Hyphenated and Less-Hyphenated Greeks

By: | Post date: August 30, 2009 | Comments: 6 Comments
Posted in categories: Greece

John Cowan has asked me to post about Greek-Canadians. This is a challenge, since I know just about nothing about Greek-Canadians. But ignorance is not preventing me from posting about Acadia either, so here goes.

Canada was one of the list of destinations for Greeks to seek a better life in—back when Greece was not yet an affluent First World country, for Albanians and Nigerians to seek a better life in. We have family friends who have left a grandfather behind to his final rest in Montreal. But Canada was not big on the list of destinations. (And of course, back then there was no notion that Quebec was a distinct destination from Rest Of Canada.) The big destinations were the US before World War II, and Germany and Australia after World War II. As John reports, only a third of the Greeks that went to Australia ended up in Canada.

The Greeks in America are pretty much assimilated by now; the Greeks in Australia are starting to assimilate wholesale. The Greeks in Canada are presumably assimilating now as well, multicultural discourse notwithstanding. The tourist trap Greek restaurant I went to in Montreal (that pedestrian mall bit in Prince-Arthur) certainly didn’t feel particularly Greek: I couldn’t recommend a single dish to my fellow diners as characteristically Greek. But that was probably as much a function of the location as assimilation. I didn’t duck into the Acropolis Ouzeri off East Sherbrooke, which my friend George would do when in Montreal. That apparently is more Greek.

Because I don’t know much at all about Greek-Canadians, I’m going to take the one thing I do know, and use it as an excuse to talk about identity Yet Again.

The Greek diaspora are peasantry that fled a poor country; the first generation have maintained their peasant values, and ignored the heathens around them. The second generation got conflicted and rebelled, and the third generation (or maybe the fourth) picks at fragments of the peasant past nostalgically, now that they no longer have to flee poverty and dispossession, and have that past weigh down on them.

The Greek metropolis was peasantry and proletariat, and it was also bourgeoisie and précieux. The bourgeoisie was not compelled to migrate anywhere. And as Greece got more affluent and more integrated into Europe, fewer Greeks were compelled to migrate anywhere, and had the mindset associated with being compelled to migrate anywhere. And Greece moved more and more westwards.

Which means the Greek metropolis now, a run of the mill affluent European nation (though still not as secular as most), is not the Greece that the diaspora left behind. And as a consequence, Greeks of the diaspora are not the same people, with the same experiences or expectations or values, as Greeks of the metropolis.

The connection with Canada (and it is tangential), is that Canada is the only place where this distinction translated into something like conflict. The peasant diaspora was reasonably small there, compared to the States or Australia. OTOH, after the 1967 coup, there was a significant number of Greek intellectuals and bourgeois that fled to Canada. I don’t know why Canada in particular, but I presume Trudeau had something to do with it.

But of course, a Greek bourgeois of 1970 is already quite different than a Greek peasant of 1950. They did not have much common experience or values or expectations, and not much patience to explore what commonality they did have; and they had a generation of drift to add to their lack of common background. I’m presuming there was a lot of “you’re going to tell *me* how to be Greek?” from both sides.

In Australia or the US, the bourgeois could just stay away from the peasants’ parties and newspapers and communities. But in Canada, with proportionately more of the bourgeois and proportionately fewer of the peasants, the numbers were close enough that the intellectuals could form their own communities. I think there were even separate parishes, but I won’t swear to it.

In the 1990s and 2000s, there are plenty of bourgeois Greeks in Europe and America and Canada, following the university or the IT trail. It’s a new, brain-drain wave of migration; but it feels funny talking about this wave as migration at all, with the circumstances so different from the 1950s. “Émigrés” seems more approrpriate.

The migrants get to go back to the metropolis every decade. And they are nonplussed when they do—although less so, now they get Greek Satellite TV, and can see Greece as a run of the mill affluent European country, live in their living rooms. The émigrés summer in Greece, and are quite plugged in when they go back. The migrants built replicas of the motherland in their Greektowns and their minds, to play-act like they never really left. The émigrés haven’t really left, not least because where they’ve come from is not as different from where they’ve ended up.

