Growing up in Athens, Greece, I always found myself at the cross roads of different cultures. My Canadian family and my British school often had different ideas than the Greek side of my family and surrounding environment. My upbringing, like that of so many other children, fell between the cracks of nationality and culture.
Millions of people in today’s globalized world must reconcile two or more different cultures from which they derive their overall identity. Although no two experiences are alike, I want to talk about the cultural clashes as they have appeared in three different facets of my life: language, perception, and mentality.
I’m stretching before ballet practice. A group of girls approach me and ask me to say something in English. As a tall, somewhat ungainly 8-year-old, I desperately wanted to fit in. I played along. Unfortunately, my English fluency did not seem to impress my peers anymore than my pirouettes did. All it did was make me stand out more. The girls repeated my sentences in condescending tones, exaggerating every word. I was left feeling weird, different, and awkward. I withdrew, and the blow to my self-confidence threw any delusions I had about a professional ballet career down the drain. As I became further immersed with my English education, times, I felt my grip on the Greek language falter at times. I found myself unable to properly express myself as clearly in a language that by all accounts should be considered my native tongue. Communication with my unilingual Greek family members could get awkward, and my Greek friends often asked me to spell complicated Greek words as a test of my skill. There were periods of time where I felt shameful, as though I had become too anglicised, like my Greek identity was slipping away with every mispronunciation.
I now see that bilingualism is a tool as much as it is a gift. Although people have tried to taint it from playground to politics, it is something that can allow for a broader open-minded perspective, something that can come in handy when dealing with different cultural perceptions.
When reflecting on how perceptions of reality can differ between cultures, I always recall one memory in particular. It was a Christmas eve, and my aunt and I were setting the table. As she decided who would sit where, she looked at me, seemingly lost in thought, and said something that struck me.
“Okay – we have two men in the family, so your grandfather and your uncle will sit at the two heads of the table.”
In a state of disbelief, I dropped what I was doing, and could only ask “why”?
Before she said anything, I knew what she would say:
Because they’re the men.
I could not help but point out that my uncle had done nothing to prepare for the holiday meal. If anyone deserves a seat as the head if the table, it was my industrious grandmother who had prepared roughly 3 dishes alone.
This slight oversight may not seem to many like a big deal, but the mentality that men are men and therefore deserve a certain amount of leeway, benefits and authority above others angered me in a way that was unrelatable to many family members.
In contrast, had someone suggested that men should be given certain privileges simply for being men at a regular afternoon conference at McGill, most students would have unequivocally shut them down.
The last thing I noticed when assessing the differences between my two cultural identities was a substantial difference in day to day mentality. In my first day of classes here at McGill, I discovered what I would come to label as the seat phenomenon. If someone does not know you, they will leave a couple of spaces empty between you. I realize now, that this is a courtesy, performed in case you have other friends in the lecture. However, to a freshman coming from a country known for its openness and warmth, it felt impersonal and almost cold. It felt like students were nipping a chance for socialisation in the bud.
Impromptu coffees and unscheduled meet ups are considered as rare in Canadian every day life as online dating is considered peculiar in Greek every day life. It is the anti-social, formal and regulated side of Western university culture that makes me miss my home in Athens, just as it is the constant strikes in Greece that makes me miss my home in Montreal.
These stories and experiences helped me define a place for myself between two culture that although are very different, also have a lot of similarities. In terms of bridging gaps and reconciling different societal perspectives, I have been lucky that the two cultures are not entirely irreconcilable.
Sitting with a friend who also comes to McGill from abroad, we discussed how despite the personal conflicts discussed, we were extremely fortunate to grow up in two different worlds. The amount we learn simply in terms of tolerance, open-mindedness and open discussion is enough to make dual nationalities a blessing. I was able to forge my own identity by taking the best of my two worlds have to offer. I could pair Greek hospitality with Canadian politeness. Greek warmth, laughter and dark humour paired with Canadian diversity, progressiveness, and open mindedness. It may be confusing at times, but building an identity between the cracks of different nationalities means that countless individuals in this globalized world can forge their own distinct identities, and make their own mark.
Edited by Christopher Ciafro