It’s all Greek to Me

25 February 2016

Growing up, the closest thing I ever felt to Hellenic pride was after Helena Paparizou’s ‘My Number One’ won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2005. It’s not that I resented being Greek or anything. It’s just that as a kid, I never really felt any connection to that part of my identity. It was kind of inconsequential to me – like the AFL or Kim Kardashian’s butt implants. It just wasn’t something I thought about that often.

Anyone who has ever been friends with a Greek Australian can attest to how weird this is. No one does national pride like the Greeks. When you combine that kind of fervent patriotism with the fear of being forced to assimilate into Australian culture, the nationalism gets amplified up to eleven.

For most of us, the pressure is on from an early age to track down a Good Greek GirlTM, churn out some children and start a family. Unsurprisingly, the few Greek kids I knew in primary school grouped together like pack animals by shared virtue of Greekness. Their weekends were spent being relentlessly drilled with grammar while crammed into tiny desks at Greek school.

My Australian­born parents were far more lax. They refused to force us into doing anything we didn’t want to. And so, lo and behold, I turned out to be the embodiment of any old papou or yiayia’s worst nightmares – I am the poster child for cultural assimilation.

I know next to nothing about Greek culture and my language abilities border somewhere south of abysmal. Family gatherings usually consist of the same dialogue repeated ad nauseam in extremely broken Greek.

“Oh sorry, I don’t speak Greek”

“You don’t speak Greek? Why not?”

“I dunno. I understand a bit but I can’t speak it.”

“But why?”

“…I don’t know.”

For the response this usually garners, I may as well have expressed the desire to do the Zorba dance on my ancestors’ graves. Offending older family members became somewhat of a theme. They clearly didn’t agree with my choice of barbies and goon sacks over gyros and ouzo.

I can remember sitting in my aunt’s lounge room with my extended family when the Socceroos played Greece in a friendly match in 2006. I was a lone figure in green and gold amongst a sea of blue and white. For that night I took on a new identity, referred to only as “Skippy” and “Skipboy”.

Weirdly, this was never an issue that plagued my siblings. Both speak the language to a passable extent but somewhere along the line I fell through the cracks of Greekness. So there I was, too Australian to really be Greek, but too Greek to really be Australian. On the outside I was tzatziki but inside I was Coles tomato sauce.

Funnily enough, it’s only recently that this has started to change. Now, when being Greek is probably more uncool than ever, I’ve started to develop a much stronger association with my background. Just last year, I was over at a friend’s house and met his father for the first time. After we exchanged pleasantries he squinted at me, scrutinising my facial features.

“You’re Greek, yeah?” I confirmed that I was

“Oh, well then I guess I should congratulate you guys on inventing sex!”

I immediately knew where this joke was going. I’ve heard it thousands of times before and yet I struggle to think of a time when it had ever been funny. I brace myself for the punchline.

“Yeah, luckily we Italians decided to introduce it to women!” He pauses briefly, before letting out a howl of laughter that must have registered on the Richter scale, his sagging jowls bouncing with mirth. My insides shrivel up a little bit. I manage a forced laugh in response, but I’m dead inside.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not adverse to a bit of good­natured ribbing. Yet, with Greece’s recent economic troubles, I find myself getting more and more defensive whenever I see my country coming under attack. The more I’m forced to defend it, the closer the connection I feel to my heritage and vice versa. I’ve never been a particularly patriotic person.

However, it’s always enough to get my blood boiling when I see recent graduates of the ‘Facebook School of Economics’ impart their wisdom about how the crisis is “’cos of those lazy self­-entitled Greeks who never work.” In those moments, I’m tempted for a second to smash a plate on the ground, yell “Opa!” and shank them with a souvlaki skewer.

My relationship with my cultural background has been a rocky one, at times filled with neglect, but we’ve started to reconcile our differences. Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying my hand at some Greek courses on the internet, attempting to wrap my head around all the intricacies of grammar that has tortured me for so much of my life. I’ve even started making friends with other people based on mutual Greekness. My newly honed tzatziki senses allow me to sniff them out at will.

In retrospect, it seems pretty ridiculous that I was so keen to ignore my background. Sure, I’m Australian born and raised but that doesn’t negate my Greekness. There’s no reason why my cultural identity should have to be one or the other.

I mean, in a country where we supposedly pride ourselves on multiculturalism, why on earth would anyone want to assimilate into some homogenous cultural sludge? Why have a melting pot when we can have a mosaic?

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