played mostly with Yugoslavian kids (Yugoslavia was my country until it fell apart in 1991). I had some curiosity about the male and female segregation typical of Muslim cultures, but that was about it. Largely, I didn’t care about much more than the mimosas blooming under my window, beautiful sunsets over the flat red land, wild sandy beaches and the pleasant Mediterranean climate (perfect for me as I have always loved the heat). In 1987 I went home, and I felt somewhat changed by the experience, but merely by the total absence of TV, radio, and any other form of mass communication, which forced me to read books, write, draw, paint, do crafts. Overall, I went in Libya through nothing that even remotely resembled the process I was going through in the first few years spent in the US.

My life in the first few years in the US kept changing fast. First, I was an au-pair, and I had quite a few hours during the day to myself (I took the kids to daycare/school in the morning, and then I was free until at least three in the afternoon). I had weekends to myself too, and I went from being somewhat of a tourist exploring the Smithsonian museums, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial to strolling by the Potomac and making my way to the Serbian Church in D.C.

In the Serbian church in Washington, D.C.Wilmington's tall sail ship I felt far from welcome at first. Distanced enough from my own culture, I clearly saw what Serbs were like: once they got to know you, you were their best friend, they would die or kill for you. But before they got to know you, well, you were just a stranger. They would never just drop a casual hello or talk to you about the weather. So, the first few times I went to church, I hardly spoke to anybody. But I kept going, despite the fact that I wasn’t the churchgoing type (I made friends with my spirituality in my teens and started going to church occasionally, but usually at random times, when I felt like it, when the liturgy was not in progress and when I could have just a few minutes of silence to myself, to ponder, pray, remember, whatever). But now, I was lonely enough that I kept going to liturgies religiously, hoping I would eventually make some friends.

Gradually, I made my way to the room where people hung out after the liturgy, and I made friends. I became one of them, and when NATO bombed Serbia in 1999, before my au-pair year was over, when the U.S. offered no solutions – absolutely no solutions – for Serbs who happened to be abroad when the bombing started and whose visa expired and who needed to go home while NATO was still striking Serbia every night, I wouldn’t have made it without the people from that church.

In September that year I was in school in Philadelphia studying nothing else but English literature (I was able to transfer two years’ worth of credits from the University of Belgrade, but based on how little I learned in Belgrade, I later thought my Philadelphia school shouldn’t have accepted anything). An au-pair year behind me, I was sharing a dorm room with eighteen-year-olds (one of the conditions of my scholarship was that I had to live on campus), feeling much older than I really was (not so bad age of twenty-seven). I read literature and I wrote about it. English was flowing through me, and I was happy.  First of all, I was happy because I was writing, and then, it happened that I was writing in English. I delighted in the process. Maybe, since the day one when I started studying English, or since the moment I decided I loved that language (the way I never liked German), my idea of foreign language mastery was to be able to write in it, to bask in it, to play with it the way I was able to in Serbian.

Now one might ask why I just didn’t stay with my native Serbian and make things easy for myself. Why I needed English to begin with. The honest answer is, I don’t know. Maybe because since the moment English entered my life, years ago, when I was living in Libya, it was always a major part of my education. First, as I started studying it in seventh grade, I had to do four years’ worth of material in only two years to be able to graduate from the school I attended in Libya. Then, In high school, I chose a course of study that included a lot of English split into three different subjects. Finally, at the University of Belgrade, I studied phonetics, morphology, syntax, and tons of most detailed grammar. After all these years, I desperately wanted to reach that point where my English was as good as my Serbian was. To be able to write as well as a native speaker would. To write my stories in English. I couldn’t write my stories in Serbian when I was now living my life in English.

By the time I got out of school, I fully owned my English. I used Serbian only when talking to my mother, which wasn’t often. I got a job as an editorial assistant for two trade magazines and was quickly promoted to an assistant editor. I started writing my own fiction. In English. And I started forgetting my Serbian. For real. When I talked to my mother, despite all of my focus and effort, more English than Serbian words would come out of my mouth. I strung words together following the syntactic rules of English. You forgot your native language, my mother said once emphasizing every single word. The whole thing  was funny and not funny. I was amazed at the process (Can you really forget your native language? Really?) and then I couldn’t escape the feeling of actually losing something. A Serbian saying would come to my mind (the one that doesn’t have an equivalent in English): Igracka-placka. Something you would say to a kid who is playing happily when he or she gets hurt in the process. You play and then you get hurt. Oh, well! You are OK! And indeed I was OK for a few years. I loved my English. The whole thing reminded me of my high school days when I fell in love with a pretty obese boyfriend, and I started gaining weight, for unclear reasons (for fun, or to look more like him and keep that wandering-eye-boy interested in me). I was gaining 2-3 pounds a week, I out of all people, the always too thin I. I thought the whole thing was funny. Until I realized my face got buried in the weight of my cheeks and I really needed to lose those twenty pounds I gained, which was not that easy.

