Greek-Americans Discuss Cultural Assimilation

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*Below is my first article for The National Herald, the largest Greek-American newspaper in the United States. It explores the Greek-American assimilation into the US. I’m excited to write for the paper on many different issues and events involving the Hellenic culture and people! Follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more frequent updates: @alizkoletas.

The United States is known as a melting pot of languages and nationalities. Some may view that in a positive or negative light but a concern of many cultures is balancing how to assimilate to a new land while still keeping old traditions. For many Greek-Americans, this struggle is real and present especially in younger generations. “It’s easy to see that second and third generations begin to lose the culture because of less overall exposure to the culture. They tend to marry non-Greek, not speak Greek within the household, cease observing traditions, and ultimately drift from the cultural identity,” says Kosta Kokolis, 40, a physical therapist and owner of Physical Therapy Office in New York City. “I didn’t find it hard growing up because I was raised around many first generation Greeks and lived in close proximity to one another. It is more difficult now because we become more Americanized and live in different geographic locations to friends and family.”

OF GENERATIONS… Jamie O’Boyle, senior analyst for the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis in Philadelphia, PA, explains: “First generation carries on their traditions inside the home. Second generation shares them with their parents but is also aware of the dominant culture (in this case, American). Third generation is American, which means traditions are a matter of choice. There is nothing outstandingly different about the Greek experience in absorption into American society as opposed to other European immigrant experiences. They marry out at the same rate as most ethnic groups.” But Dr. Theodore Xenos, 32, a chiropractor with offices in the Bronx and Astoria, has a different perspective. He notes that “growing up it was hard to keep connected to your roots because of the school friends… and being singled out or mocked for being more cultural” but now looks at it differently, explaining that living in the NYC area makes it easier to stay close to the Hellenic culture, pointing to the Greek music as a way to connect with others. Xenos considers himself fortunate to amid a strong Greek population – something not all Greek-Americans get to enjoy.

Nick and Melanie Angelis, 33 and 31, a husband and wife in the anesthesia and alternative medicine fields, respectively, live in Northwest Florida. They would like to raise their children in the Greek culture and language, just like they were raised, but they acknowledge that “some culture tends to fade with each generation. Greek culture requires lots of people.” Merely having one couple over is “barely Greek,” they say, “because at least five people are needed for true Greekness!”

OF FOOD AND FAMILY… Then there’s Hope Nalpantidis Malone, 30, a mental health therapist on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, who says what she liked most growing up Greek was “the strong family values and ties to Greek culture. We always had music on in the house, there was always dancing, and there was always food. My mom taught me how to make the traditional dishes very early on. I notice when I have a hard week at work, the Greek radio is playing and I’m making these traditional dishes. That’s my comfort food: lentil soup or stuffed peppers, not pizza and mac and cheese!” Like the others, Malone wants to raise her children with the same family values and many of the cultural aspects with which she was raised, “but with less yelling. My family was always so intense, and loud! We yelled when we were happy, we yelled when we were sad, I don’t think I realized people didn’t have to yell to get their point across until I met my husband… I thought it was just a Greek thing,” she notes, “but a lot of cultures I have found are very similar.” But she offers a unique perspective on the most difficult part of keeping the culture alive: “making time for simple things like church, or finding family groups to join. I remember going to dances, and celebrations with my family often in my community. I don’t see that happening these days. It seems that everyone is so busy with work, there isn’t the same time for socializing that existed when I was little. In some ways it’s so easy to stay connected, though social media and the Internet (because) I can look up a recipe and stream Greek music….but connecting with other Greek people my age remains a struggle.”

Maria Ress, 41, designer and founder of Kastel Jewelry in Chicago, IL, reflects on why “it is difficult some days to stay close to my roots. Being a jewelry designer and running Kastel Jewelry leaves me little time to do anything else than work and I am surrounded by so many non-Greeks most of the time. That is why I like to take some time in the in the summer to take my family to Greece and reconnect. It is almost my salvation, it brings me back to the roots not only for myself but my children as well. We look forward to going back and visiting family.” And while she raised her children with the same traditions her immigrant parents passed to her, Ress agrees that speaking the language more often to them is the biggest challenge she faces.

OF LANGUAGE AND VALUES… That challenge is exactly what 26-year-old Adam Georgiou, who works for Google in New York, faced growing up. “My parents attempted to make [speaking Greek] happen. My mom is a fourth-generation New Yorker, not Greek at all and doesn’t speak Greek, but she dragged me to Greek school at the request of my dad for at least six or seven years. I had private tutors and everything.” But Georgiou never picked up the language all that well, even with going to Cyprus and Greece often in the summers. “Academic language studies pale in comparison to everyday speaking, and my dad—the only Greek speaker in the house – wasn’t all that motivated to speak Greek with me,” he explains. And while Georgiou considers himself more American than Greek, he readily admits that his family is a huge part of his day-to-day life to this day, and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon. He credits the way he grew up with instilling in him some of the habits he holds today. “Work ethic, honor and hospitality are probably the top traits I was taught, and my dad made sure I was busy and made me feel personally bad when I wasn’t. To not get something done was to disrespect our name. That wasn’t an option. Hospitality was also built into our house. Food and drink were expected to be offered to our guests at all times, without reciprocation. All of this led to a sense of immaterialism that I still hold close today. It’s not about stuff, it’s about living well.”

