A Foreign Country

A. Medvedenko

Artwork by Hidetoshi Yamada

It was 10:20 a.m. and the flight was scheduled for three o'clock. "Plenty of time," said the man in the driver's seat. He set the speed of the car at precisely eight miles above the limit. Public radio was playing softly in the background and he smiled at his son next to him, patting him on his knee.

"Really, I think it's great. Who knows, maybe you'll end up at the International Criminal Court? I wouldn't mind saying my son works in The Hague."

"And Arusha?" asked the young man, turning to his gray-haired father.

"Not my first choice," his father tilted his head at the thought, "but I wouldn't close the door to any opportunity. Whatever opening you see, whatever work they need done, you hold your hand up long and high for it. Let them know that no task is too big or too small. Your grandfather was a good judge and a better man, very well respected, but he was naive. He thought if only you work hard and well, someone will take notice. Twenty years after the war, when all his old comrades had second homes, great villas in Neum, we still lived in the same two-bedroom apartment in Bosanski Most.

"I can still remember him at dinner, discussing the case of some minor criminal whose fate he had to decide. He would recall the man's wife and children in court, pleading for mercy with their eyes, and then he would say to us, 'Who is punished, who will suffer more than them? And they took not a hair from anyone's head. Now look what awaits them, what sorrow and misery...,' and sometimes for no more than a careless word about Tito, my Sasha—"

The Japanese machine purred with understated power as Tata talked, casually overtaking other vehicles. The safest driver was after all the fastest—within reason, of course—speeding to flee the dangers in his blind spots. The downward face of the rear-view mirror gazed idly over the luggage piled in the back seat. "Make the most of your time and don't be afraid to make connections," the father said to his son. "And remember what's important . . . "

Sasha's attention flickered off. He turned back to the open road ahead, drifting in and out of their conversation like a radio tuned to a faint signal. At appropriate breaks in his father's speech, he nodded or made attentive noises. The one-sided conversation filled the car with a soft, familiar comfort and before long, he was smiling. Twenty-three years of listening to his father's artful talk hadn't made him immune to its charms.

They reverted once more to English. It felt more natural to Sasha, and it felt more natural between the two of them. It needled Sasha to dwell on this unwitting habit but then he did not dwell on it often. Anyway, who could blame him? He was only seven when they came to America. It was strange to think how many years had since passed. "Fifteen long ones," others might say, but in truth it had been a blur of school, girls, and drink.

And now he was going back. Just to think of it brought Sasha joy and nervous excitement. This time tomorrow he would be in Sarajevo, drinking coffee from a fildžan in the morning, eating ćevapi for lunch.

Thinking back to the country he had left as a boy, he saw old family films playing before his eyes, starting with the interview at the refugee agency. For weeks afterward they pored over the map, grew familiar with the highways and towns around Dayton, Ohio, and tried to imagine the future. When the plane touched down on the other side of the Atlantic, it was his outstretched foot that first touched American soil.

They shared their first days and a single room with a family from Ključ, a bedsheet curtain draped between them for privacy. The father of the family had survived an infamous camp. He once witnessed a game of football with a man's rolling head for the ball, and now he jerked awake with cold terror at night.

Downstairs were the offices of the religious charity. And behind the large white split-level home, a spacious backyard extended to the doorstop of a juvenile delinquent center. Some of the older kids there shuffled cards like professionals—"Mama, like they do in Westerns!"—and taught Sasha that is becomes was in the simple past.

The tree-lined streets of their new neighborhood beckoned with promise; even peeling porches were symbols of plenty. They took little notice of the scattered potholes and garbage, the corner stores selling alcohol. Black strangers—as well as a sprinkling of white ones—smiled at them unprompted on the street. And on bright Sunday mornings, guided by a joyous song, Tata led them into reveling churches, causing a stir.

One summer day, a kid drove a stolen Oldsmobile into the back of a parked truck, and then ran off barefoot down an alley. After the incident, a man from the charity insisted that evening walks be terminated. When the refugees determined that this was for their own safety, they could not contain their amusement. "Who knows, maybe there are Chetniks on the corner ahead?" said the man from Ključ.

