Last Sunday I worked on creating and editing a book about our church’s iconography renovation project. During that meeting, one of the group members noticed an editing mistake on the Donors Page.
“There are many names listed as Mr and Mrs.,” she pointed out. “That’s a bit old fashioned. We have to include the first names of the couple.”
“OK,” I said, “so we should change it to Jim and Mary Kontos.”
Another group member, who works in the fundraising office of a major private school, corrected me, “It’s supposed to be Mary and Jim Kontos.”
“Really? I asked, “I always thought it was the male spouse who goes first.”
“No,” she added, “That’s the proper protocol. That’s how we list all our benefactors in our published material.”
“Well,” I said, “I thought this being a Greek institution that the reverence falls on the husband in the equation.”
“That is true,” an older woman remarked. “In the old days you would write Mr and Mrs. James Kondilakis, and leave it at that.”
“It was worse than that,” Vicky, a life-long parishioner, explained. “I have seen it where the first name of the husband stands in for the name of the wife.”
She went on to tell a story of how she knew of a Greek couple in the church whose names were printed as Dr Basilios and Basilisa Christodoulos. She did not know that the wife of the good doctor had a name complete onto herself. When they referred to her as Eleni, she said, “Wait wait! Who is Eleni?” “Doctor Basilis’ wife,” they explained. “But I always thought her name was Basilisa?” she’d responded.
“What!” I gasped. “They took away her own given name and adopted her to her husband’s?”
“Yes,” Vicky nodded gravely. “That’s how it was in the chorgio.”
The chorgio. That was during my yiayia’s time. Did we still have to follow that constricting tradition? Give me a break! We are professional women in the 21st century. Who could get away with taking both names of her husband nowadays without getting him beaten over the head with a tigani (frying pan)? That’s downright brutal.
This is a subtle point indeed, but this is the conundrum that faces hybrid Greek Americans, especially women, on countless of other little issues. The big question is—how do you reject the offensive parts of your heritage, the ones that oppress you, while still hanging onto the parts that sustain you? How can you be free to be a Greek-American woman who is faithful to the traditions of her culture without hurting parts of her own personal identity?
This conundrum is especially keen for women in traditionally patriarchal cultures because so much of the traditions they are forced to transmit are seemingly oppressive. Think about this bit: a Greek woman would lose her identity once she married her husband. This loss was registered by her assuming his last name. But his first name!?! What sort of complete submission is that? Being married to a man made you lose even your given name; you became just a female correlative to his first name. You assumed his identity vicariously. Because he was a doctor, then you would by default be seen as a doctor? This is not a sign of reverence but utter subjugation. It speaks to a time and a place where women would be so consumed by their husband’s aura that they would reflect a part of it. Isn’t this too much? To expect a person, with her own will and mind, to assume to identity of her spouse? From our American standpoint, we would consider this psychological suicide. Perhaps in Greece she would have been considered the paragon of wifely virtue. In America she would need a therapist.
But seriously. How do you do it? How do you parse the traditions you like from the gunk you don’t? It’s a lot like that saying, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” You don’t want to throw away or change too much. Then you might be guilty of altering your makeup entirely. Then you would not be faithful to your culture. You might not, gulp, be Greek anymore. But on the other hand. you do not want to carry on traditions that are hurtful and limiting.
Which traditions are limiting? Let me count a few.
- The misogyny, both internalized and externalized in Greek culture. Why is it that women have to be signaled out as the source of evil in theological and sociological tracts?
- The pressure to conform against one’s better judgment to the wishes of parents to fit neatly into a social class.
- The implicit and explicit racism that races through most levels of Greek society
- The idea that Greeks are superior to other ethnicities by virtue of some DNA line
- The strictly defined gender roles that make women take on the lion’s share of the house and parenting duties while at the same time pulling in the bread as full time salaried earners
Then there’s the other ones that pit cultural tradition and faithfulness to personal freedom. Can you really be considered Greek and gay without shame in full pride–without getting ostracized, even behind closed doors?
Basically, all the “–isms” that are the archenemies of the American ideal: sexism, racism, classism, ethnocentrism. These are the things are run counter to everything we live for in America.
How much of the Greek traditions do you change and give up in order to be a proud American?
The subtle parsing of what seems right here, on this American ground, vs the cutting away of what is archaic from the Old Country is the mechanism whereby this new Greek-American culture is born. It is the fact that we are given a choice that makes us free. Doxa to Theo for that.
In the end of our meeting we vouched we would not continue the Greek tradition of putting the man’s name first and then his wife’s. We decided to follow good ol’ American protocols. We did not feel less Greek. We had adopted and adapted. There was nothing wrong with that. And while this seems a small, insignificant example, it is the continuous small choices like these that transform our cultural bent.
That is the beauty of being a hybrid cultural Greek, a Hellene of the Diaspora, you can get the best of both worlds. Behind choice is freedom. And that’s American.