The Angelises see how that ties into a strong culture. While they agree that staying fluent in the Greek language is one of the hardest parts about staying close to their Hellenic roots, they believe that their strong ethnic identity helps them relate to other family-focused cultures and to have close friendships even outside the Greek community. But finding out someone is Greek just “simply speeds up the process of becoming fast friends.”

Malone echoes the sentiments of having a close family, which has helped her create long-lasting friendships in many other cultures outside the Greek community, even joking about how the loud yelling is not just a Greek trait but a very common prevalence in other strong cultures. While her husband is not Greek, she is quick to say that he is “incredibly respectful of my culture and religion so we did get married in a Greek church and have a traditional Greek ceremony, complete with classic dances at the wedding reception!” She adds, “If we’re fortunate enough to have a family, we would love to baptize the baby in our village.”

Dr. Xenos, a first-generation Greek-American who considers himself more Greek than American, says it’s very important for him to marry someone who is Greek as well and raise his children “close to, if not exactly the same.” While this may be a struggle for some Greek-Americans who are multiple generations removed from an immigrant upbringing, the Greek-Americans that grew up in immigrant homes tend to find it easier to pass along the Hellenic traditions, including the language. Is “melting pot” the accurate term to describe the immigrant assimilation into what we call American culture? – As Xenos points out, “I don’t see what American culture actually is. As a young nation in comparison [to Greece], it is still developing culture.”

That’s where Dr. Jared Miracle steps in to explain. He’s a leading global authority on transnational and cross-cultural transmission of ideas, practices and traditions. Miracle holds a PhD in anthropology from Texas A&M University.

MELTING OR DISTINCT? “It’s important to note that the United States is not really a ‘melting pot’ so much as a ‘tossed salad.’ Hundreds of years after the fact, distinct cultures are still alive and well all over, even in remote places like Locketown, CA, where the Chinese-American community is still going strong in a rural location over a century later…cultures can live on for thousands of years in far-flung places.” Is this why the Hellenic culture has been able to survive thousands of years through good times and bad times?

For a deeper analysis into the reasoning behind this monumental accomplishment, expat career coach and author Lisa La Valle-Finan takes a look at the psychological mindset of the Hellenic culture in recent years. “Through no fault of their own,” she says, “Greeks suffer from cultural inferiority complex rooted in a series of historical events. Their ancestors managed to come through the 400 years of Turkish occupation with their identity, religion, customs and language intact, but they’re still perpetually trying to catch up. The most recent example was nearly being rejected from admission to the European Union. As a result of the Turkish occupation (and the ancient Roman conquest) Greeks missed the benefits of the Renaissance, which then kept them from participating in the Age of Exploration, The Enlightenment, and the Social Industrial Revolution. When they finally threw off the Turkish yoke in 1827, they lost most of their country, completely unprepared for the Industrial Age, and they’ve been trying to catch up ever since.”

Finan has over 20 years of international work-life experience and a background in cultural anthropology. She helps executives and their families in global transition cope with the cultural shock and adapt to unfamiliar surroundings. “The transition was traumatic for the Greek psyche. They not only carry a sense of inadequacy compared to the Ancient Greeks because they failed to recreate (or improve and progress beyond) Ancient ‘Great Greece,’ but they carry a resentment toward the Western world they see as one they established. It’s a state of mind that’s left them feeling robbed and resentful of Western achievements that have exploited a glorious Greek heritage. The result is a bizarre inferiority/superiority complex that takes credit for illuminating Western civilization with the light of knowledge, but feeling underwhelmed because, in a sense, all they have to show for it is ‘this lousy t-shirt.’ Greeks are therefore Alexander the Great or some poor captive schmuck of the Turks who dreams of being the former. You can take the Greeks out of history, but you can’t take history out of the Greeks.”

Regarding the recent Hellenic assimilation into the United States, Finan notes “whether a Greek feels more American or Hellenic or somewhere in between depends on shifting his mindset about a few cultural values and tendencies. Culture is learned behavior so it can be unlearned with practice.” Or just not “used” enough, in the same way that the language not being used enough tends to die more and more with each generation. “Cultural adaptation means letting go to make the foreign more familiar and there’s an old Greek song that captures that conflicted feelings toward foreigners and guests (xenomania means both) by Kostas Kofiniotis that says “manners have changed, and now we are in Europe.” They have a love/hate relationship whether receiving foreigners (bombarded by tourists), being the foreigner (of the United States) and at the same time being enthusiastically attracted to all things foreign (usually, American.) So, even while they may be at times attracted to and at times appalled by “American culture,” the Greeks pride themselves on being different…with their language, religion and culture, even celebrating the Easter Christian Pascha rather than the Western Christian Easter.

O’Boyle, who has experience in culture and cross-cultural behavior, sums it up this way. “It makes them unique, and that is considered a virtue in American culture. You celebrate the differences that make you unique.” Ress agrees. “I consider myself definitely a Greek-American. I think Greeks with my background are such a unique class of people. I feel we are the success stories of how wonderful it is to be an immigrant in America…assimilating successfully in America while still holding onto our traditions and culture. I along with many others have proven that you can love the country you live in and love your culture. I think Greek-Americans appreciate and respect their Hellenic roots. We show it through our Churches, our Greek schools, our parades, our celebrations and we do an amazing job of passing our love for Greece to our children.”

Kokolis sums it all up in nine words. “I never want to forget where I came from.”

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