Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The estranged Greek (Greek language maintenance in the diaspora - 6)

This post is the sixth 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.

I attended an inner-city primary school in Mt Victoria - the suburb where I lived in Wellington - in the 70s: Clyde Quay School. It was a very multicultural school, which did something that I later realised not all schools did - it celebrated the area's plurality through its mixed-ability and mixed-culture classes. Children were not placed in same age class groups: different age groups (and therefore different year groups) were grouped together and encouraged to cooperate on similar projects, using their own abilities. Possibly this stood me in good stead: even in my own teaching, I don't have the luxury of same-ability students grouped together, so my early schooling might have played a part in my later teaching.

A 1971 class group at Clyde Quay School: 10 of the 35 children are Greek, and various other ethnic groups are well-represented. I had started school the year before.

What's more, if you were a pupil of Clyde Quay School in those years, I can guarantee that you would have had at least one Indian, two Chinese, three Greek and four Pacific Islanders in your class. I still remember those years at Clyde Quay School - although we were all the same (we were all schoolchildren), we knew we were all different and we were encouraged to discuss our backgrounds with our classmates. This culminated, for me, in a wall hanging which my whole class group took part in: after a holiday in Crete in 1974, I described the village setting to my classmates, and each child made a woven picture of a village house according to my description and we placed it on another woven background which was framed and hung in the classroom for a number of years. The same project was also conducted with a Chinese pupil and one more (whose nationality I don't remember).

In this photo, you can see the wall hangings that were created by the pupils, one of which (on the left hand side) was based on my own descriptions of my mother's village

In 1979, I began high school. I went to Wellington Girls' College in Thorndon, which was on the opposite side of town. Quite a monocultural world up there in those days, wasn't it? In a school of 1000 girls, there were about 10-15 Greek girls (20 would be inflating my estimate). I knew hardly ANY of them; they were living in suburbs of wellington that Greek community members did not concentrate in. Whereas at Clyde Quay School, I knew the other children's parents, and I lived close to them, and we bumped into each other at church and community events, at Wellington Girls' College, I had run across hardly any of those girls in my Greek daily life in Wellington. My time spent at Wellington Girls' College was my first introduction to the estranged Greek: someone who has a Greek name, and/or a Greek background, but hardly ever (or never) took part in Greek cultural activities. 

In this Wellington Girls' College class photo, of all the 29 names listed, only 3 are not Anglo-Saxon.

One day during a free hour, a group of us were chatting about nothing in particular, when a girl called Linda mentioned that her surname was Greek (I had not counted her in my above estimates). It turned out that her grandfather's name was something like Moutzouris, which would be instantly recognisable to a Greek, but her surname as I knew her was Missouri, which sounds a bit like Moutzouris. The Greek name was cleverly disguised as something more familiar to English speakers, and which would not attract unnecessary attention, as well as being easier to spell*. Since her grandfather arrived in New Zealand, his surname had 'evolved' into something 'more pronounceable' to the wider Kiwi community.

It could be said that Linda was aware of part of her heritage, but it did not play an important role in her daily life. She had a Catholic background, she did not speak Greek, she had no Greek family to speak of. She did not attend Greek school classes, Greek dances, and other Greek cultural events organised by the community. She probably never ate Greek food unless she went to a Greek restaurant. And she definitely didn't live in the Greek suburbs of Wellington. To be fair, she never claimed she was Greek, nor did it occur to her to say this just because she had a Greek grandfather. It is unfair to call her an estranged Greek: she never was Greek in the first place. Linda had pale skin and freckles, mousy coloured hair and green eyes, which did not immediately point to her Greekness in the same way that it might for Greeks with olive skin (like myself), although Greeks do in fact come in various shades, encompassing the whole European range, from Arab to Finnish colourings. It was not Linda's looks that made her un-Greek; she did not associate in any way with Greekness except perhaps as a talking point about her name. She was a fair dinkum Kiwi.

The recent sad case of the death of a Kiwi woman trapped with a Greek name also came up in the news recently. The word 'Greek' was never mentioned in the news reports about the woman in question, but the mind of any Greek person reading those reports would immediately have wondered who this Greek person was and whether they had crossed paths. When a Greek person sees a name like Sofia Helen Athanassiou, that person's mind will instantly think 'Greek'. But the more I read about this woman (who I didn't know), the more I realised that her Greekness was not diluted: it simply was not there in the first place**. All that pointed to Sofia's Greek heritage was her name - her upbringing, schooling and chosen lifestyle and the final rites administered to her on her death had very little to do with any kind of Greek identity.

While I was researching my thesis on language maintenance in the Greek community of Wellington, I often had to phone people that I did not know, in order to arrange a possible meet-up (if they agreed) to administer a questionnaire for data collection in my research work. I recall that there were a number of subjects that had been randomly chosen from a list, whose addresses did not fall within the suburbs that Greeks were known to live in (eg Greeks didn't live in the Northern suburbs of Wellington, such as Northland, Karori, Wilton, Wadestown, among others). They would be surprised to hear that I was calling them about a Greek-related study. They'd say to me: "I dont understand why you're calling us, we're not Greek." Sometimes I pretended that I didn't realise that (although I did have a hunch!) and I would explain to them that I simply assumed they were Greek from their Greek name. Sometimes, they would give me an explanation (eg "I am divorced") or just leave it at that, and the phone call was terminated. You can only confirm something by doing what you have to do, and in my case, I confirmed that that these people were usually Kiwis who were stuck with a nice Greek name. I imagine that if I had more access to people like that in my survey, the results of the rate of language retention would have been even lower that what was recorded.

Greeks in New Zealand generally remain clannish - or they integrate. The more integrated they are, the more easily they intermarry. Intermarriage cuts a clear path towards successful full integration. It's interesting to note that the General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad came to the conclusion in a study published last year that there is no Greek New Zealand identity per se. Although there may be up to 2,000 active community members around the country, if ancestry alone was used to calculate the number of people of Hellenic origin, the number would be somewhere in the range of 5,000. But when the Hellenism runs out, do we still label people as Greeks? 

In the next part of this discussion, I will discuss possibilities for language and/or cultural maintenance in a Greek community that is well integrated in mainstream non-Greek society.  

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.

* In those days, I doubt that most Kiwis had much knowledge about the American state of Missouri - if I did, it's because one of my teachers at Clyde Quay School was an American Jew who connected us with a school in Michigan where she was from and we learnt a little about the wider history of the world through her.   
** This particular blog report quite stupidly picked up on Sofia's name on purpose, making Sofia out to be some kind of foreigner in New Zealand - shame on them.  

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