Saturday, 13 April 2013

Black and white (Ασπρόμαυρο)

Whenever we visit London, we always go to a 3D cinema to see a movie as a family. It's one of those memory-building events in a family's short history when its members are still bound closely to one another; each time, this event reminds me of how my kids are getting older and that soon we won't be doing this together. We went to the BFI IMAX close to Waterloo Station, an impressive-looking round building plonked in the middle of the very busy South Bank on its own little island. We got there a little early, which gave us a little time to relax in the lounge area and warm up from the freezing cold outdoors. 

The lounge was located just outside the entrance door to the cinema, near a kiosk selling over-priced state-approved ISO-certificated junk food like popcorn, crisps, candy bars and - to my ocular delight - an array of all the lollies (I think the Brits call them 'sweets' and the Americans 'candy') familiar to me from my NZ days, in the shape of milk and coke bottles, omelettes, teeth and gums jaws, blackberries and raspberries, babies' dummies, multi-coloured snakes, marshmallow bananas and strawberries, jellybeans that looked like pills and pink I-LOVE-YOU hearts, among others. We'd buy them loose in dairies (which means something like 'mini-market', or 'corner-shop', depending on which part of the world you live in). I can still conjure up the taste of these E-numbered sweets even though I haven't had them in years. I can't believe I used to eat this stuff. My kids don't show a preference for them - they are not commonly found in Hania, anyway, nor are sweets of this sort sold in loose in bulk. We bought the kids some popcorn and took a seat at one of the tables in the lounge.

Most of the other tables in the waiting area were taken up by a group of school children, a classic sight in London. Every single time I have been to London, every single day, throughout all the school hours, wherever we go, whatever site we visit, there is always at least one group of uniformed school children visiting the same site at the same time as us. You can't help feeling envious of the opportunities given to them to live so close to one of the world's most exciting cities, to have so many chances to experience so much global worldliness. At the same time, I often wonder how much time a London school child will actually spend in a classroom if they are being taken on school trips all the time; then again, that is why I come here too. Living in a country like Greece, and in the state that she is in at the moment, I know what it feels like to feel responsible for my children's education. 

The children were having their lunch at the time; they all had packed lunches, judging from the gladwrap (what we called 'saran wrap' in NZ), plastic bags and aluminium foil on their tables. A popular home-packed school lunch in London, judging from the kids at the cinema, must be something like sandwiches, a juice box, a packet of crisps and a banana. (Aside from the crisps which I class as junk food, I thought that looked quite healthy.) This may have something to do with school rules when kids in uniform are on the road during school hours (as opposed to when they sit in the bus on the way home after school - it's all hi-sugar hi-fat junk food then, while the wrappers pile up under their seats). This was a concerted effort to make everyone conform to the ideals of equality: just like their school uniform which makes them all look the same, the children were eating the same kind of food, a packed lunch consisting of standard items. In this way, discrimination is avoided, and the rich and the poor would not be differentiated.  

Their three teachers, who sat at a separate table, were also eating lunch. Their lunches were quite obviously bought - the sandwiches, for instance, were wrapped in triangular cardboard containers, like those sold in most British supermarkets (Marks & Spencer and Sainsburys comes to mind) and they were drinking coffee. Whenever one child looked as though it was about to step out of line (standing up for more than 10 seconds, talking too loudly, moving from one table to the other for no reason, not sitting down while eating, dropping litter on the floor), one of the teachers - all females - immediately sounded out a warning. They were multi-tasking: having lunch, chatting with their colleagues and doing their job all at the same time, something you rarely see among Greek teachers in similar situations. And of course, everyone was being treated equally. I pointed all this out to the family for its purely educational value; unfortunately, this kind of peaceful normality, where everyone does their job showing some degree of obedience is unusual in Hania; just take my word for it.

A sole white girl was sitting amongst the largest group of children. There were nine other black girls sitting together in a circle. 

"She has at least one black parent or grandparent," I said to my husband. He looked surprised. Then he started laughing at the implausibility of how this sounded. My kids were too engrossed in their popcorn (some of which, to my horror, I noticed had fallen under the table) to be listening to our discussion.

"She's white," he insisted. "That's not possible."

"Take a better look at her," I said. The girl had natural blonde shoulder-length afro-frizzy hair, shiny white skin and a snub nose with wide nostrils. It took him a while, but eventually he agreed that there was possibly something that made this girl look similar to the girls she was sitting with. I explained that he didn't notice this initially because he hasn't grown up in a multicultural environment. In his schooldays, everyone was Greek. 

Advertisement in a south-east London free magazine, March 2013

A wider look at the other groups of children - 12-13 year olds - revealed similar group tendencies. They had all broken up into little friend groups, as is natural for children of this age to do. Boys sat separately from girls, and each gender had broken up into smaller groups. Each friend group contained similar-looking faces: black children sat with other black children, South Asian children with other South Asian children. The only two girls wearing headscarves were siting together. Of the minority white (in NZ, what we called 'Pakeha') children in the group (something like a ratio of 1:3), one white child grouped with two or more non-white, possibly reflecting the general multicultural mix of the group, as well as -again possibly - the fact that when white-skinned people find themselves to be a minority, they are generally more mobile than non-whites. The standardised school uniform gave these children a homogeneous look; but their self-grouping pattern is evidence that they are not all the same.
The different shades of my schooldays are reflected in these photos of Clyde Quay School (left) and Wellington Girls' College (right), from the years I was attending these schools. Compare these photos to my husband's schooldays, when all the children, without exception, were of Greek heritage.  All were born in Crete, but about hlaf were the offspring of Asia Minor immigrants, after the the population exchange in 1922.  

Despite my multicultural primary school days - unlike my high school years: they were very white - this didn't make me grow up multi-culturally. I had a separate home side (I was a Greek) from my different public side (I was a Kiwi). Multiculturalism is a bit of a lie: we break up into groups that resemble our own micro-cosmos. We are not really multicultural people; places where a wide range of cultures congregate and live together seemingly side by side are simply multiracial. Coincidentally, I found it much more difficult to make friends at my very white all-girl high school. When you don't find a cultural group to attach yourself to, you have to find an interest group. At this school, these were manifested by previous primary school associations,  involvement in sport or some kind of Protestant church group. I belonged to none of these categories. I was one of a very few Greek girls, and to make matters worse, I had no social life after school because I worked with my parents in their shop every single night, including weekends. (Fish and chips - there I go, mentioning it again, as I have throughout this past week in my blog. It could easily form the title of a book.)

Even if you want to claim that your background includes a colourful cultural potpourri, say 1/8 Irish, 1/8 Scottish, 1/4 Maori, 1/4 Dutch and 1/4 Greek (a perfectly plausible Kiwi combo) jazz, the truth is that in the end, only one of those cultures will have a greater influence on you, and I doubt it will be your Irish or Scottish side - you will probably be a 'fair dinkum' Kiwi. 

Οι Αλβανοί της Ελλάδος μιλάνε όλοι ελληνικά 
"The Albanians of Greece all speak Greek"

The differences between my upbringing and my family's are often heightened when we leave our country. They see the world through purely Greek eyes. My children's school has a small percentage of non-Greek children - but the different cultures are not really visually noticeable. Greeks, Albanians, Bulgarians and Russians do not make a highly colourful array of faces. We are generally all Caucasian - also termed 'Europoid' - which gives our main immigrant groups' children the opportunity to blend more easily into mainstream Greek culture, which helps in their eventual assimilation. That isn't really multicultural, because eventually, we all become mono-cultural in this way. But it might feel more comfortable than being multiracial where the cultural distinctions remain differences. 
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