The Serbian Gift

Ivana Bajic, Anthropology, UCL
The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.
-(Emerson 1906: 291)

This paper is based on a twelve months ethnographic research of material culture of post-1990 Serbian migration from Belgrade to Western Europe, North America and Australia. The ethnographic material seems superficially symmetrical in a sense that I was looking at the same material culture genres — homes, gifts and communication – on both sides of this migration, sometimes matching specific migrants in London and their parents in Belgrade. However, the data reveals a certain asymmetry between the two sides of migration. Contrary to what development studies on Serbian remittances suggest*, this asymmetry consists in parents’ conscious efforts to be the givers, even if that entails vicarious sacrifices on their behalf, and in children’s, again, conscious efforts not to be the recipients of their parents’ sacrifice, even if that involves minimum efforts on their side. Regardless of whether a son or a daughter would keep in touch by visiting, sending gifts, phoning or sending emails or by contrast had become totally estranged, parents would talk about them, commemorate to mark passage rituals in absentia (i.e. celebrate births and birthdays of absent grandchildren and children, engagements and weddings), distribute their photographs among family and friends. In a nutshell, parents invest conscious efforts in preserving absent migrant children and their families from social death in Serbia.
For the immigrants sending money seems as the most practical gift for their parents. They consider remittances to be a kind of insurance that parents would be able to afford a better diet, to pay for private health services if needed, or for any other emergencies which their parents’ pensions cannot cover. What the children fail to appreciate is that if accepted on those terms, such a gift would radically alter the balance in a parent-child relationship. The power would be seen to shift from parents, as providers and givers, on to children.
For Serbian parents in Belgrade, many of whom were born before or during the Second World War and who share traditional patriarchal values typical of the first half of the 20th century Serbia, it is not acceptable to receive material support from children. Remittances are a taboo among Belgrade-based emigrants’ parents. The very question whether they receive money from their emigrant sons and daughters abroad would cause deep embarrassment among parents in Belgrade. Even if they were receiving remittances, parents would insist that they were not using that money for supplementing their pensions and they did not consider them to be classical remittances like those of Yugoslav Gastarbeiters** on a temporary work in Germany in 1970s and 80s. To receive financial support or a gift which value is not purely symbolic, Belgrade-based elderly parents consider as something which only “peasants” (i.e. non-urban people) would accept. The gift which parents deem appropriate for the parent-child relationship is a gift with little or no material value, the gift which is symbolic and inalienable. Money thereby becomes a kind of circulating form of inalienable gift, which parents do not use for consumption but either put aside and save it so that their children would have it back as an inheritance, the exception being only purposes that transcend consumption such as a treatment of a severe illness or for funeral expenses. The gift which comes from a ‘sacred object’ of parental care and love – a child, cannot be consumed in mundane way. A ‘sacred child’ proved to be a dominant theme in mothers’ discourses about their children’s migration. As one of my informants from Belgrade said:

“My son knows that I am struggling to make ends meet with my pension, and he asks me if I need help. But I would never ask him for help; I would rather find my own ways of surviving than receive money from him. I was trying to get pregnant for thirteen years…For thirteen years I was waiting to have a baby. My son came as a gift from God. There is no way I could ever accept anything from him, because he is so special to me.”

Serbian mothers’ narratives about emigrant sons and daughters are evocative of Viviana Zelizer’s study of the making of ‘priceless child’ in early 20th century America (Zelizer, 1994). Zelizer argues that a shift in constructing the ‘sacred child’ emerged as a consequence of massive industrialization which was going on in American society at the turn of the last century. Gradually a child transformed from seen primarily as a work force, and even priced as such (older children had more value than younger ones), to a priceless, becoming an object of parental continuous sacrifice and unconditional love (Zelizer 1994).
Industrialization in Serbia did not really take place until the mid-20th century, when Tito put Yugoslavia on a fast-track for catching up with belated modernisation. Up until the Second World War, ninety percent of Serbian population were peasants, with families organized in collective households called “zadruga” (Perovic, 2006). The child in “zadruga” was considered primarily as a work force; there are documented cases in Serbia of families bribing teachers not to take their children to school because they needed them to work and sustain household (Isic, 2006). Once social reforms and severe industrialization started in post-Second World War Yugoslavia, the role of a child began to transform as well. “Useless child” became a token of modernity. To admit to having a child with prospect of having material benefit from it, became a taboo in the second half of the 20th century Serbia, similarly like half a century before in the United States.

