As a first-generation Greek-American woman, I have bittersweet feelings about the Fourth of July.
I became an American through no choice of my own. I was barely five when I landed at JFK. My first years of assimilation were incredibly difficult. My first memories of America was a railroad apartment in a six-family building ridden with roaches and mice and sidewalks that were littered with dog doo. The carpet in the apartment was a yucky vomit yellow. That first winter there was a blizzard that broke all records. I still have photos of my sister and brother and I huddled behind orange puffy snowsuits like overweight Michelin men spiked on top of avalanches of snow that covered the cars parked on the streets. Schools were closed for two and a half weeks that year. The immigrant experience is very hard. I had to get used to speaking in a new tongue in totally unfamiliar surroundings. I was terrified of the bullies in my first grade class who knew I could not protest to the teacher because I did not have the language to. This one named Ruben, a huge Irish-Mexican kid, made motions from the back row of the class. He’d point his thick forefinger caked in dirt under the nail and slice his neck in a slow deliberate movement and then point it at me as if to say, “You’re dead after school.” As if I didn’t get his point, a young Greek girl named Fotini who sat next to me translated his threat in Greek. So anxious was I at all the newness of this America I would vomit almost weekly from jitters. Becoming an American was certainly not easy.
I feel many conflicts for being both Greek and American. Take the value system for example. American values such as hard work, independence, keeping deadlines, careful planning go head-to-head with the Greek values of taking life easy, staying loyal to the family and the group than yourself, the need to be flexible and not overly anal about keeping deadlines and the impossibility of planning things. In America there is a sense that you make your destiny. But the more ancient and perhaps wiser civilization of Greece believes there are few things in our control and our destiny is written regardless of how much we try to alter it. “Take it easy, chalarose,” Theio Gianni says. “Don’t be lazy and waste your life,” your American boss says. Money does not bring you happiness, a wise old widow dressed in black sitting crocheting in front of her white-washed village home, told me once. But can you be happy being poor and not knowing where your next meal will come from? Sometimes being both Greek and American makes you schizophrenic.
Then there’s the conflicting feelings of “home” and belongingness. Where is home? Home is where your heart is, they say. For me, even after 35 years of living in America, I have never felt like a true whole-hearted American. My home is neither here nor there. On most days, my heart is sprawled out on a straw mat over hot white pebbles on a beach of my native island of Ios, on Aghia Theodoti to be precise—in the back of the island, secluded serene with only the sun and the moon for light, the occasional clanging of a bell from the roving herds of goats scaling the mountain sides when the sun is setting. When I walk along the rugged clay ground of my father’s land, I can almost feel the spirits of my ancestors rising up to meet me. In the distance I can see my Pappou, God rest his soul, threshing the wheat and my Giagia, God rest hers, picking olives, or my father tilling the earth in preparation for another growing season. There is an energy there imbued in the very monoliths—grey slabs of granite and limestone scorched by centuries of the Mediterranean sun—that is palpable, mystical, almost holy. My blood courses free under the shades of the olive trees, their trunks dotted with the carcasses of dying cicadas, ghostly white. When I scan the wild thyme and tumbling nettles over the purple-dotted rolling landscape, when I bend down to pick up the desiccated, pearly-white shells of land snails, their brown swirls a perfect vortex, I feel the connection to my roots. These roots run so deep I almost feel my feet sprouting tendrils.
Last summer, when I saw Ios port slipping away as the steel drawbridge gate of the Panagia Tinos ferry closed its mouth shut unto the hull of the ship, I broke down hysterically crying.
“What’s wrong?” asked a sweet young thing dressed in a Cosmote red and white uniform (she was doing a promotion for a new phone plan for the company.)
“How can I put it in words?” I replied, trying to hold back the sobs. “This is my home. I am leaving it again.”
The tug-of-war that happens in my soul between the Greek home and my American home is excruciating.
As I grow older, ironically, the longer I am physically and American, the less of an American I become emotionally. The American part of me is eclipsed by the need to hold on to the Greek. When I was younger and tried a stint at living in Greece, I couldn’t bear it. I was too much an American. I felt very passionately that I could never live in Greece permanently. I couldn’t stand the “laidbackness” (to spare from using a stronger word), the picaro-smartness, the disorder and disarray of every major institution. Doing business in Greece or struggling to make an honorable living was a nightmare. Every little thing took forever—to get the phone installed, the washing machine fixed, to get the water company to switch the bill into your name. The people operated according to a code and a rhythm that was utterly foreign to me. I couldn’t stand the constant bickering and backtalking, the easily flustered egos, the tiptoeing around the social carousel, the uncertainty over whether the bus would run that morning, or the electricity would go off, if your boss would have your monthly paycheck waiting for you in time to pay the rent. Living in Greece takes a strong stomach and a laissez fair nonchalance that a dutiful, responsibility-prone first-born like me was unable to muster. Sometimes it was insanity.
In the States, no one would snoop through your mail, would stand you up at pre-arranged appointment times. You’d rest your head easy that the next day, Friday, you’d have a paycheck coming to you. The store clerks would not try to rip you off by giving you the wrong change or sneaking the skirt you bought out of the bag. US living was ordered, on-time, convenient, regular and sane.
Additionally, as a woman, America gives you more freedom than Greece. The less patriarchal and more equitable standards with regards to the sexes in America have been my salvation. As an American, I am free. I am free of the stuffy confines of the Old World whose status quo is so much more static. As an American woman, I have opportunities that my Greek female counterparts can only fantasize about. I can pick my own career, choose my own marriage partner, choose where I want to live and with whom, go alone on a solo vacation. All this without provoking the hot tongues of neighbors or jeopardizing my family’s honor. Plus, with all the choice and the plethora of exposure to other ways of being and thinking, my mind is like an open parachute. Here in America, you are limited only by your own mind-forged manacles. If you really want something, the lingo goes, put your mind to it, work hard and you will achieve it. Look how many poor immigrants with a dollar and a dream made it big.
And yet, is it as simple as the slogan for the great American dream makes it out to be? With the Great Recession and the widening gap between the haves and have nots in the US, the American dream is harder to achieve these days. The American dream is fast proving a disillusion. The great “What if?” always remains somewhere in the back of my head—“What if I had never come to America? What would my life have been like?” If I had stayed in my “home” country, I wouldn’t have had to undergo the great identity split, I would have enjoyed the security of coming from a place I am innately connected with without the nagging insecurities of second-class citizen. I would not have to be questioning or scrounging to come up with an identity for myself every several years. What if—that is the big question. Would I have been better off if I had remained Greek through and through, especially since my becoming American came at such a cost. My becoming American was a product of someone else’s choice—my parents who were lured by visions of a better life by long-lost uncles with yachts in Boca Raton and aunts who lived in sprawling ranches with three Cadillacs in the driveway. Is happiness automatically tied up to how big your bank account is or how many things you have? What if—
So here we are—another Fourth of July, for better or for worse. I can never truly be Greek again. But for my part, I am an uneasy American. God bless America, Zito I Ellas. Let us celebrate the best of both worlds even though we can only exist in one. I will be watching the glow of the rocket’s red glare over the Manhattan skyline while bar-b-cuing skewers of juicy souvlaki. But in my heart, I will keep the memories, the greatest of my life, of watching the sunset over the Caldera in Santorini as I sipped on a glass of Chablis—the lavender rose gold glow on the horizon, a single clean line along the sea cerulean, as far as the eye can see bowing at the farthest ends, and saying out loud to myself, “This has got to be one of the greatest places on earth.”