Monday, 30 July 2012

Identity conflict (Greek language maintenance in the diaspora - 4)

This post is the fourth of a series that have been written specifically for the Hellenic New Zealand Congress, which will be holding a conference some time next year.

For the previous part, click here.

In 1990, I submitted my Master's thesis and was awarded my MA with distinction. In that same year, New Zealand celebrated its sesquicentennial.  It was one of those moments in my birth country's history which gave people something to smile about. But the problems had already set in and New Zealand was about to undergo a change of direction. As an Arts major, I was having serious trouble finding a job. After a short-term stint working on the first New Zealand Dictionary of English under Harry Orsman's direction, which finished some time in early 1991, I remained unemployed for a few weeks. During that time, I bought a one-way ticket to London, leaving New Zealand in June. After spending a summer travelling through Europe, I eventually made my way to my parents' homeland, arriving in Athens in September of that year. By February 1992, I found employment (through Greek-New Zealand friends) at a publishing house which produced English language coursebooks. The owner also ran a private language school for teaching English to school-aged children, with nearly 1000 students. Since that time, I have lived and worked in Greece on a permanent basis in the field of English language teaching, first in Athens and then in Hania.

By coming to live in my parents' homeland, I went through the process of reverse migration. One of the reasons this takes place is when conditions in the homeland have improved since the time of the immigrants' departure1. Before going through reverse migration, people have probably gone through an identity conflict - they don't feel happy with the identity they are expected to live up to in their adopted homeland or country of birth. This has an effect on their integration in the wider community. At first it is not discernible; when it becomes apparent, it is difficult to reverse its effects.

When I lived in New Zealand, I called myself a Greek New Zealander. I subconsciously believed that this meant that I was born and raised in New Zealand, while my parents were Greek immigrants. I spoke the Greek language, ate Greek food, was a member of the Greek Orthodox church, attended Greek cultural events, and thought of Greek culture as the roots of my past, amongst many other things which I did not share with many other New Zealanders. Interestingly, I could never bring myself to call myself a 'New Zealander' or a 'Greek' alone. But I had no qualms calling myself a Greek New Zealander, because New Zealand was known to be a multicultural country. At the same time, I also knew that some of the attitudes held by my parents were not compatible with mainstream society. Therefore, I did not try to perpetuate them, and I purposely avoided confrontations where the differences would be accentuated.

Since I could feel the differences, I knew that they were very real. This is unlike my Kiwi counterparts who did not perceive differences, apart from the more obvious low English language skills associated with immigrants. But I knew there were more differences than that, and these differences were not discussed openly among Kiwis - it felt politically incorrect to claim that people were different in a culturally diverse country which aimed towards a common melting-pot set of standards2. In other words, I was a kind of 'closet Greek'. Hiding one's sexual orientation was never encouraged throughout my time in New Zealand; but hiding one's cultural differences was (in my point of view) encouraged. 

This used to be a very taboo subject area, but is now being talked about more openly, as New Zealanders are now being encouraged to explore their roots. A Ph.D. thesis by Greek-New Zealander Athena Gavriel (2004) has been based on this very discussion: "We are different and the same: Exploring Hellenic Culture and Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand3". Gavriel has written some very moving poetry on the same subject: "Not being a part of the majority culture, adds another dimension to the often asked question, 'Who am I?'" She mentions the dilemmas faced by the immigrant of choice:
Visions of a better life
Draw you across the seas, the oceans...
To a far off shore,
Thousands of miles away in the Pacific.
Light years away from what is known and familiar.

To make a new life,
A better life,
For you and yours...

No longer the olives,
The ouzo,
The ringing of church bells,
The bustle of sheep or goats being herded along dusty village roads.

Somewhere on distant shores,
The olives and pines still stand.
Rooted into the soil of your ancestors' toil,
Calling you home.
... as well as those of the fleeing refugee:
I did not want to come here!
I did not ask to leave
My home
My family
My friends
In my mind are memories from my youth,
Of happy times, playing on miles of beach, hiding in orange groves...
My friends,
My family,
My home,
My land.
In the darker spaces are memories of the guns,
The shouting and screaming
The terror, the blood, the missing and dead…
My friends,
My family....
Left… not discarded
Expelled from the place I love,
Memories shattered ...
In pieces ...
Left carelessly... here and there...
Seashore, orange grove, playground, home, land…
Fragments remain...
And I am called home… in my dreams, in my memories,
Called home ...
How do I get there?
This partly shows that the first generation (in particular, but not only) did not assimilate well into the Kiwi lifestyle, which can be attributed to carrying too much cultural baggage. Later generations were better assimilated - but (I would argue) only when they reached adulthood, and not necessarily as children, because there was still a long way to go before the boundaries of tolerance were found. Through Athena Gavriel's poetry, we get a clear statement of the conflict she feels when she thinks about her Greekness in relation to mainstream society:
To say because I am Greek I must have this or that quality, attitude or value,
Is to say that of all the colours of grains of sand on a beach,
Greeks are only the grains of one colour.
The sand has its consistency and colour because of its composition.
To separate the grains makes it something different,
No longer the sand of that beach.
Greeks are Greeks because of each and every one’s uniqueness and similarities.
Sand on one beach is different in consistency and colour
To sand on other beaches,
But we are all apart of the ocean of life, and connected to it
Through the grains of our humanness.
Does it matter which beach we belong to or come from?
Yes and no.
To acknowledge my Greekness, is not to deny my humanness,
My Cypriotness, my Kiwiness, my Pacific home.
To acknowledge my humanness, is not to deny my Hellenic roots.
Nothing is straightforward or clear cut,
It is all different and the same.
Hold it together,
Ying and yang,
Soft sand from hard rock.
Stark dry rocky Mediterranean shores
Washed by sapphire blue seas
Tree clad lush Pacific shores
Washed by deep green seas
Hellenes are there too.
For some immigrants, there is no choice available to return to their former homeland. In my case, there was. Although many parts of Greece where the Greek immigrants to New Zealand were from remained undeveloped, with, at the most, improved roads and basic amenities (water supply, electricity and phone line), Crete was one of the few places that saw great development, mainly in the tourist sector. Hence, conditions were markedly improved since my parents' time, and there were many employment opportunities in the area when I arrived. What's more, I was not the alone in deciding to cross three continents in only one direction to come to live in my parents' homeland.

1For Greece, this happened at about the time of her entry to the European Union (and the rest is history, as the whole world now knows).
2This discussion borders on the Paul-Henry effect - what makes you a New Zealander and what doesn't.  
3 If anyone knows how I can get a copy of this thesis in electronic form, I will be indebted.

In the next part of this discussion, I discuss reverse migration - what happens when  immigrants and/or their children, who were born and/or raised in the New World, decide to return to live in the homeland?  

If you are interested in cultural studies, you may also want to read the following:
- Caramel milkshake
- A shopping trip
- Saragli
- Greek girl in London

You can find more of my writing about identity and New Zealand throughout my blog.

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