After a young man on a bike saw the boys playing football in the street, Tata signed permission papers and just like that they were issued shin-guards, black shorts and socks, and their own white numbers on purple jerseys. From then on, every Tuesday and Thursday, the boys would sit on their stoop waiting for a great boxy van to appear around the corner. When Wilson pulled up, habitually late and offering them his fingers to smell, they hopped in the van and rode out to the field on 7th street. They knocked the ball around under the glare of stadium lights while dogs snarled and bit one another in the shadows. Football stardom seemed close at hand.

The charity preached safety and Catholicism but functioned on economic principles. With federal grant money tied to a headcount of refugees helped, arrangements were struck with local establishments, and refugees resettled at a dizzying rate. Within two weeks, Mama, Tata, and Selma became janitors at what would be Sasha's school in the fall. Another two weeks and they held a set of keys to their own apartment, and a check for the first month's rent.

A drab and malodorous dump, the apartment was one of 140 in a complex populated by immigrants and minorities—people who could afford no better. Cockroaches crawled around the rooms so insouciantly that it seemed they, and not humans, were the rightful householders. The largest of these became a repulsive pet that the boys nicknamed Tank, until it finished under the sole of Mama's roach-hunting shoe.

Evenings at Sasha's primary school, seated in a well-lit classroom, Tata passed spare moments bent over an English dictionary. He practiced small talk at the nearby gas station during his second job and filled wooden boxes marked with zip codes whenever the post office needed help. After he got home, zombie-like, at the end of the day, Mama reported to work. Still fretful and scared for the future, she scrubbed floors, urinals, and toilets with nervous compulsion, as if a moment's rest would cost them her job.

Those were difficult weeks and months. At last, his superhuman effort seemingly exhausted, Tata let out an uncharacteristic curse and picked up the telephone. He dialed the one number he knew, the thickness of his accent made harsher by his anger, and the doorbell buzzed the following day. A bagful of groceries in arm, the man from the charity stood smiling in the hallway. The children giggled at his oriental features. But to their astonishment, Tata did not invite the man inside.

"I don't call help," he said in his stilted English. "We are very OK. But you don't call say how are we, so I call say how are you." Then he thanked the man very much for coming, and closed the door on his fucking charity.

With goose bumps, Sasha recalled the feeling that surged over him then. None of them could have put it into words, but all felt as if magical wings had spread out from their backs and were now lifting them up and around the apartment's creaking furniture, floating on air. Concealed in that moment of childish impulse and triumph—he now thought—was a murky but firm recognition that the period of being nothing was over. They would be all right.


Nearly a half hour had passed in the car and Tata was still going on about something very important. Sasha considered the man beside him, this voluble demigod to whom they owed everything. He had long since outgrown his father—Tata no longer seemed to him very large except in comparison to other physical bodies. He was big at the kitchen table, big among company, big at his desk in the corner office with a view. Strapped to the driver's seat now, he was in robust shape, with a healthy pouch stretching over the seatbelt like a soft extension of the American values he had adopted fully as his own.

People loved and respected him immensely. Cheerful and generous, his competent hand always on offer, he made a strong first impression that always deepened with time. Only rarely, in the heat of some passionate disagreement with a friend of conservative politics, did he ever lose his poise. "Let me tell you something about torture!" he would say in a tone that exceeded civility, replacing the pointed finger in his acquaintance's face with the lopped-off pinky on his left hand. Only in such moments did Sasha ever feel pity for his father and pause to reflect on all the man had lived through and all that he had overcome.

Within three years of their arrival, Tata persuaded his way into law school. Starting first as a paralegal, he worked his tireless way up the rungs of status and opportunity. Before long, he bought his wife an enviable home, sent his children to college, and settled into a Cincinnati firm with international accounts. In the cold months of winter, he liked to stoke the fireplace and sit back with his feet up on the ottoman and an arm around his wife. "Dear America," he would sigh. "We don't have it bad, do we?" And Mama would lay her head on his chest and agree, "Draga nasha Amerika." This was the quick sketch of their lives, a successful immigrant story with the details happily redacted.

Over the years, a small community of Balkan tragedies coalesced in their adopted Dayton. The immigrants tended to fall into two camps. There were those with hearts left behind, who went back home at every opportunity, and those, like his parents, who had made the decision to leave everything behind for good. Some, to be sure, reproached them for this choice. It may be from moral sentiment or injured pride, but nevertheless something in us is aggrieved by the person deemed insufficiently attached to a thing once shared, be it custom or cause, position or tradition, anything still dear to one's own heart. But due to the cost of the journey, either you abandoned the old life forever or were forever planning your next trip home. Many talked of it plenty; few moved back for good.

