by Milena Phoenix Djukic, as told to Joanne Tica
I’m an immigrant. My cousin tells me that I’m an immigrant 1.5 because I came here as a young child. I didn’t learn to speak English until I was 4 ½ years old. I didn’t know that there was another type of person until I started school in Gary, Indiana. I, along with my parents, my uncle, my older brother and my grandfather, emigrated from Germany, where our home was a refugee camp. We were displaced people – people without a country – and we came to the United States to start a new life. We were political refugees, unable to return to our home country, because my family fought on the losing side of a civil war.
It was a process to become American. Kids have a pretty good sense of themselves by 5 years old, or so, and we were aware that we were different from the other kids – the Americans – almost right away. My mother made my clothes and the other kids had store bought clothing. That set us apart for sure.
Another thing was that no American person could pronounce our names. A family friend – another child of displaced parents – was in my kindergarten class. My name was Milena and her last name sounded like Milena. We had to guess who the teacher was calling on when she attempted to say one of our names. She didn’t seem to care that she didn’t get it right.
Our school experience was complete immersion. We had no special instruction or support to help us learn the language and get along in school. Our parents couldn’t help us because they didn’t speak English either. We were definitely “the other” – the ones who didn’t fit in.
By 3rd or 4th grade, we got sick of people mispronouncing our names. We began to change our names by adopting more Americanized versions of our birth names. I became Millie instead of Milena and that changed the way that I fit in with others in school.
My parents and family were Serbian refugees. After a brief stay in Pennsylvania and Ohio, we were resettled in Gary Indiana because there was a large Serbian community there. I guess the powers that be decided that we would fit in better with other Serbs than in areas that were predominantly “American”. It didn’t always work out that way.
We lived across the alley from a prominent Serbian family in the church. The family would have nothing to do with us because they did not intermingle with the “novi dosli” – the newcomers. There was a definite class system, even in the Serbian community.
We did establish a good connection to another prominent established family (because my uncle had married one of their daughters). But despite this connection, our entire social circle consisted of the people with whom my parents had emigrated. There was no authentic interaction between the newcomers and established Serbian families. We had nothing in common with the American Serbs and they had nothing in common with us.
I used to love the social aspect of the Serbian community. I liked the music and I liked to dance. I had no frame of reference for other types of non-Serbian experiences. Most Serbian kids had a lot of freedom. No one kept track of us at the cultural social events because our parents were socializing with their friends.
The immigrant women in our church community remained a tight knit group. They did try to integrate into the larger Serbian community through participating in kitchen activities – cooking, serving, hosting but it took years before they were accepted as members of the larger group. I remember eavesdropping on their group conversations and will always remember the openness about which they spoke of their relationships and intimate experiences. There were no subtleties among the women so I learned a lot about how they viewed relationships and marriage in the context of their lives. They laughed and they cried together – sometimes because the pain of their relationships was too great to bear alone and other times because they had survived with intact families and loved the opportunities for new lives in the United States.
I felt a growing disconnect with the Serbian community very early on in my life. I noticed a difference in the way people were treated in church. The men sat on one side and the women and children sat on the other. I loved church. I remember enjoying how pretty the church was and how good the service made me feel. At the same time, I did notice that there was a real inequity in the church structure that made me uncomfortable, even as a young child.
The Serbian community in my time was very segregated by gender. Publicly, the man was in charge of the family and set the rules for public family behavior. I saw many instances where the wife would be forced to bend to her husband’s will just to keep the peace. I knew however that the women were truly the power in the house because the men depended on them to cook, to clean and to raise the children. The gender roles were very stereotypical and tribal.
My own parents’ relationship was one of equals. They were respectful of one another and kept things private. My father was not the norm. He would cook, he would help around the house, and he didn’t tell my mom what to do. My mother was equally respectful of him and his wishes. This is not the same relationship that I saw with others in the Serbian community.
As I grew older, I found myself conflicted and had more difficulty identifying as a Serb because I was raised in the American culture. I had a foot firmly planted in each world and I couldn’t let go of either. The Serbian immigrant community, of which I was a part, was trying to keep the culture exactly the way it was in their memory and expected the children to adapt to that culture too. The culture that they were trying to preserve didn’t exist anymore, even in their homeland. It created new challenges for us as the children of these immigrants. It also created new challenges for me personally.
I’m not exactly sure how long it took me to push away from the Serbian community or even if it was a conscious decision or something that I wanted. I can tell you, however, when my watershed realization occurred. I arrived at the church with my infant son for his christening into the Serbian Orthodox faith. Upon my arrival, I was barred from entering the church for my own son’s baptism because I was wearing pants and not a dress, as was the custom. I had to hand him over to family and attempt to watch this important event from outside of the church because of arbitrary rules that were unrelated to the religion. I knew from that moment that I would no longer be connected in a meaningful way to the community that had been my home for most of my life.
I continued to live in northwest Indiana for few years and then had the opportunity to transfer to Minneapolis for work. I took it. My son and I lived in Minnesota for 10 years. It was a very freeing experience to be unlocked from a culture that was very fixated on “what will people say”.
After my son graduated from college, I decided to leave my corporate job in Minneapolis and move to Montana. I was ready to begin a new phase of my life and do new things. There was open concern among my family that I was making a mistake and the old immigrant thoughts of “what will people say” were resonating from many corners. I made the move and felt like an adult for the first time in my life. That’s when Phoenix came into being.
