Remember when you were from Yugoslavia?

I remember the exact moment in high-school when I had to stop saying that I was from Yugoslavia.

I was living in Melbourne, which is where I still permanently reside. My friend came up to me at recess and said “Hey, my Dad told me that we have a new country today. Serbia & Montenegro.”

It was as casual as that. Now you stop being one thing and you become another. You stop being Yugoslavian, you start being Serb & Montenegrin (if that’s even how you say it).

I was fifteen and I had to roll with it. Back then I didn’t understand the details of what was going on in my country. I didn’t really want to. Point was, the new name sounded terrible. It sounded like I was from some weird, transitional, residual state that was invented because no one knew what else to do. It sounded like I would have to start explaining whether I was Serb or Montenegrin, or both.

I was neither. I was Yugoslavian. I was born in the capital, Belgrade, in 1988. This was just around the time Yugoslavia had stopped being what it was; a non-aligned, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, socialist state. Nationalistic movements had (re)surfaced, and the whole country was on the brink of dissolution. Not an amicable break-up either, but a violent civil war which lasted almost five years and eventually resulted in six new countries. In 1995, my parents and I immigrated to New Zealand, or as my mother called it, to “the end of the Earth”.

We had never talked about being Serbian. We were always just Yugoslavian. It said so on our birth certificates, on our passports. Not even that, it’s simply how we felt.

So what happens when one day you wake up on the other side of the world and the place you come from no longer exists?

You adjust, I guess. You adjust to the way it rolls off the tongue. It takes a while to decide whether you like the ring of it or not. It takes even longer for the rest of the world to catch up. And by the time you reluctantly accept the “I’m from Serbia & Montenegro” mouthful, it changes again.

2006. Montenegro gains independence. I am now simply from Serbia.

By this point, my friends had already stopped calling me a “Yugo”, which I sort of missed. No one brought it up. No one asked questions, which was good because I wouldn’t have known what to say.

I would still slip sometimes. Fall back into old habits and say I was Yugoslavian. This was met with either a blank look or a blunt “Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore”. It’s like when they remind you that someone is dead so stop talking about them in the present tense. As if you had forgotten they were dead. I know that people didn’t know better, and sure, neither did I back then, but there was something about the words “doesn’t exist anymore” that stung.

I still wanted to be from Yugoslavia. I wasn’t ready to not be from Yugoslavia. Or at least, I wanted to be able to say it without people implying that it was inaccurate or a dead concept.

For fifteen years, I was from Yugoslavia. For three, I was from Serbia & Montenegro. For the past ten, I’ve just been a Serb.  And to be honest, ‘Serb’ sometimes sounds a little too sharp (and lonely) for my liking.

I will never forget Yugoslavia, even if most of the world has phased it out. I don’t mention it anymore because it’s easier that way. However, on rare occasions, a stranger will come along who knows the background story. They will look at my last name and they won’t guess Russian or Czech or Croatian. They’ll ask me if I’m Yugoslavian, and I will always say “yes”.

My cultural identity did not die with the so-called “death” of my former country. It is not shaped by politics or wars or the succession of states. As I get older, my identity may become a number of different things for a number of different reasons, and I embrace that.

But there is one thing my identity will never be. It will never be forgetful.

This article was published on 13 June 2016