First-generation Bosnian-Americans in St. Louis feel ‘in-between’ two identities

Sadija Begic flips a switch as soon as she gets home – she only speaks Bosnian after speaking English all day at school. She is one of many first-generation Bosnian-Americans who struggle to balance two very different cultures.

By Kate McCracken

Webster senior Sadija Begic knows what it is like to belong to more than one culture. Raised by her Bosnian-born parents, Begic holds her Bosnian heritage close. Schooling and socialization with American peers has given Begic the idea of what it is to be American.

“You have your Bosnian identity, and then you have your American identity,” Begic said. “It’s really hard to balance the two because when I’m at school or at work, I speak English, I’m not around any Bosnians, the customs are just so different … and I feel American.”

When Begic is at her family home, it is not the same. Begic likened her experience to flipping a switch, speaking Bosnian and about Bosnia at home.

Begic is expected to speak Bosnian when she is with her family. The main component for maintaining a strong Bosnian identity for Begic revolves around her parents.

Sadija Begic stands for a photo at Webster’s Vienna campus. Photo contributed by Sadija Begic.

“You don’t want to be too Bosnian to your American friends, but you also don’t want to be too American when you get home because it’s just kind of disrespectful to your family, to your culture,” Begic said. “I never want to disappoint my parents because they dropped everything in their world to come here for a better life.”

Begic said her daily balancing of how she acts or the language she speaks does not negatively impact her life. However, she says it is challenging to switch languages between work and home so often.

For fellow Webster student Alen Balic, who says his household is very Americanized, the place he finds most challenges regarding his identity is in his social groups.

“I have two groups of friends; I have American friends and I have Bosnian friends. It’s almost separate in the way that they never really merge, like two identities you have,” Balic said. “You don’t really know where you fit in.”

Florian Sichling, assistant professor of social work at University of Missouri St. Louis, has done research on Bosnian families and youth in St. Louis. His research topics are mental health, drug and substance abuse prevention, immigration and behavioral change.

Sichling said the concept of identity and the struggles that come with being associated with multiple cultures looks different across generations.

“The parent generation doesn’t talk much about identity because it’s very clear to them; they are Bosnians living in the United States,” Sichling said. “For the [generation born here], I think there is a general sense of ‘in-betweenness,’ feeling caught between two cultures.”

Balic said it is difficult explaining Bosnian cultural practices or religious traditions to American friends because they do not fully understand. Their parents tend to be less strict and not as overprotective, and Balic has a hard time explaining his curfew times and his parents wanting to know his whereabouts.

Sichling says typically, Bosnian parents want to know at all times what their children are doing, who they’re doing it with and where. He says this is not specific to the Bosnian community, but rather a characteristic among communities that have experienced genocide and destruction, which creates the want to make sure their family is safe at all times.

When it comes to American friends, Balic’s Muslim faith makes him feel even more separated. He says there are instances where his friends do not understand he cannot do certain things due to his religion.

“When you go to a friend’s house, and let’s say you guys are going to order food, they’re kind enough to always get that pepperoni and the cheese pizza. I cannot tell you how many times, for whatever reason, the cheese pizza always goes first,” Balic said. “There’s always pepperoni pizzas left. It’s like, ‘Dude, you literally know I cannot eat this.’ If you don’t like the pepperoni, peel it off. If I do it, it’s against my religion, it’s against one of my principles.”

Emina Muratovic, double-major in marketing and sports business at Saint Louis University, said her family is relatively balanced when it comes to both American and Bosnian culture. Muratovic used the word “split” to describe the cultural contrasts in her household.

Muratovic’s family cooks Bosnian food only a few days out of the week. However, Muratovic said her brother and father have the traditional Bosnian interest in soccer. Language is also an example Muratovic gave of balancing two cultures in the household.

“My parents will speak Bosnian to me, and I don’t even realize it, but I’ll respond in English,” Muratovic said. “My younger siblings speak in English a lot because that’s how they talk at school and with their friends. But my parents will push us to speak Bosnian a lot, so that will offset it sometimes.” 

Muratovic said she mostly feels like she must choose between two identities when she is with her American friends. She said she feels her American side comes out more when she is with them.

“It’s really hard explaining the Bosnian culture and tradition to them when it comes to curfew times and explaining where I’m going [to my parents],” Muratovic said.

Sichling said identity and identity work is an interactional dynamic, shifting and changing based on the social context.

Emina Muratovic stands for a photo in St. Louis. Photo contributed by Emina Muratovic.

“Identity is … a question about who you are in the world, but it is also a question of who the other person is,” Sichling said. “It’s not this fixed thing, but it’s an interactional dynamic where who I am and what I represent depends just as much on who I’m interacting with.”

For most first-generation Bosnian-Americans, trips to Bosnia highlight their American identity, because they are easily identifiable as being from America, mostly by how they speak.

According to Balic, Bosnian natives can immediately tell if someone was raised in the United States. Though their heritage is Bosnian, they are considered American because they have lived there for their entire lives.

Also, because Bosnian towns tend to be small and close-knit, the residents are familiar with one another.

“My American identity shows a lot, because everyone knows everyone there. So, when you’re there, it’s kind of obvious you don’t belong,” Muratovic said. “Even though you’re Bosnian, you fit right in … but you don’t.”

According to Sichling, there is also a tension among how first-generation Bosnian-Americans feel about their American identity in the United States. Unique cultural traditions involving family, religion, and food can be reasons for ethnic-heritage groups to feel a lack of belonging.

“There’s one kid who summarized it when he said, ‘I do American things, I drive an American car, I have an American passport but I’m not a citizen.’ When actually, that is not true. But I think what he was talking about is, there is a much deeper and layered meaning to what it means to belong to a U.S. society,” Sichling said. “He is able to fit in but he doesn’t feel like he completely belongs.”

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