When I was seven years old, I stared at a map in Mrs. Farmer’s second-grade classroom for what seemed like hours.
It was a map of Europe, one that I had practically memorized, but I guess my geography skills weren’t as sharp as I thought they were. I was looking for where I came from, but it was nowhere to be found. There was Italy, Spain, Germany, all the places that everyone knew about, but something was missing. My country was missing.
The map was outdated. It only showed a country that no longer existed.
Twenty-one years ago, I was almost born in a war zone. I almost grew up in a place where acts of injustice made it on the front page of the newspaper every single day. I was almost raised in a country where everyone drove a Volkswagen Golf, until I was not.
Until I was five years old, I had no recollection of the place where my family was from. Aside from speaking the language and being given a traditional name, I did not know as much as I wished I knew about Bosnia and Herzegovina. My first visit was blurry, kind of like those childhood photographs where you’re dancing around and your parents can’t quite get you to stay still.
If you’ve read my articles before, then you know I’ve written plenty about my family’s history so instead of repeating myself and focusing so much on the past, I’m going to focus on the present and how I feel right now.
I have been back to Bosnia four times in my life, and each has been uniquely different, but all of these trips share the same memorable qualities. For one, I cannot even begin to describe how happy I am to sit down in a cafe for two hours and drink my cappuccino while I hear snippets of strangers’ conversations spoken in my native tongue.
Yes, I flew halfway across the world and all I could think about during my flight was the moment I could have my damn cappuccino.
But that certainly isn’t the only thing that makes a trip to Bosnia worthwhile. The people make it all worth it. When you go for as long as seven years without seeing your family members, you learn to savor every single moment that is spent with them.
You know that they may not understand everything you have to say about your life in the United States, and that’s okay. You accept it, but part of you can’t help but wonder what your life would have been like if you had grown up in Bosnia.
This is something that my best friend and I talk about all the time, my goodness, how different our lives would have been. I’m not saying we aren’t grateful for where we have ended up, but there’s always going to be that part of you who thinks about how things could have played out.
But that’s not the point.
The point is that being torn between two countries is something that I am going to have to deal with for the rest of my life.
I’m aware that I’m making this sound more tragic than it actually is because the truth is, this is just a part of who I am, it’s a part of my story.
Maybe it is the reason that I feel instantly connected any time I meet someone from a different country, the reason that I taught myself phrases in Spanish just so I could help customers at work because every time I looked at them, I pictured my parents speaking broken English their first few years in the United States. It’s my way of saying, “I’m here for you, we are one and the same.”
My body may be in the United States, but my heart and soul will always be in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
To any other first-generation Americans reading this, I just want you to know that it’s okay if you don’t feel like you truly belong. I have never felt like I completely belonged because well, I don’t.
I urge you to never forget where you come from. Where we come from is important because it helps us remember where we’re going. Whether it’s having your country’s flag hanging in your car or reading the latest sports news in your native language, keep doing it. Keep doing it because it’s part of your story, and don’t you ever let anyone take it away from you.