The migrants’ children had some disconnect between their life at home and their life in the World, because they are in the World in a way the first generation is not. The migrants’ children would have difficulty adjusting to life back in the metropolis, and will stay put. I know I couldn’t adjust. In fact, when Greek Idol wanted to manufacture controversy, it would bring in not just Albanian migrants and Gypsies, but also Greek-American and Greek-Australian and Greek-German kids—because it wanted to see the fur fly with the locals.

Greek Idol—or Fame Story as they Engrish‘d their name—was a lot closer to Big Brother, and Greek X-Factor is now taking pains to say that oh no, it’s not like Fame Story at all. I’ll note that the Greek-American and the Greek-German won. The Greek-Australian was apparently too punk and too reserved to get ahead. Yes, Australians can manage to do both, relative to Greeks…

I recognise that émigrés (who are a sizeable chunk of my readers) are just as heart-broken to be away from home, and their offspring is likely to end up just as foreign to them as the migrants’ kids are now to the migrants. And I’m really not trying to poke at them (or metropolitan Greeks—who from my vantage point admittedly look pretty similar), just because we’re different.

But still, we are different, more than we admit. And the discussion between the two groups doesn’t happen as much, because—outside Canada—the two groups don’t really have much occasion to talk to each other. (And inside Canada, the two groups aren’t on speaking terms.) Given that identity radiates out of the metropolis, it’s not exactly straightforward for the diaspora to articulate a defence of their outdated identity. There’s a nicety floating about, “oh, you diaspora Greeks are more Greek than we are!” In a sense, that’s deeply true. In another sense, I can’t help feeling that they don’t really mean it.

The flip of “oh you diaspora Greeks are more Greek than we are!” was to be had on Hellas-L. Hellas-L was a storied mailing list for émigrés in the late ’80s and ’90s: it was an crucial way for them to stay in touch with each other, back before there was a Web, or much of any internet presence in Greece. I subscribed for a fair while, although I posted very rarely; it’s where I know Nikos Sarantakos from (permanent resident of Luxemburg). I did notice a dearth of diaspora Greeks there; the diaspora was interacting with émigrés elsewhere, to the extent they were interacting, on soc.culture.greek in USENET. Though USENET rarely fostered quality discussion, and the more uniform culture on Hellas-L allowed a lot more hilarity to happen. (Humour is very culture-bound.)

Now, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (which I have held back from watching) poked fun at the foibles of a Greek-American family. Given how far assimilation has proceeded in the States, I suspect that for most Greek-American the foibles it satirised were well in the past. In Australia on the other hand a lot of people I knew were enthused about it, since the foibles it satirised were still part of their daily life.

I don’t quite know what metropolitan Greeks made of Γάμος αλά ελληνικά, “Marriage Greek-Style”, as My Big Fat Greek Wedding was released as there. I’m assuming they would have laughed at it rather than laughed with it, the way Greek-Australians did; it must have been fairly removed from current Greek reality. I do remember though that on Hellas-L, one subscriber (name available on request) was indignant that her Greekness could in any way be associated with the movie’s shenanigans. “They should have called it My Big Fat GREEK-AMERICAN Wedding”! she fumed.

The subscriber in question was a Greek… in Houston. But *she* wasn’t Greek-American, you see. And of course, she wasn’t: they were a different identity by now. Just as the Cubans of Miami are by now a different identity than the Cubans of Cuba, or the Vietnamese diaspora from the Vietnamese now coming to the West for study. The ensuing discussions on Hellas-L included much talk of why they couldn’t stand to show up to the local communities’ functions. In Canada at least, they had the numbers not to need to. Come to think of it, they probably had the numbers not to need to Stateside, too.

It occurred to me at the time that the diaspora didn’t have a voice there to voice its own plaint. It doesn’t have much of a voice in the metropolis then or now; I remember Greek-Americans ringing up the metropolitan cable channel in the early naughties, indignant about the anti-American bias and conspiracy theories of the news coverage. They weren’t engaged with as peers with a valid alternate point of view: they were talked down at as ill-informed naifs.

