Friday, 29 March 2013

On Greekness

Good Friday is a pertinent day to discuss identity. Just because it says Good Friday on the calendar doesn't mean that it actually is Good Friday. Calendar Good Friday and Easter Sunday in my New Zealand home was just a holiday and nothing more; to quote myself, from one of my older blog articles:
"This was purely a mini-break for us; we were still in the middle of our fasting period, the Great Lent. Calendar Easter meant nothing to us. We were not moved when we saw the Pope on television announcing to the world that Christ had risen. In fact, we thought he was lying."
It's more than twenty years since I celebrated a calendar Easter of the sort I describe above. There will still be a good number of people in NZ who are still feeling this way about Easter: in the 2006 NZ Census, 3252 people reported Greek Orthodox as their religion (while 10,000 reported Christian Orthodox, encompassing the Eastern European church, including Russia, Romania, Serbia, etc). But how many people still call themselves 'Greek' as opposed to 'New Zealander' is another question. 

Vassos Gavriel, Secretary and past President of the Hellenic New Zealand Congress recently sent me an analysis of the 2006 NZ census figures for Greek ethnicity:

In the 2006 Census, 2,355 people reported they had a Greek ethnicity and a further 63 people replied Cypriot (2406 in total). Of these:
* Half lived in Wellington (53%) followed by Auckland (20%) and Canterbury (8%).
* 53% were born in New Zealand, 23% in Greece, and 4% in Cyprus
* The older a person is, the more likely they were born overseas rather than NZ.
23% of under-25s reported that they could speak Greek, compared with 86% over 50 years of age. 
So we understand that in 2006, there were about 2400 people in NZ who regarded themselves as Greek. But as Vassos claims, it is hard to tell precisely how many Greek people there are NZ because "the Census uses reported ethnicity which is a concept that does not really capture the concept of Ellenismos (Greekness)". But statistics are open to many interpretations. There other ways of looking at markers of Greek identity in the Census, such as Language spoken and Religious Belief:
* 3401 people reported they spoke Greek. Of the 2406 Greek and Cypriots, 1,401 said they spoke Greek. This suggests that a further 2,000 people said they spoke Greek but did not report a Greek or Cypriot ethnicity. 
* 3252 people reported Greek Orthodox as a religion. Of the 2406 Greek and Cypriots, 1,479 said that they were Orthodox (an additional 320 reported that they had no religion and 117 reported only "Christian"). This suggests that a further 1,746 people who reported Greek Orthodox as their religious belief but did not specify that they had Greek or Cypriot ethnicity. 
What do these figures tell us? I think it is fair to say that some Greek-Kiwis are beginning to take on a Kiwi identity to the point that they don't feel that their Greek side is very dominant any longer. This may be the case of Greeks who have married Kiwis, and they prefer to drop their hyphenated identity status to adopt a socially more accepted neutral identity. Yes, they are of Greek heritage, but when given the choice to state their ethnicity where more than one option is available, they (sub-)consciously chose the one that they think really represents their status.

I would argue that the language data is more reliable than the ethnicity or even the religious data, in order to deduce Greek ethnicity in NZ. New Zealanders who claim to be able to speak Greek are most likely of Greek heritage, as learning the Greek language in NZ is mainly done in the home, not at an educational institute. The religious data confuses the issue: spouses of Greek-heritage Kiwis often become followers of the Greek Orthodox church in order to have a Greek Orthodox church wedding. So there is a different reason altogether for being a member of the Greek Orthodox church, as opposed to learning the Greek language, which you will most likely do by picking it up if you are brought up in a Greek-heritage family. Again though, there will be spouses who speak Greek even though they are not of Greek-heritage. 

The language-religion figures are not too different. Approximately 3400 people speak Greek, and 3200 are Greek Orthodox. That gives us an average of 3300. That pretty much tallies with my own research data, from my 1990 MA thesis in Greek language and maintenance in the Greek community of Wellington. Coupled with the figures for Greek ethnicity, which was approximately 2400, we get a rough idea of what is happening inter-generationally: people continue to speak Greek and/or are members of the Greek Orthodox church. Having said that, however, among this group, there are some people who believe that their ethnicity is better reflected as 'New Zealander' rather than 'Greek'. 

My conclusion (without seeing the 2013 census figures, which were gathered on 5 March) is that there are probably about as many as 4000 people who regard themselves as of Greek heritage in New Zealand, which could include the 'strayed' offspring of Greek-heritage Kiwis. The truth is that just because someone has Greek-heritage ancestors does not necessarily make them Greek. What defines people as Hellenes is not the drop of Hellenic blood in their ancestry - it a feeling more akin to an emotional concept
Greek artist ALEKOS FASIANOS believes that Greekness is a concept that few people can understand: "Greece is a concept that we carry inside us, and that concept is constantly changing, it can't remain the same. We now wear jackets and trousers, but ancient Greeks wore tunics, but we continue to be Greeks. It's the environment ... that makes you Greek. Greece is that thing... Maybe if I hadn't been born in Greece and I wasn't here, I wouldn't draw like I do, I would be doing it differently if I were elsewhere."

Personally, I find it difficult to classify as Greek those cases of Kiwis who clearly have Greek heritage but do not have any affinity to Greekness, such as the sad case of the woman with the very Greek nam(who also happened to have two young daughters who could also be classified as 'Greek' in the same way as their mother) who was found dead on a hill in Wellington about a year ago. This is because (and I regret to say this because I didn't know the woman myself and I therefore have no right to speak on her behalf) in all probability she (and her daughters) would never have chosen 'Greek' in a census form to describe their ethnicity/identity. 

This case is similar to many other examples that visibly exist in NZ. To take another example, it is difficult for me to mark as Greek the young woman who gave my son a haircut in a Cuba Mall salon in Wellington, in 2004. She asked us where we were from (because we were speaking in Greek) and when I told her we were from Greece, she told us that her grandmother was from the Greek island of Chios and she came out to NZ when she married a Kiwi after WW2. The girl had Greek heritage, and she acknowledged this as a part of her history; but when pressed to define her identity - well, that is a different story: she is a Kiwi, and if I told her that she was actually Greek - well, I'd be overstepping the boundaries of freedom of expression. There are many similar cases of people with Greek heritage who acknowledge in their personal history that one of their ancestors was 'Greek', but they do not regard themselves are 'Greek'. (You can find these stories elsewhere in my blog in a series of articles about Greek language maintenance in NZ. The first part is here: ttp:// and the last part contains a synopsis, found here:

I wonder what the new 2013 census figures will bring forth regarding Greek ethnicity in New Zealand. Certainly, with the current rise in Greek migration due to global financial crisis, there are bound to be some changes to the figures. And with a greater visibility of Greekness in the wider community, perhaps more of those estranged Greeks will seek out their heritage.

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