Friday, November 18, 2011

Growing up Greek

I was born in Piraeus, Greece and came to the United States with my family when I was four. My parents were staunch Greeks and spoke only Greek at home. We ate Greek food and celebrated all the religious holidays. We lived in Cleveland and we went to the Greek churches there (4 churches) , sang in the Greek choirs, danced at the Greek dances, and even married Greek men. While in college, I co-founded and was president of the Hellenic Student Association and also ran the weekly Greek radio show on campus. How more Greek can that be?

When I visited Greece for the first time in my twenties, I visited Lipsi island, where my parents were from. The people there were very hospitable and I enjoyed myself tremendously. I returned there several times during my college years - until I began to envision living in Greece permanently.

I attempted to move back to Greece after graduating from college and having worked a few years as a biologist. I was in my twenties, enamored with the idea of going back to my roots. I stayed with my uncle and aunt in Piraeus for awhile. At first, it was like a honeymoon, everything was nice and rosy. I liked the evening strolls near the water and the beautiful scenery. I liked the music and the food. But somehow the longer I stayed, the dream began to sour. I remember waiting in the bank line in Athens and people pushing and getting in front of me, thrusting their papers at the clerk without so much as looking at me. I remember my uncle driving normally in his car and getting cursed by other drivers who wanted to speed past us, giving us the five fingers, thinking we were going too slow. I remember the dowries and proxenia, and how we Greek Americans were looked at as dollar signs. I remember trying to flag a taxi and once they heard our destination ( a bit away from the airport), declined and we had to pay double to get to where we needed to go. I also worked in Greece in an endocrinology lab because of my degree and I knew English and was able to run radioimmunassay tests for pregnant women, but got paid a fraction of what I got paid in the United States.

After several months of attempting to fit in, I experienced a culture shock. I sorely missed my family and Greek community. I missed the professionalism and intellectual stimulation of my former job at the Cleveland Clinic. The Greece that I envisioned was totally different from the Greek American culture that I had experienced. Compared to the Greeks living in Greece, Greek Americans were very conservative, being more religious, busy working and building dreams in America. The Greek Americans I knew had adopted a comraderie and fellowship that was evident in the church community. Unfortunately, I did not witness that in mainland Greece. There was a sophistication, an almost arrogant stance to us "Amerikanakia" and a decadence (particularly television shows) that was unheard of in America (Lipsi island was an exception because practically everyone there was a relative and the islanders tend to be hospitable).

So I returned to America, having learned that although I was born in Greece, there was a difference. Greek Americans are a hybrid of Greek and American cultures, having captured the best of both worlds, and that made all the difference.

No comments: