Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Reverse migration (Greek language maintenance in the diaspora - 5)

This post is the fifth 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.

Reverse migration happens for a number of different reasons, among which are included when conditions in the homeland improve or when immigrants are forced out of their adopted homeland for political reasons - both have applied to Greeks at various points in history. In my own case, I spent the first 25 years of my life in New Zealand where I was born, and have now spent the next 21 in Greece, the country of my cultural heritage and my parents' homeland.

I left New Zealand in 1991. Apart from a trip home to see my parents, another to attend my mother's funeral and one more with my husband to visit relatives, I have not been back to New Zealand to live on a long-term basis. It is not a clear-cut case to say I dropped the Kiwi part of my identity and simply became Greek. The Kiwi part of my identity is the 'foreign thing' that people I associate with detect in me. Part of it can be attributed to language: I now speak Greek with only a hint of an accent, but it is clearly discernible. But language is less of a marker than other characteristics.

For a start, when I came to Greece, I carried less cultural baggage with me than my parents did when they went in New Zealand. Although I had fairly good Greek language skills, the only tangible element that still singles me out as some kind of foreigner is my spoken Greek. When I first arrived to Greece, I spoke Greek with a marked accent (less so nowadays, but people who don't know me suspect that I am a Cypriot-Greek!), my vocabulary was limited (less so nowadays), I made syntax errors (I still do sometimes), and I was less fluent in general when speaking Greek (I am more fluent now). Although my writing skills were not so developed (as they are now), this was not so much of a problem (the most writing that people all over the world do once they leave school/studies is to fill in an application form or use txtmsging).

People of Hellenic descent have been travelling to and from the homeland for many centuries. For me, it is a source of pride that we have always had a reference point in the world that we can call a homeland (for example: Jews did not have this until 1948). But even in the same country, we are not as homogeneous as foreigners like to make us out to be. Greeks themselves distinguish other Greeks through a number of ways, mainly:
- islanders vs mainlanders
- urban vs rural
- northerners vs southerners
- γέννημα θρέμα Greeks vs 1922 refugee stock vs diaspora-born
These categorisations of the Greek identity are not made for the purpose of discrimination, nor do they denote class. They are simply a way for one Greek to understand another Greek's background. This system helps them to classify people (we all use various systems to do this).

Naturally, I am considered a diaspora-born Greek, something my Greek accent gives away. But my Greek accent isn't the only part about me that was foreign. Discernible differences in attitude are prevalent through many subtle and often taboo factors, which do not necessarily make me a Greek New Zealander per se: I am simply a 'New World Greek'. My attitude towards promptness, for example, shows that I do not have the same concept of time as do most Greek citizens. I run on the time the clock says - Greeks run on Greek time (an event starts a bit later than the time stated). There are many other similar examples of attitudes that I hold which have a global 'New World' character, but are not generally upheld in Greece (eg health and safety regulations, tax declaration, etc).

Reverse migration also comes with its problems. In the beginning, the returnees are happy to be back 'home'. As they establish themselves back home, they begin to compare infrastructure, attitudes, systems, etc between the homeland and the land they left and they feel despondent about certain aspects of life in the homeland, because they weren't used to living in this way in their adopted country. At this point they have to make a choice: Either they will stay in where they are and tolerate the aspects of their homeland that they initially found unsettling, or they will return to their adopted homeland. Not everyone is happy with what they find: some people do in fact re-migrate.

It is not until I had children that I realised, subconsciously at first, more consciously later on, that a person like myself with dual identity (and dual citizenship, which I secured for my children, in the same way that my parents secured it for me) was in a position to pass on some identity traits to them. What I will pass on to them is difficult to gauge at the moment, because they are young. But what is certain is that I am not passing on a national identity to them, ie I am not trying to mould them into New Zealanders.

For a start, they were born and are being raised in Greece. They have a Greek father and we live in close proximity to their Greek grandmother. They visited New Zealand at a very young age, and do not remember anything from that time. They have only recently begun to connect the people I am associated with from New Zealand. I stopped displaying Kiwi trinkets in the house as soon as I realised that I would have to constantly dust them, so there are very few NZ mementoes lying around. In fact, I have placed all those Kiwi bits and pieces in a big silver ... thing (a cousin bought me, whose purpose I truly have not worked out) which gets moved about once a year (to be dusted).

But every now and then, my children ask me if I am really Greek (yes, they really do ask me this). They ask me how it is possible for me to have been born in New Zealand and call myself a Greek at the same time. In time, I am sure they will learn why and how this happened. Right now, they are too young to understand (plus, they lost their grandparents too early in their young lives, so they are missing some links to their present).

Although there are some Greek-New Zealand functions held in Greece (and Crete, notably the Battle of Crete commemorations), I don't attend them, mainly because I don't have the time to do this. After work and school, there are extra-curricular activities, Saturdays are for housekeeping and Sundays are for having a rest. I used to feel guilty that I didn't make an effort to go these events, until I realised that I probably wasn't interested in what they had to offer. In other words, they didn't express my identity. I've been down that path before; that's why I moved to Greece!

