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Saturday, 28 July 2012

Greek language maintenance in the diaspora - 1

Marking one's cultural identity has always been as an important way to show diversity of mankind, but never more so than in our times, when globalisation is demanding that we all aim to be 'one'. According to last night's Olympics opening ceremony, this is theoretically possible in a multi-cultural world, but it also entails a certain amount of loss - what are we willing to forfeit?

This post (the first in a series) has been written specifically for the Hellenic New Zealand Congress, which will be holding a conference some time next year.

A year before I left New Zealand, I completed my Master's thesis on the subject of Greek language maintenance in the Greek community of Wellington. At the time (1990), it seemed that the community had become stagnant, as Greek emigration had halted by the early 80s, and the community was already into its third generation, which meant that it had become diluted through intermarriage and fewer ties with the home country.

The dilution of a diaspora community in a New World country (ie the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) is a natural outcome of the complete assimilation of a migrant community into another country. It cannot be halted or suppressed; if it were, this would constitute a breach of freedom of expression and a violation of human rights. The generational differences in an immigrant family are often heightened by the language differences between the generations. Grandfather and Grandmother speak English with a strong accent and non-standard grammar; Mum and Dad speak their parents' native language in the same way that their parents speak English; the children speak English fluently, and their grandparents' language hardly at all. The latter may understand a simplified form of the native language, but they rarely use it in communication with family members. The final stage of assimilation/integration comes when the fourth generation exhibits no knowledge of the immigrants' language. This process is accelerated rapidly when intermarriage is involved - the native language often disappears before the appearance of the third generation.

Language is not the only aspect of an immigrant group that is difficult to maintain. On leaving their native homeland, immigrant groups carry a huge amount of cultural baggage with them: exotic food, different clothing styles, another religion, non-global attitudes and perceived values, anatomical differences, entertainment, sports, among others. Some aspects of the Old World (ie their former homelands) are easier to dispense with than others (eg clothing styles), but many aspects of the immigrants' cultural identity stay with them forever, the most significant one (in my opinion) being the image they carry in their minds of their homeland. The country they left behind will continue to change and adapt to more modern times, but the immigrants will remember that country as what it was when they left it, possibly even resisting its inevitable adaptation over time.

The immigrants of the early to mid-20th century left their homeland for political or economic reasons, rarely out of a sense of wanderlust. The countries they left behind were very beautiful ones with a rich culture and very old history stemming back much further than the history of the country they now find themselves living in. As an example, I like to think of my own Cretan roots. The island of Crete is where the first European civilisation was developed 6,000 years ago, in contrast to the first traces of human settlement in New Zealand, which took place about 700 or so years ago.

In many cases in the past, immigrants never returned to their home country, although this is now less often the case, due to the greater connectedness of the global world. Distance was once a dividing factor - some countries were just too far away from the New World for immigrants to return there regularly.  Nor is it the case any longer that immigrants are lowly educated - the Greek immigrants of today, for example, are often university graduates who decide to leave Greece because her economy has been crippled by the global financial crisis and they cannot find work in their own country. These days, emigration of one's own accord, not based on persecution or war, is usually a choice rather than a necessary evil. Chain migration - where the emigrant then helped another family member to emigrate, and so on, like a chain - is less likely these days: educated Greek migrants choose countries that need their skills. In most cases, in fact, it is difficult for Greek migrants to choose the country where they will migrate - they often don't fulfil the pre-requisites for emigration*. Those that end up leaving Greece these days are usually dual-passport holders - in other words, they have citizenship in more than one country, and this facilitates them in being fully accepted into the 'new' country. The reasons people are choosing to migrate these days will have repercussions on the way immigrant communities will develop: they will more likely show a trend towards integration with mainstream society rather than distancing themselves from it.

The above scene from Zorba  the Greek (1964) depicts the Crete that my parents left behind in the years that each one decided to emigrate to New Zealand. The homeland was constantly on their mind throughout their life. One never made it back, while the other came back to a Crete he did not recognise. The irony is that their children now live in Greece. The scene above also shows one of the most popular songs to come out of the film, but there were also some other compositions which were equally as good, but they didn't get the same attention - I prefer the music in the link below, which shows how the same area in the film developed in modern times. 

The desire to maintain certain elements of the immigrant language and culture in an immigrant group is often viewed as 'sentimental' and 'nostalgic'. It is a direct outcome of being uprooted, in a sense. But maintaining the immigrant language and culture is generally not deemed 'necessary' or 'vital'. Hence, many aspects are dropped over the generations. But the interconnectedness of the world today, notably through the internet, has greatly influenced identity issues. Many people in the New World are not conscious of their immigrant past, and do not necessarily view their ancestors' homeland as the one that represents their identity. But there are large numbers in most immigrant communities who make a conscious effort to maintain some of their family's customs, which are often interpreted as signs of their cultural heritage. Some may even believe that there is a chance that they will return to their homeland, 'once the troubles are over'. It is these subsets of community members who will battle with their inner feelings as to how they can maintain their migrant heritage, not those who have become disinterested in their history or estranged from the community, due to inevitable assimilation or personal choice.

And that is the crux of the issue of language and cultural maintenance in an immigrant community: it's done for sentimental reasons, it is optional and it is highly regarded by a only subset of the community. Once language/cultural maintenance in a well-established (and well-assimilated) immigrant community is seen for what it truly is (a sentimental way to keep in touch with one's ancestry), it is easier to deal with it more appropriately. What is the reason behind the desire to keep our language and culture alive beyond the immigrant generation? Is it because we want to pass on some of that heritage to the next generation? Is it because we feel the need to express ourselves through our cultural heritage? Is it because we still have a strong community group whose needs must still be catered for? Maybe none of these apply in the case of Greek New Zealanders in the third millenium; what may be the case instead is that Greek New Zealanders want their heritage to be incorporated into the cultural diversity of the New Zealand make-up. Each case requires a different approach in order to have a successful outcome.

I initially embarked on my research on a purely sociolinguistic basis. I was interested in studying to what extent the Greek community of Wellington (where I lived) had maintained use of the Greek language, for the purposes of attaining a Master's degree. As I delved more into the socio- rather than the -linguistic aspects of the community, I saw the need to describe the community as it stood in 1990, almost 20 years after the last wave of Greek immigrants came to New Zealand - my own parents had been there 25 years or so by then. Being a community insider made it easier for me to access data that could be deemed confidential (eg name and address lists). It also allowed for more open discussions which would not have been possible with a community outsider trying to conduct the same study.

That last point says a lot about Greek identity - when I was viewed as 'one of us', I had more success in my work than when I was viewed as 'who is she and what does she want from me'. Now that Greek New Zealanders are more integrated into mainstream society, and I have been away for more than two decades, I can't imagine having the same success in doing a follow-up study...

*The global mass media portrays Greeks as 'fleeing' their country - this is far from the truth. Greeks generally do not have any place to flock to that is willing to accept them without their being able to fulfil the immigration requirements.

In the next part of this discussion, I discuss the data I collected on Greeks in New Zealand, and the Greek community of Wellington, which is the group I based my research on.  

If you are interested in the Greek-New Zealand identity, you may also want to read about:
- Food memories from the 1980s
- Food, migration and identity
- the Cretan Association of New Zealand 
- an image of Crete that my mother left behind when she emigrated in 1963
You can find more of my writing about identity and New Zealand throughout my blog.

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