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.