If they hadn't known anything about Ohio prior to their arrival, the residents of Ohio knew as much about them. Like a good housewife from a bygone time, local concerns were confined to strictly domestic matters. A black football player was accused of killing his white wife—the trial received round-the-clock coverage and the verdict of innocence brought people out to the streets in protest.

"What's life like in Russia?" other kids asked Sasha. Or they wondered, "How many camels you got back home, bro?"

"There's no camels in Brazil!" said a sweet Puerto Rican girl with a ribbon in her hair who was always quick to defend Sasha. "Ain't that right, Sasha?"

"That's right," said Sasha agreeably. "Do you know where Italy is? My country is a small, heart-shaped land across the sea."

At the principal's invitation, Tata came to the school and recounted his wartime experiences to an auditorium of fidgeting pre-teens. Afterwards, the kids, their faces contorted in disgust, prodded Sasha to answer why his dad didn't stay and fight, if his dad had really seen people killed; if he really drank his own piss to survive. The boy reddened with shame. Did his father have to tell his friends everything, and even hold up that severed finger of his?

All Sasha wished was to stay submerged in the tepid sea of teenage anonymity. When they first arrived, he had only wanted the right shoes, the right clothes, and the right accent. On paper, Saša became Sasha, to render the correct pronunciation. They left the family name unchanged, removing only the alien mark over Josipović. Yosipovich—as it ought to be said—seemed to them too alien on paper, too far from the familiarity of their own name. Instead, with time, they slowly and seamlessly began to assume the American diction and started introducing themselves as Drazhen, Lejla, Mirza, and Sasha Joe-sipovik.

"How do you know if you're more Bosnian or American?" Sasha asked his brother once.

Mirza considered the question. "Well, who do you see yourself marrying—an American or a Bosnian girl? That's how you'll know."

For what it's worth, Mirza married a brown-eyed Jersey girl he met at the university. At the wedding reception there was lamb on the spit, accordion music, and plenty of rakija, like there would have been for his wedding in Bosnia. But the presence of these traditions was mostly symbolic. They signified Mirza's background but were no more familiar to him than the rapid footsteps of the kolo, which they danced hand-in-hand around a circle, were to his stumbling feet.

Very slowly over the years, the realization of a certain negligence began to pain Sasha. Whereas he had once been eager to assimilate into his adopted land, he could not have foreseen the way this wish would alter his own self-understanding. But the gradual ascension and crowning of his American self, the sense of belonging he had spent years nurturing, now threatened to eradicate a fundamental part of him.

He knew what Tata would say. What a thing to complain of, what nonsense! Just ask the Bosnians who fled within Europe, to Germany, to Denmark, to Sweden, where your kids would be considered immigrants, where their kids would still be on the social fringes, outsiders forever—would you rather have that? No, his father was not a sentimental man. It baffled him that Mama could, on days she was down and lonely, pass an entire day listening to Bosnian songs on the internet, tears streaming down her face. What was there to feel nostalgic about? Did they forget what they had fled, and how fortunate they were to escape it? The crux of the matter was simple and clear: they were lucky. Here they were, alive and well, their bodies and sanity intact. Life was comfortable and good.

Yes, all of that was right. Still, Sasha wondered, why hadn't his parents urged some connection to the past? How little they had tried! How rarely they asked him to jot even a few lines to his grandparents while they had been alive. But neither had anyone, it had to be said, refused him pen and paper. And did he not wave his hand when these same strangers were on the line, did he not mouth, "I'm not here"?

Now he would have traded that indifference for a peaceful conscience, his parents' leniency for a bit of shaming, some of the present for the past. Why didn't he care more when he was younger? And why did he care so much and so suddenly now? He questioned even this strength of sentiment, and felt it rang false. He was older, yes, more aware of himself and the trail behind him, but within was an absence of feeling for everything that used to be his own. The gradual discovery and recognition of this void interested him. As naturally as a man, standing at the foot of a mountain, feels that he must climb it, as naturally as he descends into the canyon before him, so Sasha dove into the muddy river of feeling within, not for any reason but that it was there.

Tata was smiling when they pulled into the parking lot of the airport. "You're our ambassador now. Send our greetings, be polite, and don't worry about money. And call your mother when you arrive—don't forget."