In 1979, my cousin George and I flew to Greece for a two week trek. I was 20 and he was 17. On the airplane flight to Greece, as we were about to land in Athens, the stewardess (they were not called “flight attendants” back then) handed out declaration cards for the passengers to fill out and give to the customs agent when we landed. I filled out the standard information – name, address, age, etc. and wrote that I had nothing to declare, but then, I got to the line that I was to write in my nationality.
I was born in the United States, so I was American – easy enough. But wait, for my entire life, I was told I was Greek. My American friends called me “The Greek”, my family would use my Greek name, Argyri, my teachers couldn’t say my last name on the first day of school… and we celebrated Easter on a different day than my other Christian friends. Heck, I played in a Greek band! Didn’t all that make me Greek?
So I naively wrote “Greek-American”.
As we exited the plane and went before the customs agent, who looked like he would rather watch a glass of Metaxa evaporate, dryly demanded my passport and declaration card, which I handed to him. He looked at my photo in my American passport then at me, looked at my declaration card, snickered, took a pen and crossed out the word “Greek” where I had written on the nationality line, leaving just “American,” stamped my passport and told me to go. I was dumbfounded.
Before that moment, I never thought that I was not Greek. Yes, I was American and a proud American and the United States is my country, but I was also a descendant of a long line of Greeks going all the way back to Alexander the Great (all Greek-Macedonian boys think we are related to Alexander the Great – but aren’t we?) I was excited that I was heading to the ancient land of Homer and Socrates, the land of my parents and 99.99% of my living relatives, and all the rest of my ancestors. I was “coming home.” But that one indiscriminate stroke of the pen made by that dull, small-minded customs agent changed my world. I was not Greek.
Although my cousin and I had the time of our lives during that two week vacation, the notion that I was not Greek continued to be enforced by the Greeks. When introduced by our relatives, we were referred to as our “Amerikani nephews or cousins” and when they wanted to jokingly insult us, they called us, Amerikanakia.” That’s a whole other article.
I have often thought about what that customs agent did back then and ask myself what makes someone Greek? Well, you’re born in Greece, that’s a sure sign you’re Greek. Your parents are Greek. That should make you Greek – but does it?
Today, while living and working in Upper Darby, which had a major influx of Greek immigrants starting around 1970s, I have heard many of the children and grandchildren of those immigrants refer to themselves as Greek, even though they were born here. Some of the kids I see in Church have actually said that they consider themselves Greek and not American. Really now? Are you serious? Hey kids, don’t forget what this country has done for you, especially giving you the right to act Greek!
A lot of these children have been raised in “Greek” households where Yiayia and Papou don’t speak English, the parents speak mostly Greek in the house, they watch ANT1 and ERT on television, and socialize with their relatives and friends who speak only Greek in the house and also watch ANT1 and ERT – the cycle never ends. The children may travel to Greece in the summer and spend time in the “horio” with their relatives and hang out with their Greek cousins. This is fine and a good way for the children to learn and appreciate their heritage, but it’s time to wake up and smell the Greek coffee.
When these children grow up and travel throughout the world they will experience what I experienced in 1979… the rest of world considers them American. Yes, they will have a Greek last name and they can speak Greek just as good as any Greek in Greece, and are probably more “Greek,” but that customs agent will cross out the “Greek” on their nationality line just as fast as he crossed out mine. And eventually, they too will also be introduced by their Greek relatives as their “Amerikani cousins.”
But is this a bad thing? There are thousands of stories of Greek immigrants coming to America (and Canada too – don’t want to forget my relatives to the North), learning the system, assimilating into the American culture, and becoming very successful, but not throwing away their Greek heritage. There are thousands upon thousands of stories of the children of those Greek immigrants, born here, who have been able to balance being American and living the American dream, with their family traditions of being Greek and becoming successful beyond belief – leaders in our communities, leaders in business, the arts, and education, and national political leaders.
In the end I’ve realized that I am definitely an American – always have been and always will be. I love baseball, hotdogs, and Mom’s apple pie. I love going to the Jersey shore or the Pennsylvania mountains. I love watching football on Sundays and watching my kids play basketball and softball. I love Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Beatles, and, yes, even and little Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga.
But being Greek is not where one is physically born… it’s an attitude, a philosophy, an appreciation of the culture. I love Greece’s history and its food, its historic sites, and even seeing the relatives there too. I glory in the ideals of Hellenism given to the world by the Greeks. I love listening to Greek music, especially good bouzouki – of course, and just hanging out with my Greek friends and listening to their stories, talking about life and sipping tsipoura. That’s being Greek no matter what the customs agent does.
In the end it all balances out and it’s good – being an American from Philly of Greek descent. Yia’sou and Yo.
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