Over the years, I built a life for myself in the US. I had the job I loved, I wrote stories, I made friends. I fought with my mother over the phone. I fought battles that I felt I should have fought years before then, but it was only then that I was strong enough to confront my mother. I sought answers in therapy. I dated men. I decided I wanted to have a family. I met my husband. We had a baby.

I held my son in my arms. I spoke to him in English and I called him sweet names. First he was Babika, then The Little Man, then Adoricus and Cutolino, and many other things. I tried singing to him in English, but I didn’t know the lyrics of many of the nursery rhymes. So I just hummed, and then I started making up both the lyrics and the tunes,

My baby, my baby, my baby maybe,

My baby, my baby, my maybe baby.

And around that time, my Serbian started coming back to me.

Tasi, tasi, tanana,

Evo jedna grana,

the way my mother and my aunt sang to me. I ordered a book of Serbian poems, Riznica Pesama za Decu by Jovan Jovanovic-Zmaj, the same one I had when I was a kid, with a yellow cover that had a bunch of kids flying a kite (the poet’s nickname is Zmaj, which means kite in Serbian). The book brought to life all those days I spent with that book, sometimes reading it, but before even I knew how to read, copying the illustrations from the book.

As I was reading the poems to my son in the first few months of his life, my voice bounced off the walls and I fell in love with the sound of my native language all over again. Actually, I never stopped loving my language. It was just that I felt my English and my Serbian were mutually exclusive. That they couldn’t comfortably co-exist in the pretty ADD me who couldn’t handle more than one thing at a time. Switching between two languages made me crazy. Like I couldn’t fit both of them into me at the same time. I needed one language in which I could write, and that was  English.

A few months went by. My husband approached the subject again. I’d really like you to teach Andrei Serbian, he said.

Do you know how hard that would be? I responded, convinced he didn’t and couldn’t really know how difficult it was for my brain to handle two of anything.

Still, I often sang to Andrei in Serbian, and kept repeating, mama, tata, baba, deda. Every now and then, I would play a you-tube video of some Serbian song: Tata kupi mi auto, Tata, pa ti me volis.

My son started sitting, crawling, walking (way too early). At eight months he got his first word out – mama. I have always felt that in English that word is more a means to an end than an end in itself. Mama coming out of a baby’s mouth soon becomes Mom or Mommy. In Serbian, mama is the ultimate. Mama.

Maybe that’s when I decided. Maybe a little later, when our Irish friend yelled at me (or just spoke to me in his typical voice with a strong Irish accent), You’re really not going to teach Andrei Serbian! ?!

The decision was somehow made. It evolved. I needed to try. I needed to do the best I could, like with everything else.

I ordered a book on raising bilingual children, Raising a Bilingual Child, by Barbara Zurer Pearson. A pretty good book, very informative. I found out about how other parents did it. I examined the logical strategies outlined in the book: One Parent-One Language; Minority Language at Home; Time and Place; and Mixed Language Policy. I acknowledged the fact that I was going to be it, no support system, only me, some music and some picture books. I knew I was not going to use any one of the techniques exclusively simply because I was not organized enough and the effort to do it would have killed me. But I decided I was going to try to speak to Andrei in Serbian anytime we were alone, and later I added an addendum, I was going to try to speak to Andrei in Serbian even when other people were with us, except when the other person was my husband and then, of course, we wanted to have family time and to understand one another.

So I started trying to speak to Andrei in Serbian whenever we were alone. In the beginning, I mixed English and Serbian a lot. A Serbian sentence with at least one English word. Or, a Serbian sentence, followed by an English sentence, and then a Serbian sentence. Or, three Serbian sentences, followed by three English sentences, the last one of which included a Serbian word.

It got better over time. And easier.

On some days I feel I get a lot of Serbian into our day. On some other days, I am not pleased with myself. I feel I give in to English too easily. I feel I should try harder.

Overall, I feel good about Andrei’s progress. He turned two a month ago, and English is definitely his primary language. He understands Serbian, he can say quite a few words, and he is just starting to string Serbian words together. I remind myself that whatever I accomplish is better than if I never tried.

And I keep talking and singing to my son. In my native language.

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