This is not the only thing that I have passed on to my children from my Kiwi upbringing. Although they do not and will not have a Kiwi identity, I believe that they will have a global identity, which is a direct influence of their mother's dual nationality. My New Zealand identity is being expressed through its global nature. It is not being compromised, since I didn't really have a New Zealand identity to begin with; I just had a New Zealand accent...    

That's one thing that I have actually passed on to them, quite unintentionally - a Kiwi accent in their spoken English. Although I realise that this is a fluke, I am also quite proud of the fact that I have helped them to speak, read and write English, especially when I know that I am the only person they speak English with in their daily lives. I could have sent them to private English classes instead of spending money on CDs, DVDs (to date, I have never bought/used a pirated DVD because we prefer quality recordings rather than to watch sub-standard pictures), books and other material to make sure that they learn, not just their mother's native language, but a global one at that. On top of that, I make a conscious effort to speak to them in English (from when they were babies - and I used to get an earful from their grandmother who felt that I was being purposely rude to her when I did this in front of her). English has a purpose in their lives, which obviously makes it easier to learn it: they are surrounded by English signs and English users.

My New Zealand odds and ends: the plates are used, the cookbook, buzzy bee and paua shell are being kept for sentimental reasons, but everything else needs to be trashed soon.

But they are not learning English because their mother is a New Zealander. They are learning English because I want them to. The example is being set in the home, in exactly the same way as when I was young. My parents wanted me to learn Greek, and they set the example at home: as I mentioned in a previous post in this series, the importance of using a language in the home should not be underestimated. It's very easy to claim that it is easier for my children to learn English in Greece than it is for my children to learn Greek in New Zealand, but I would disagree: the findings in my Master's thesis suggested that second-generation females used Greek more often than males when speaking to children, even in cases of intermarriage. So it's all a case of conscious effort (which usually rests on the female.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I cook New Zealand treats in my house, such as afghans, banana cake and gingernuts. My family is well adjusted to accepting other people's food. But they are entitled to their own opinion as long as they taste it: my husband doesn't like any of the above, but my children don't mind them (although they would prefer something else).  I do yearn for pineapple lumps, Roses chocolates and store-bought gingernuts, and it's absolutely ages since I've seen a Christmas cracker. But all these are now available by mail order if I were really desperate: the world is more connected these days, so there is no need to fear a loss of anything.

The advice I give to the diaspora who are worried that the conscious sense of Greekness that they feel is not being passed on to their offspring is that they must remember that many members of an immigrant community are assumed to be members solely because of their ancestry. But:  
"Such people have never lived in Greece (they only come here for a holiday)... Greek immigrants' offspring usually knows little about the achievements of modern Greece, and more about the myths and legends of ancient Greece. They are simply left with a Greek name, and maybe some recipes from their mothers and grandmothers. They have no concept of modern Greece, nor do they fit in the modern Greek spectrum, and yet they are Greek...
Hence, they do not have a firm idea of how they got to be where they now find themselves, and more significantly, it does not bother them, which allows them to live their life freely and momentously. This is not a bad thing - after all, our individual identity is not shaped just by our ancestry alone. Apart from who raised us, our individual identity is shaped by where we live, the education and political systems into which we were indoctrinated, and our own very own unique personalities. Identity also changes over time - elders die, people move into new circles and, like their immigrant ancestors, they may become 'transnationals' themselves (note how I avoid saying 'immigrants', even though that is what they really are). That is when they may realise that:
"... they are on the verge of losing an integral part of their identity. When you lose any sense of your past, you are locked in the present, and when that crumbles, you have nowhere to turn."
I will close this discussion on a very personal level by likening migration with the the life cycle of the olive tree, after bearing witness to the effects of a catastrophic fire that burnt down my husband's olive grove: 
"The roots of the olive tree are humble ones with great depth, too profound to be obliterated once and for all. Those roots form the olive tree's past, and their experience tells the tree how to get over a present catastrophe in order to continue to have a future, in the same way as people who know their history well. If you do not know your past roots, you will have only your present rootless, soiless foundations to help you cope in an uncertain future."
I personally don't like patriotism because it borders on nationalism and in Greece, just lately, we have seen the negative effects of this. Integration is important in the New World, but deep down inside, I know that this also signals the beginning of the end, because of the inevitable effects of assimilation. If I were living in New Zealand now, I would not be the Greek woman that I am today. Greece has made that of me. The connection with the mother country cannot be underestimated.

In the next part of this discussion, I tell stories about estranged Greeks - what happens when the Hellenism runs out?  

If you are interested in language/cultural studies, you may also want to read the following:
- Greece is that thing
- Blame it on the frappe
- Crete, not Athens
- I am Greek

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

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