The persona of Phoenix represented who I was apart from the Serbian culture. I became focused on bettering myself and getting to know myself as an adult. The practice of meditation and non-traditional kinds of activities are not positively looked upon in the Serbian culture in which I was raised. Many Serbs even thought that yoga, meditation and alterative spirituality were practiced against the Serbian Orthodox faith. Being away from the restrictive Serbian culture made it easier for me to evolve as an independent adult and participate in activities that made me a healthier human being.
I subsequently moved to Santa Barbara, California from Montana. I had pretty much stopped being a religious practitioner by then. While living in Santa Barbara, I didn’t seek out an affiliation with a Serbian Orthodox church or participate in any way in Serbian cultural events. Most of the Serbian people that I met in California were affiliated with the university (University of California Santa Barbara) and I met them by chance in restaurants and at some event. Except for my last name, I had pretty much left my immigrant past behind me in northwest Indiana.
I had an interesting experience with a Serbian father and son, from Belgrade, who were in Santa Barbara looking for a business opportunity. I received a call from the father, out of the blue, and he asked if I could meet them for coffee to give them information about Santa Barbara. I agreed to meet them, thinking that they got my name from a friend or relative back home. They actually found me in the phone book. They searched for names beginning with the letters “Dj” and knew if they found someone, the chances were that they were meeting a fellow Serb.
My time in Santa Barbara was healing and a time for growth. I didn’t miss the interaction with the Serbian culture at all. It was a time of complete freedom for me. I left Santa Barbara in 2015, however, because I had made a commitment to my family that I would return to care for my aging parents in their twilight years. I wondered how it would feel to again be immersed into the Serbian community and culture after being gone for 30 years. I would soon find out how this time away from northwest Indiana had impacted my relationships in the immigrant culture in which I was raised.
Coming back, I realized that I had/have very fond memories of growing up in Serbian culture. Although you really can’t go home again after being away for so long, I remembered the good things about being part of the Serbian immigrant community. I loved being a member of the dance group. I loved the social events – the zabavas and picnics and more. I loved seeing my family. I have very dear friends from my youth and I loved reconnecting with them. There is something to be said about having people in your life that share a history with you.
My return to northwest Indiana Serb culture also reminded me that there were many things that happened in my life, within that cultural setting, that forced me to deny who I was. I made a choice to develop myself as a person instead of conforming to what the culture wanted me to be. I’m an American first despite my immigrant roots. The American culture won out with me because it allowed me the freedom to be who I was and not who others wanted me to be.
Maybe equally as important is that I’m able to see the culture without blaming the culture for the things that I didn’t like about being an immigrant Serb. When I returned in 2015, I saw how much the culture had changed in some ways. Serbs were more “Americanized” and our religious ceremonies were different – maybe even more religious than before? Although many ethnic Serbs now choose life partners from outside of the Serbian community, I didn’t see many mainstream efforts to embrace non-Serbs into the tribe as full-fledge independent members. The robust, thriving Serbian community that I remember has shrunk in size because of these types of decisions.
Even today, I don’t usually identify as a Serbian person when someone asks. If they ask my ethnic nationality, I will say I’m Serbian. Many people lead with that fact. I do not.
That doesn’t mean that I am angry or ashamed of my immigrant Serbian heritage. I am not. I am proud of my heritage and of my family ties.
Being away has given me a chance to reflect and understand my people in a way in which I would not have been able if I stayed here. That process helped me to understand myself better and to embrace Milena, Millie, Phoenix and now Milena, again as an immigrant who found her place in the world by leaving her roots to help her grow.
 The term 1.5 generation refers to first-generation immigrant who immigrated to the new country before or during their early teens. They earn the label the “1.5 generation” because while they spend their formative years engaging in assimilation and socialization in the new country, they often still maintain native language, cultural traits and even national identities from their country of origin.
Soul Vision: Living an Inspired Life, by Phoenix Djukic and Cornelia Schwarz, guides readers using a practical approach for making the shift from being personality driven to soul inspired. For more information about Soul Vision, please click here.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your essay and about your journey. It was inspiring and although I am a 2nd generation Serb, I related to much of what you said, the only difference being the choices you made that enabled you to spread those wings. As wonderful as our culture and people can be, there is a restrictive aspect of belonging which holds us back from experiencing life in it’s fullest.
Thanks for sharing your wonderful story with us. You were always Millie Djukic, Ljubi’s friend from Gary. Now you are Millie Djukic, strong , experienced, and an example for all of us who see and strive to look beyond our culture to the greater things in life.
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Loved hearing all about your background. My dad and fellow refugees raised us in their replication if their Serbian peasant communities. I didn’t like it but now I treasure those warm hearted people. Once in a while they’d knock me for being “American-born” but it was just a way for them to feel better.
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Millie, I thoroughly enjoyed your story and can relate on some levels. When we are raised in the close confines of the Serbian community, we fail to realize that there is an entire world out there beyond our ethnic upbringing. Oh, we knew about it, but we were not always allowed or encouraged to participate in it. That other world, as you have experienced, can be liberating. Your full circle journey is quite the story, Thank you for sharing it.
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I loved reading your story.
Enjoy your time back in the Region with mom and dad. Tell them I said Hello!
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Thanks Rada I will!