It is interesting to see how this transformation was translated on the case of emigrants from Serbia: prior to the fall of Yugoslavia and massive migration prompted both by the conflict and by post-communist transformations, Yugoslavia’a migration consisted mostly of Gastarbeiters in Germany. Majority of Yugoslav Gastarbeiters were coming from rural Serbia and with their practices of sending remittances back home they were affirming the class distinction between useful peasants’ and working class’s children and useless urban middle class’s children. Thereby to say that one is receiving remittances or other forms of financial support from child who emigrated since 1991, would imply a lack of one’s modernity and a loss of their middle-class status.
During the last decade of the 20th century the Serbian middle class perished due to a severe economic crisis. Slowly with the fall of Milosevic in October 2000 and with economic reforms under way, a new middle class has started to emerge in Serbia. However, the old middle class from Yugoslav times has in reality become impoverished to an extent that it has become an empty signifier, clinging on to class values which do not correspond to it any more. For generations of Yugoslav middle class mothers who are now in their late sixties and seventies, to have a son or a daughter abroad and to repudiate their financial support even though they realistically are in need of it, empowers them to claim their middle class status and to show resistance to inevitable social transformations in today’s Serbia. Remittances become a class distinction of a class which withered away with the fall of Yugoslavia.
This may be an extreme example, but I would hope it makes two points of more general relevance to the anthropology of migration. The first is that more ethnographic work is needed in various settings to help us move on from a general category of remittances, where we assume we know the consequences and form of these arrangements to a more comparative perspective. But the second is to appreciate that one of the key factors in determining these consequences would be transformations in the basic relationship between parents and children and the way these are constituted and changed by material culture and relations of gifting.

  • Emerson, R.W. 1906. Essays. London: Dent.

  • Isić, M. 2006. ‘Dete i žena na selu u Srbiji između dva svetska rata’, in Perović, L., 2006 (ed.), Žene i deca: Srbija u modernizacijskim procesima XIX i XX veka. Beograd: Helsinški odbor za Ljudska prava u Srbiji. (pp. 131-159).
  • Perović, L. 2006 (ed.), Žene i deca: Srbija u modernizacijskim procesima XIX i XX veka. Beograd: Helsinški odbor za Ljudska prava u Srbiji.
  • Zelizer, V. 1994. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

* In the last three years Serbia has become one of the top ten remittance receiving countries in the world. According to World Bank in 2006 Serbian remittances reached 4.7 billion US dollars, which constitute 17.2 share of GDP in Serbia. Following current trends in development sector which see remittances as an important factor in alleviating poverty, World Bank, British Department for International Development (DfID), Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), and German Economic Development and Employment Division (GTZ), all published reports related to Serbian remittances within last two years. Notwithstanding differences between them, focus of these reports is on the amount and the ways of sending money to Serbia, as well as devising strategies how to use remittances for development purposes (investing in infrastructure of the country, channeling remittances through vouchers which could be exchanged for certain goods, and stimulating immigrants to send money through banks). The only report which examines what actually happens with remittances once they reach recipients in Serbia, is the one done on behalf of the International Organization for Migration for the Swiss SECO, but its focus is on rural Serbia and its findings are quite different to those from my urban-based fieldwork in Belgrade.
** Term “Gastarbeiter” means “guest worker” in German. The term was so commonly used in Yugoslavia that the word “gastarbajter” came to signify more generally all Yugoslav immigrants abroad.

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