Living as a first-generation ethnic immigrant is a lot like living liminally. Liminality is a concept introduced into common parlance by cultural anthropology. “Referenced as the middle stage of ritual by anthropologist Victor Turner (1969), liminality is experienced during a relatively brief period when ritual participants stand at a threshold between the old way of being and the new. During this liminal period, participants are stripped of their social status and experience a sense of ambiguity or disorientation.” (Immigrant motherhood compounds that disorientation because you are not sure how to raise your kids.)
The liminal experience is characterized by anxiety, confusion. Neither here nor there, those in the limina, the threshold, are not totally in one world but not yet ready to enter or accept the next.
This liminal space of identity can be “unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition…lacking clear boundaries”—the person is in a “constant state of displacement” (Anzaldúa, 2002, p. 1). Yet by holding dualities simultaneously, the person creates a bridge wherein the borders between “our” and “theirs” can be crossed. These “border crossers” (Watkins & Shulman, 2010, p. 171) allow for new dialogues by allowing more diversity of perspectives. http://liminalidentity.com/what-is-liminal-identity/
On most days I live in an anxious state. I am not satisfied with what I have achieved. I struggle to feel “happy” or “fulfilled.” I keep wandering through my life as a stranger. Alienated and disjointed from my fellows. Yes, some psychologists/philosophers would claim this is the modus operandi of the post-modern world. But I feel that this state of liminal consciousness is intensified by culture, immigrant status.
Because I have been brought up in both worlds, the memory and intensity of the Old World, or traditional culture, has been etched into my consciousness and my identity. I live in both worlds. As a result, the psychological impact of this “double-worldiness” registers strongly on my generation more than say my daughter, who was raised in the US. She identifies more as American than Greek due to her lived experience. While she is anxious on most days, the source of her anxiety comes from her coming of age; for me, the first-generation immigrant, my very identity has been born out of the rupture from my culture of origin. My double-wordliness never wanes.
In my head I am always somewhere else. While I walk on one space, in my mind I live in another.
This is not so for my daughters. My middle schooler, who has started adolescence earlier than most, had not done her chores the other day. She was dragging herself to do the dishes. When I get mad, I automatically start code-switching into Greek. “Why haven’t you done the dishes? Tha se skotoso.
Her kick back started getting more heated.
“You can’t tell me what to do anymore,”
“You will not make your allowance this week,”
“I don’t care. I already have enough money.”
The tone, the tone, cannot be translated through words. That’s when I get livid.
“Ella do kako mira mou! You do not talk to your mother like that!”
I go over and yank her ear.
“You can’t do that to me.”
“That’s child abuse.”
That’s when I reach for my pandofla or any shoe and fling it at her.
“Katse kala or I’ll get my belt the way my father used to . . . “
“But you can’t do that!” she screams back. “We are not in Greece. We are American.”
And that’s when I freeze.
She has a point.
I might be Greek. I have a reference point. I lived in that world. But she? She has only known this world. She cannot identify with how I am acting. I have internalized the manners and customs of that other world. Whatever amalgam I am, it is a product of accepting/rejecting/ coopting the standards/values/mores of this new one. But my daughters are American.Much more than I am. I cannot expect them to be more Greek and less American without the benefit of the experience.
As a parent, one feels some kind of way when your children reject or question the values you hold dear. I look at my eldest daughter. She buys Chris Laboutine purple suede pumps and brags to me this is a work of art.” With five revolving credit accounts, she relishes the products of a consumer culture who has indoctrinated her that material translates into success. She makes it a point of Sunday brunch conversation to convince me that capitalism and competition are the only values that keep the world afloat.
“You want to move to Greece?” she mocks me. “Those people are a mess. Too lazy. Look at their system.”
“Their system is just fine, I retort, they live much better lives than we do. It’s a different philosophy and therefore, a different lifestyle.”
“I can never live over there, P-lease!” and waves her hand, completely manicured in purple points with matching rhinestones.
“If it wasn’t for capitalism and competition, the world would fall apart.”
“The world is falling apart because of crony capitalism . . . “
“Don’t try to convince me to go back to Greece,” she points a purple claw at me. “I can never live there.”
My daughters do not share my love of Greece (and by extension, Greek culture) because besides a few summers and half a year, they have never truly felt connected. OK, they do love Greece, but not in the intense way I do. Because I idealize Hellas to the point of making it an Eden, I have to stop and take stock of the fact that my daughters will never see or love her the way I do. That for me registers as a loss.
Because I live Greekly, I identify with the Other Side, I struggle to find acceptance with this side. As an immigrant, my identity was birthed through rupture, separation. As a result I have overcompensated by holding onto my roots like a crazy woman.
I realize that for my children, Greece is just a dream, a postcard, a summer holiday. For me, Greece is my soul, my identity. And when I see that soul drifting, fading, especially with my own offspring, I cannot but feel sad. (Could it be that I am getting old? The older you get, the more you hold on to your roots?) They speak Greek, go to a Greek church, know the customs. But somehow in their thinking, they have moved several feet away from the touchstone. As a result, they feel a bit estranged. They are unlike me.
My daughters, more stable in their identity and experience, do not go through the identity struggle I do. They do not walk the tightrope of Old and New. They have grown up firmly planted on the other side. Of course, they are American! And happy to be American, at that.
But that is not the way it has been for me. Mine has been a more strangled contorted experience. And because of this, my relationship to them as a mother from a different world can be more challenging. As a mother of two American girls, it registers like a pulling away from my identity. I do not want them to lose touch with their Hellenic culture; but as products of assimilation into a larger adopted culture, they cannot help it. It feels like I have lost my culture through motherhood in America.
Anzaldúa, G. E. (2002). (Un)natural bridges, (Un)safe places. In G. E. Anzaldúa, & A. Keating (Eds.), This bridge we call home: Radical visions for transformation (pp. 1-5). New York: Routledge.
Watkins, M., & Shulman, H. (2010). Toward psychologies of liberation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.