Finding Culture in Chori: What Being Slovak Means to Me

Saudade: a vague, constant desire for something that does not and could not exist — a word I hold close to my heart when I think about my culture. Saudade is a difficult word to define, similar to my relationship with my heritage. It is a culture that still exists, yet I was never fully a part of it — at least, not enough to feel satisfied in calling it my own.

My family originates from Serbia, formerly Yugoslavia and formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Two World Wars and the Balkan Wars would leave my family living within the borders of Serbia, nationalizing them as Serbian, but our lineage lies in modern-day Slovakia, making me Slovakian. I speak Slovak, enough to hold simple conversations, but never enough to engage further than that. I would rely on my mother and father’s help to translate my words for my family members who couldn’t understand, whose language falls short of my harsh American tongue.

From ages seven to nine, I was enrolled in Slovak school to better my vocabulary and understanding of the language. Classroom instruction was simple enough, as I could repeat and understand words perfectly, but being given books, my literacy skills that were so fine-tuned to English became obsolete with Slovak. I could not read or write at an acceptable level; I quit once we moved north, as the two-hour drive all the way down to Astoria, Queens became pointless.

From that point forward, being Slovakian became my fun fact in ice breakers or a party trick for those wanting to know all the dirty words I could name. Slovakian was no longer an integral part of my identity, but a random thing I just happened to know. I never completely lost my ability to speak Slovak, as my mother would keep it up, calling it our “secret language” when in public spaces, thus keeping my skills sharp. Yet, I still felt as though I was missing something. But how could you lose something you’ve never even had?

Much of my struggle when it comes to embracing my culture stems from my incomplete understanding of the language, but also from a melding of cultures I couldn’t quite understand either.

The village my family comes from was founded by Slovakians, the lineage I mentioned earlier, who migrated south back when the empire still existed and established settlements in present-day Vojvodina (northern province of Serbia) in the pursuit of fertile land. They’ve maintained the language, even when the borders were drawn.

However, despite living in Serbia, I never learned Serbian nor the Cyrillic alphabet. Street signs became a hassle, with a letter I presumed to be a “B” actually sounding like a “V” and a “P” actually sounding like an “R.”

By the same token, I couldn’t relate to Slovakian culture, as I had no current familial ties nor visits to the country that could bridge that gap. Being up on stage in a red floral-printed blouse and skirt, along with tens of other Slovakian and Czech kids, singing songs in my language during our school’s winter concerts, did not instill a sense of cultural pride; I felt
as though I was playing the lead role of a play
I had never even heard of. Cultural connection only came through my family and their traditions, but that still did not satisfy my deep longing.

I only remember visiting Serbia twice: once when I was six years old and most recently when I was 17. With my latest trip, returning 11 years later, I felt out of place; they were my family, yet they felt like strangers. My entire visit consisted of half-conversations and hiding in the guest room, not only because of the extreme heat wave but because I just could not fit in. That’s not to say that my parents didn’t try their best. Over the course of my childhood, they cooked sarma during religious holidays, kept me in touch with relatives and shared stories of their childhoods, but eventually those cultural traditions became disconnected from the very culture it came from — they just became traditions without cultural meaning to me.

I won’t pretend that my struggle is worse than some who were forced to abandon their culture and assimilate with others to survive, or others that are actively targeted for their culture, who cannot fully blend in. This quiet loss, to me, however, still signifies a loss of identity. My understanding of my culture is limited to the language that I am barely holding on to. If I can’t even relate to my culture, am I really even Slovakian?

Recently, I’ve been in the habit of creating countless useless Spotify playlists. During one of those periods, I came across a song, Ruška by Zdravko Čolić. It was a song that I remembered my mother mentioned offhandedly as my dad’s song for her before their divorce. Though it seemed like another classic love song, I found myself listening to it more and more, recognizing bits and pieces, root words that Serbian shared with other Slavic languages and singing along. From Ruška came more songs and artists I had never heard of, but recognized, as they were the songs my father used to play in his car on long rides home. His words when singing along were incomprehensible to me, but knowing they were Slavic, I knew they were mine too.

My new playlist, titled “songs to reunite Yugoslavia to,” boasts 31 songs, not only in Slovak and Serbian, but in Croatian, Bosnian and Yugoslavian too (many of these bands produced music prior to Yugoslavia’s breakup, which mostly speaks to my father’s music taste). These are not languages or cultures that I comprehend completely but hearing these songs in languages native to my tongue, forges a new path of rekindling with my heritage. Hearing certain words and, more importantly, recognizing those words sparks a joy inside that cannot fully be articulated on paper, but it is a joy that is rich with meaning and acceptance.

Forcing culture where it has not existed
is a futile attempt. But creating culture, forging a meaning for yourself, is one of discovery and wonder, slowly piecing it together, like an old friend you never had, yet you cannot fully understand why you’re so glad to see again.