The Greek-American Identity

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Throughout my experiences during the Heritage Greece program, one thing was on my mind daily: regardless of what we were doing, whether it was a focused journey to a historic site or a social gathering, I constantly was thinking about what exactly it means for me to be a Greek American.

by Paul Markakis

Being surrounded by 24 other students in roughly the same position, likely wondering the same thing, I felt at ease being able to really sit back and discuss what it means for us to be Greek when we’re back home. Whether we were discussing spending time with Greek family, eating Greek food or practicing Greek dance, each of us had completely different experiences that then supposedly defined how “Greek” we are. However, regardless of any preconceived ideas towards what it is that comprises the Greek heritage to someone in our generation, I do believe that there is a troika of things that have a monumental impact on allowing a child to identify with his or her Greek culture. I see this triumvirate as the three f’s - family, friends and fortune.

With me especially, family has had a huge impact on my ability to get in touch with my Greek culture. When I was young, I saw my cousin Natasha bragging about going to Greek school and convinced my parents to sign me up as well. Although at the time it was tedious and typically boring, in retrospect having gone to Greek school is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I learned about one of the oldest cultures and languages in existence from teachers who had nothing but the students’ best interests in mind. Being at family gatherings and able to speak to my family members who are incapable of communicating in any language other than Greek has created opportunities for me to improve upon my language skills in an informal, realistic setting. Although I lost touch with my Greek language skills the four years following my graduation from Greek school, making friends with Greek students in college allowed for opportunities for me to refresh my language skills.

When meeting a fellow Greek, a conversation is immediately sparked simply on the basis of your mutually being of Greek heritage. Regardless of where you’re from or who you typically associate with, just because you’re both Greek creates a bond instantaneously. Sharing conversations about similar tastes in food, dance, or music seems to be a typical occurrence for a first meeting with a fellow Greek. Spending time around fellow Greek students allows you both to work on language skills and trade cultural or regional delicacies that you may not have previously known about. It can also begin to create a modern “parea” of students who have bonded not because they are from the same village in Greece (as it was with previous generations) but instead due to our current situations. Finding fellow Greeks can be as easy as going to church on a Sunday or as difficult as searching for a needle in a haystack; either way, though, it needs to be emphasized that we need to stick together. Due to the growing number of inter-cultural marriages between Greeks and non-Greeks, at times the cultural aspect can be lost. The different heritages that comprise a person’s nationality should complement each other instead of detracting from a person’s identity. Being of both Puerto Rican and Greek descent, I do not identify myself with either culture specifically but both combined. I can’t answer whether I’m “more Greek” or “more Puerto Rican” because I’m equally both. However, for others this may not be as easy.

Good fortune is something that is critical to improving the Greek identity in modern society as well. These days, it is not as easy as it once was to pick up and go on vacation in Greece for a few weeks during the summer. For a family of four, airfare alone is close to $7,000 without even taking into consideration the expenses once in Greece. Having a fortuitous turn of events that can allow someone to spend time in the homeland, completely immersed in the culture of modern Greece can have tremendous impacts on someone. Consider, for example, the Heritage Greece trip. Although I studied Greek for seven years and when asked, designated myself as being “conversational, but not fluent” in Greek, I was not comfortable speaking Greek with native speakers when I first arrived. I struggled to remember critical vocabulary, proper conjugations of verbs and found it difficult understanding the rapid pace of natural Greek language. However, as I was constantly hearing people speaking in Greek around me, I got comfortable enough that by the end of the trip I was able to order complete meals in Greek for an entire group without worrying about sounding too “Americanized.” I even had one person tell me that if he didn’t know I was American, if my language skills were slightly more polished he would have believed I was born and raised in Crete my entire life. The mannerisms that he claimed I showed I entirely attribute to spending time around my Greek family members and some Greek friends over the past few years. I started picking up on the things that were not taught to me in an academic environment but occur in everyday life, and integrated these into my language skills. Having the good fortune to live in an area where I can regularly go out to a Greek restaurant and listen as my father or uncle chats up the waiter in Greek allowed me to pick up on the more colloquial aspects of language. Being introduced to traditional Cretan dishes and drinks created a sense of pride for me in being able to identify them for friends and order specific meals that otherwise wouldn’t be considered. Although I only remember being in Crete once in my life, I still feel comfortable in my ability to identify as being Cretan.
However, through all of this, I still find it difficult to define exactly what it is that defines the Greek heritage. I think that for each person, based on their life experiences they place a different importance on the various aspects that can comprise such a rich culture. Being from a family of Greek restaurateurs, most of them born and raised in Crete, I typically think that language and food define my family’s Greek heritage. Others, who are raised in a family or spend time with friends that place emphasis on Greek dancing instead, might consider that the telltale mark of their Greek heritage. The list can go on and on about what defines “being Greek” but one thing cannot be denied; whatever it is, we can argue about it all day long and never come to a consensus. We’re loud, argumentative, stubborn and opinionated but at the end of the day, we all have one thing in common - we’re all Greek.

The National Hellenic Society partnered with the American College of Greece, Europe’s oldest and largest American-styled college, to implement Heritage Greece. Patterned after “Birthright Israel,” Heritage Greece provides exceptional young Greek Americans an opportunity to reconnect with their Greek identity, learn about, appreciate and better understand their roots within the prism of modern Greece. Together with a peer group of Greek students from the American College of Greece the students live and share their experiences and learning from one-another. Heritage Greece is the only Greek American program that conducts a pre- and exit survey of its participants to measure the program’s impact on their appreciation and understanding of their heritage and modern Greece. Eligibility for the program is open to college or university students of Hellenic ancestry between the ages of 18-26 with excellent academic credentials.

Paul Markakis is an active member at The Johns Hopkins Hellenic Students Association.


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