Belonging (not)

Dejan Stevanović spent the first 27 years of his life riding his bicycle between Belgrade’s two rivers, the Sava and the Danube, and dreaming about airplanes.  He came to Canberra to be an aircraft engineer but ended up making telescopes and searching for the meaning of life, while riding his bicycle between Mt. Stromlo and Lake Burley Griffin.  In this post, he brings us his own story of belonging – or not…


Image: © Dušica Milutinović, 2017

Migration can inspire the deepest of human fears, but also contains within it an immense evolutionary potential: to free humans from those same fears.  I cannot think of any other human experience that has the potential to serve as a transmutational vessel as powerfully as migration does.  We hear and feel stories of struggle and suffering, even if we are not migrants ourselves – people running away from something (war, hunger, poverty, wives and husbands, remote relatives, or not so remote ones) just to plunge into the great “unknown”, which promises salvation from all of the above; a “grass is always greener on the other side” mentality.  When we have made the decision to migrate, we are usually prepared to do anything to get to that green grassy field, but sometimes we lose our sense of direction and purpose once we get there.

Personally, I did not have any burning reasons to leave my country of birth when I decided to emigrate from it some 18 years ago.  A combination of circumstances influenced the internal urge to move, and at the time it just seemed like the logical thing to do – no one rejects a scholarship from a university like the Australian National University (ANU).  However, questions of logic seemed beside the point when my country was ravaged by its second round of war in 10 years, only a year after I left.  ‘Saved by the universe!’ I thought.  The war reminded me bitterly of the reality of my place of origin.  After enjoying an amazing year of studying and meeting new people from around the world, it reminded me that my decision to emigrate was also based on a desire to run away from the narrow-mindedness, stupidity and contraction of energy that I felt had begun to exist in my country in the years before I left.  This was a time of my life when I wanted to experience and absorb more and more new ideas, and it seemed to me that this would be impossible staying in my war-torn country.

Initially, I did not think of myself as particularly nostalgic or emotional towards my decision to leave.  I used “logic” to distance myself from anything that could divert me from my primary goal – to finish my studies at the ANU.  That protective bubble was destroyed when I was faced with the senseless destruction of my home country that could not be explained away by any logic.  This brought up a renewed, but also skewed, sense of belonging – something I had never felt so strongly before.  Seeing the suffering of my friends and relatives and being unable to do anything to help them strengthened my bond to my place of birth.  It took me three or four months to return to an even remotely normal emotional state of being; to be back in my protective bubble of logic.  Then, I buried my emotions, and with them any questions of belonging and my place in this world.  Working on the ANU campus helped to fortify my bubble, because I did not have to deal with any questions of belonging there – I belonged to my work and that was enough.

The reality of the world hit me when I finished my studies and again, very logically, I decided to stay in Australia.  It was like a delayed realisation that forced me to finally face my own unique existential questions, almost four years after I had physically migrated to the country.  I realised quickly that the “real” Australia was bigger than the ANU campus and quite a bit different from it, too.  I was still immersed in my work, but through numerous interactions with colleagues, I started facing the inevitable questions of difference, sharing stories of my life in a different country and still carrying my thick accent.  I started making friendships with open-minded people who were intrigued by me and my experiences, but I also faced ignorance and paranoia coming from people unprepared to make any effort to deal with the differences I embodied.  All of that amplified the internal identity conflict that had been lying dormant in me for so long.  All the predictable questions began to pop up: who am I; where am I going; how do I preserve all my memories from my home country; how do I accept the new one?  The worst thing was that I did not have any answers to such questions.  My logic was failing me and I was slowly choking on pain.  For months I felt that I was being sucked into a black hole of irrelevant non-existence.  The dilemma was unresolvable: how was I to be one thing without ceasing to be another thing?  I could not be both because I could not be in both places at once!

I do not remember how long this rumbled inside of me, but in time, the solution presented itself to me very gently; almost as effortlessly as if the problem had never existed in the first place.  A very soft and almost inaudible voice suggested: even if you do not belong anywhere, you will still exist.  It was so simple, but seemed ludicrous!  Surely one has to belong; one cannot be a rootless pumpkin, as my father used to say.  However, slowly but surely the idea started sinking in.  Why not, I said to myself.  I had already come out of a box to try to become something bigger and better.  Going back into a box now, even if it was a bigger one, would not help me to achieve anything I would call “good”.  In addition, this appeared to be a middle path; a natural solution when one was barred from going left or right.  So, it was done – I consciously refused to seek belonging to a single, or even multiple, places.  The instant result was a feeling of unbelievable relief and freedom.  By not belonging to a single place or culture, I gained the feeling that I belonged to all of them.  I learned to stop generalising and boxing people in based on their nationality, culture, religion or the football club they supported.  I learned to look at people as people, capable of amazing and terrible things – like the universe itself.

© Dejan Stevanović, 2017