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Are Greeks too cliquey? In search of a real Hellene

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Diogenes of Sinope looking for an honest Greek with a lamp in broad daylight

Remember the scene in the lunchroom of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”? Maria is eating her homemade Greek lunch and the two blonde American girls taunt her about eating “moose kaka.” As immigrants and members of a different culture (albeit white, it is still ethnically different from the dominant American), we sometimes feel like outsiders. As far as I can remember, I have felt like an outsider as I have never been able to fit in with the greater American social ring. I spent many years of my adult life socializing with other immigrants and flying around to exotic places fascinated with “the other.” However, as I have turned “a certain age,” I have been trying to “come home.” I have been trying hard to reconnect with my culture, my roots, my Greek Orthodox faith, and make Greek friends. I am finding that coming home and getting accepted into the Greek social scene is harder than I thought. Perhaps even harder than fitting into American culture.

How does one go about integrating into a society if you do not have an extended family or clan (at least one that talks to you)? It seems you need to have been born and plugged into a ready-made social network. Some of us do not have family transplanted from the Old Country, so besides friends and neighbors we have no way of breaking into the Greek. It is very isolating after a while when so many of our immediate family members live in Greece.

We have tried getting involved with some syllogi and some church groups. But the reception has been warm but distant. During trapeza at some of these Greek Orthodox Churches, very few go out of their way to include us in the circle. Most church going folks sit at the same table and talk to their ready-set group of mates, drink coffee and little Philoptochos baked goodies wrapped in Reynold’s wrap without really reaching out. I have made more than one attempt to sign up for Greek dance classes. They say they would put us on the mailing list but nothing came of it. I tried signing up to the Greek women’s societies based on my parents’ and grandparents’ geographic origins. I got a very cold shoulder. It takes an awfully long time to break the ice.

While Greeks are known for their socialability and hospitality, I find they are very cliquey, especially towards other Greeks. They will be more apt to extend their gift of gab to “xeni”, “foreigners” over their own kind. The syllogi operate on this exclusivity principle. They only accept you if you can prove you are from such-and-such a province and such-and-such a village. You will not be allowed into their circle if you are not already part of the circle. They function like glorified country clubs based less on socio-economic level and more on pride of place and cultural superiority. While they come into existence to bring people together, they act essentially to keep many out. While they use Hellenic pride and values as a call to congregate, they are more interested in sticking with their own. Instead of opening and expanding the cause of Hellenism by interacting with other societies and moving outside the Greek realm, they narrow their focus to glorifying their own. They essentially become self-praising societies self-perpetuated to give and receive accolades, trophies, and all manner of made-up awards for one another. They become an excuse for monied middle-aged businessmen (and their heavily made-up wives) to feel important and hang out with clone copies of themselves. They exist as a tight circle carouseling around the same old ground patting each other on the back saying, “What wonderful Hellines we are! So committed to our culture, our family, our nation and our heritage.”

These so-called Greek fraternal organizations are little more than incestuous breeding grounds of egoism, provincialism, and navel-gazing nepotism. What have they done to further the cause of Hellenism, especially during this time of crisis, when the very foundations of democracy are threatened by monopolization and globalization, not just in Greece but all over the globe? What do they do but advance the annual souvlaki/gyro glutton fest replete with the usual assortment of baklava, loukoumia, spanakopita to the accompaniment of amateur bouzouksides and middle-aged, portly sponsors?   Is this what being Greek and proud of it amounts to year after year? Surely stuffing your belly with Greek keftedakia, however good, cannot be the epitome of Hellenic pride. Where is the organization that is far-reaching with vision to stretch beyond the cozy perimeter of its island enclave and embrace the ideal of Hellas—the Hellas that Alexander envisioned. Try as I might to become a member of these societies, I shudder to join their ranks. Is this what being Greek is?

At the same time I am proud to be Hellene, I am sick and tired of being Greek. You know that kind of Greek—the obnoxious, know-it-all, greedy snob without-much-class kind of Greek who thinks she/he is better than everybody else just because, well, “because I’m Greek.”

The tendency for Greeks to be exclusive and “cliquey” has its roots in snobbishness and ultimately pride. A Greek will go out of his way to help a cause or a person, will give his last “kora” of bread, as long as he feels superior to that cause or person. He/She will help out but not to the point when you might topple his ego or threaten to rise above him. Of course, this holds true for all people, regardless of culture, but the difference is that with the Greeks, they don’t hide their superiority. They let you know you are way below them by not associating with you or flatly letting you know to your face. (Would you believe I have extended family, the few left on this side of the Atlantic, who have cut off speaking relations precisely for this reason.) And because Greeks tend to socialize so much with their own kind, the generalized sense of snobbishness tends to be sanctioned because it becomes a “group thing” instead of an “individual thing.” It’s easy to single out one person as being a snob; it’s harder to point the finger when there’s a pack of them.

All these reflections make me rethink my original question—from “How do I get connected to Greek circles?” to “Do I get connected to Greek circles?” Do I really want to be an insider in this type of inner circle? Why would I want to? I guess the flaws of one’s own cultural group tend to loom large when you have a front-row seat. At the same time, I do not want to throw away the roots with the weeds as there are parts and people in my culture that are genuinely good that transcend these stereotypes, especially my own. What I am looking for is a progressive tribe of true Hellenes. The ones who hold true to the values of Hellenism—that transcend the narrow borders of chorgio and time. Values such as arête, philotimo, agape, timi, sofia, kalon. Not a small-minded hoard of cave dwellers that rip the meat from the bone, pound their bellies and grunt how great they all are.

Socrates the critic of his society ultimately suffered the bitter consequences of telling the truth to those of the elite whose pride was most offended. Yet he remains the “real” Hellene—the epitome of integrity. We have forgotten those proud gloating bastions of civic pride that forced hemlock on him.

I am still looking to come home to my tribe, my real roots. I am still searching for inclusion into the fine circle of real Hellenes.