By ANNA BOUROZIKAS
There probably aren’t too many second generation Australians my age that haven’t grappled with the issue of cultural identity. What forms your self-identity most? Is it the family you grew up in? The country you were born and raised in? The country your parent’s came from, its culture and beliefs? How do your reconcile differences between the country you were born in and the one your parents came from? How important is language in all of this? Especially given, that many second generation Australians probably raise their children in English speaking households. How will the third generation see themselves?
These are questions I have wondered about since I became a parent and attempted to teach my children to speak Greek. I started primary school in Melbourne’s south-east in the mid 70s. Although I was born in Australia I was unable to speak English by the time I started school. My parents were Greek migrants and I was being raised in a Greek household.
Once I started primary school, I spent several years doing special English classes. There was nothing unusual about that. I grew up in an area where a large majority of the population had migrated from Greece post World War II. The majority of students at my high school were from a Greek background.
There were so many of us, classes could not be held on the Greek Easter Good Friday, when we all stayed home. I went to Greek school two nights a week. I participated in the Greek national day celebrations, performed in Greek plays.
The Greek community in our area was large enough to sustain an alternate, virtual Greek community for my parents and their friends. I didn’t grow up in the Monash area so much as I grew up in the Greek community in the Monash area. It was fantastic. We rarely experienced racism. It was also very difficult. Especially for girls. The patriarchal Greek culture back then was very strict on girls.
Fast forward some 15 years later when my second generation Greek Australian husband and I were living in the suburbs, on the other side of the city, far from family, no Greek community, and the task of raising children to feel some sense of Greekness, became difficult.
When my son was born, I tried really hard to teach him the little Greek I knew. I wanted him to speak Greek to his grandparents. Language is a fundamental part of feeling a sense of belonging to a culture. Without speaking the language, I felt he would be cut-off from really understanding us and his roots. There would be a large barrier between him and his grandparents who spoke English as a second language. My husband and I both speak good kitchen Greek, another impediment.
I was determined to try. I was doing well. However, at 2 years of age, he stopped responding to the Greek language. The rate at which he was learning English – from television, childcare, friends, and admittedly from us, outpaced the rate from which he was learning Greek.
We had the same problem with our daughter. Both my kids go to Greek school on Saturday mornings and are now learning to read and speak. I figure, if it is possible to learn a language other than your mother tongue, like French or German, then they can learn to speak Greek. And they are. Slowly.
My son can now read in Greek, although he doesn’t understand everything he reads. Although we know people who have succeeded in teaching their children a little of their cultural language, most people we know haven’t. Without speaking the language, could I call my kids third generation Greek Australians? Their Greek school teacher says this is common. She’s surprised how many of her third generation students do not speak Greek.
We could learn to speak Greek easily because our early years were spent in households where Greek was the only language. This was reinforced by extended family and the wider Greek community our parents socialized within. We never heard English, and if we did, it wasn’t enough to learn the language, until we started school.
As my English improved, I became the family translator, translating news stories, school notices and bills. For many second generation Greeks, Greek is spoken only with their parents and others of that generation, and often with some English thrown in. My English improved, and so did my parent’s. My Greek language learning however, slowed.
I don’t feel less Greek because of this, but more like a Greek Australian.
Our parents lost a lot to come here, seeking a better life. I felt that most keenly when I visited Greece as a young adult. My parents had raised me to consider myself Greek. But, surprisingly, and ironically, the Greeks of Greece saw me as a foreigner, openly asking my relatives, “Who is the foreigner?”
Until I travelled, I always saw my parents as migrants from another country. They were the minority. I saw them as vulnerable, living in a country that spoke a different language to theirs. In Greece, there were times where I struggled to be understood but my parents would have been able navigate their lives with ease.
They would have been part of the majority, living in the country of their birth, where they had a historical link to the land. I could see the hidden chapter of their life before they migrated. Through the lives of their siblings I could see what their life in Greece could have been had they remained. Through the lives of my cousins, I could see an alternate version of my own life.
I expected the Greece Greeks to be like my parents and the people from my community back home. But they were very different. I didn’t feel as connected to them. As I walked through my parents’ villages, retracing steps, seeing what my parents saw every day they lived in their respective villages, I felt a connection in my heart to the land, the mountains, the sea and the culture that had shaped my life from the other side of the world. I was part of the ancient continuum. The seeds blown in the wind of the diaspora may have landed in Australia and flourished, but the tree was firmly rooted here. My Greek switch flicked on.
If it was Greece that taught me about my Greek-ness, than it was my three years in London that taught me about my Australian-ness. Here I was living in a country whose language I spoke fluently, with a shared Queen and strong historical links, yet there was cultural divide. It took a little while to understand the British culture, and the character of the people. They saw me as another expat Australian. They didn’t understand that I was a Greek Australian. Cultural identity for a second generation person is fluid. It can depend on where you are and who you are with. My time in London taught me a little about how it must feel to be a migrant. It can be disjointing to live long term in a country where you have no ancestral history.
What I’ve learnt, is that language may be fundamental in feeling connected to a country but language isn’t enough. It is not the only way people connect to their cultural heritage. I’ve met Jewish people in Melbourne who don’t speak Hebrew, yet still feel Jewish and practice many Jewish traditions. My kids are also learning to speak Italian, but don’t feel Italian because of it. Cultural identity comprises race, beliefs, history, connections to a land, music, food, and traditions shared with others.
I know my kids love Greek food. They respond enthusiastically to Greek music. They enjoy learning Greek myths and Greek history. When my son first started Greek school, he would insist he shouldn’t have to, as he was Australian and not Greek. Now, in his third year at Greek school, he calls himself Greek. He understands his place in the continuum. We are not only connected through the biology of mother and son, but through the shared history and culture of several countries. This is our heritage.
Sadly, I’m not sure if my kids will continue these traditions and whether they will send their own kids to Greek school. Will these traditions inform them, the third generation, the way they inform my husband and I? Will they feel like tourists in what may seem like our culture, not theirs? My husband and I are not the Greeks our parents are, and our kids will be less so. It will be interesting to see how they identify themselves as they grow up. Will conflicts over cultural identity affect them as deeply as they have us?
Anna is a former publicist, who in a former life worked in TV, radio, online and in film. She’s an occasional blogger, amateur photographer, freelance writer, editor, and screenwriter.
Are you trying to pass your culture onto the next generation? How to you do it?