Not that I expect much more of the hectoring Giorgos Papadakis. Blogosphere blowhards will not supplant the newsgathering of journalists, but they can’t supplant the superciliousness of TV pontificators fast enough.

The diaspora have voices enough among themselves, even if the metropolis isn’t particularly tuned it. (How many metropolitan Greeks—or émigrés—have heard of Greek-Australian writers?) Yet fittingly, it was a metropolitan singer who gave voice to the sorrow and alienation of the diaspora. Not just any singer of course, but Stelios Kazantzidis, who made his career singing of the sorrow of migrants. (In the metropolis. He was the child of refugees, so he knew something of dispossession; then again, he was a singer, he was articulating dispossession for a living, not a vocation. But who he was doesn’t matter; what his listeners got out of him matters.)

At the end of his career, Kazantzidis turned from laiko (urban pop) back to the Pontic music of his heritage. Like Elvis doing a gospel album, I suppose. And you’d be hardput to say Pontic is intelligible to Standard Greek speakers; but my father understood enough of Πατρίδα αραεύω σε [lyrics] to tell me, “that’s song’s about me.”

(Btw, the YouTube quotation of the chorus is using the Wikipedia Orthography of Pontic: εα for [æ], which in scholarly transliteration is α̈. The convention was cooked up just this year, but I can see it taking over the world, the way the world now is…)

Five houses I have built. I am unhoused from all.
Refugee since the cradle. God, I will go mad.

My motherland I seek you. Like a man accursed.
A Greek in Foreign Land. A Foreigner in Greece.

I placed my houses twixt the torrent and the bank.
Wells built of marble. Water flowing like my tears.

Now here I thirst to drink. And water I have none.
I am ashamed to reach and moisten my poor lips.

My motherland I seek you. Like a man accursed.
A Greek in Foreign Land. A Foreigner in Greece.


  • Peter says:

    Interesting post, N. This Greek-Canadian (Montreal) will comment on it this weekend.

  • meika says:

    "My Big Fat Greek-Canadian Wedding Gets Lost in America"

    Just need to googlage every off thought that passes throu consciouness and we'll be right every time.

  • opoudjis says:

    @Meika : That would make sense, since what the movie portrays is less assimilated than US Greekdom; but the googlage tells me it comes from Nia Vardalos' comedy sketches. Of course, Nia Vardalos is Greek-Canadian, and they were a generation behind the Americans in assimilation too.

    Thanks for stopping by, and for alerting me to Australians being the most exuberantly patriotic people in the world (Economist survey says).

    A commenter to that thread notes:
    "It is mildly amusing that the picture used as a background is of Australians dressed like Elvis (a American icon) drinking Heineken (a Dutch beer)."

    Well, Coke was promoting the 1996 Olympics bid in Greece: multinationals know no country, and neither does mass culture. Interesting how nationalisms weft around to accommodate them. Contra what the naive have said, just because Greeks and Turks both wear jeans and eat McDonalds, doesn't mean they love each other: consumerism isn't an antidote to belligerence.

    (Who inanely suggested two countries that both have McDonalds have never been at war? Ah yes, that's inane enough to be Tom Friedman, and it's already been disproved in Russia vs Georgia)

  • meika says:

    I think My Big Fat Greek Wedding was originally an Australian script and came out of a Hollywood desire to answer the question "Why can we do those Australian movies(like Muriel's Wedding)?"

    So it should really be called:
    "My Big Fat Greek-Australian Wedding Comes to America"

  • opoudjis says:

    Some of it is on Google Groups via the USENET feed of bit.listserv.hellas . 1999-2008 is on http://biowww.dfci.harvard.edu/~hellas/ . I have my own copy of 1996-2007. Nick Gavrielatos had logs from back in the halcyon years, but they've succumbed to bitrot.

  • Anonymous says:

    Interesting post as always. I might add more later… 😉

    Btw, is there an archive of Hellas-L anywhere? I don't seem to be able to find anything to that effect on that page.

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