Getting praise for something you didn't do or have no control over seems hollow, and is both bewildering and annoying.
But enough about birthdays. I'm here to talk about ethnicity.
In case you couldn't tell from the picture at the top of this post, I am an American of 100% Greek descent. And while discussing our differences is a bit of a third-rail these days, Amatopia is all about exploring everything that life has to offer, sometimes with jokes. Sometimes the jokes are even funny.
So here we go. Your ethnicity is an unavoidable part of your life. To quote Mr. Frank Zappa–himself part Greek–you are what you is.
But your ethnicity is one of the many things about you that you have no control over. I didn't ask to be born tall, dark, and handsome. It just happened. Hell, I didn't even ask to be born. And I didn't ask to be born Greek.
Don't get me wrong: I love being Greek. And everyone should love what they are, or at the very least, not be ashamed of it.
This leads to my next point: Shame. It's a powerful tool that must be wielded carefully. In the right hands, it can inculcate beneficial beliefs and modes of behavior. In the wrong hands it can lead to mental and psychological anguish.
Take the concept of white guilt.
Where am I going with this? Am I going to get all racial here?
No. I have no patience for that stuff. But let me tell you something: there's a weird facet to being Greek:
My fellow Americans tend to react to it as though it's some kind of accomplishment to be admired, and that it's "cooler" than what they are.
It's bizarre! I'm like, "Oh, and what is your background? English? That's cool too! Polish? Rock on! Nigerian? More power to you!"
I don't see why being of a particular background is more worthy of praise than any other.
Some of it might have to do with the rarity of Greeks–there are only, what, a million of us in the U.S.? And we're relatively different from the other European groups that make up the country that I guess we're interesting? Maybe the history and cultural impact still holds sway in the national imagination?
I don't know. It's an interesting phenomenon.
But what I WOULD like to discuss are some aspects of being Greek in America. The two My Big Fat Greek Wedding movies have done a lot to highlight Greek culture in America, and thanks to Nia Vardalos, people know that Greeks have a sense of humor and laugh at ourselves. In fact, we tend to prefer laughing at ourselves over making fun of other groups of people.
And before her, we had John Stamos as Jesse Katsopolis on Full House, Telly Savalas on Kojak, and the movie Zorba the Greek, based on Nikos Kazantzakis' novel of the same name.
So I am here to discuss with you, the non-Greek-American audience, some myths and misconceptions, as well as some of the more humorous parts, of being Greek in America. As you'll see, we're no different than anybody else.
We just have better food.
What's up with Windex? I don't know, actually, and I have never heard this one until the movie.
What's up with owning pizza places? Again, I don't know. But on what planet is being known as expert pizza makers a bad thing?
Do you still worship Zeus and stuff? Not for, like, 2,000 years dude…
We're incredibly proud of the fact that we were one of the first peoples to be Christianized, and contemporary Christianity of all stripes has heavy Hellenic influence. Remember, for 1,000 years there was one church, with seats of power in both Rome and Constantinople. Several early and influential councils were held in Constantinople, councils that set forth much of the doctrine still adhered to by Catholics, Orthodox. and Anglicans.
And the Orthodox Church isn't a Catholic splinter group–the church split into East and West for reasons that it is beyond my expertise to delve in to.
So yeah, no more Zeus and Hera and Athena and stuff. Not for a long time.
Do you really baptize converts by waterboarding them in a kiddie pool full of holy water? No, but we really should.
How can you drink ouzo? That stuff is nasty! You can leave now.
Do Greek people, especially the older ones, really think that every single English word is of Greek origin, and that Greeks invented everything. Oh, absolutely. That's why the scene in the second Greek Wedding movie where the papou is in physical therapy with the Iranian and Chinese old-timers was so hilarious.
And yes, we all claim to be related to Alexander the Great, or Plato, or Greek Revolution hero Theodore Kolokotronis (whose last name literally means "boulder-ass). Evidence to the contrary will not convince us otherwise.
Look: Greece hasn't produced all that much on the world stage since the fall of Constantinople. Greece missed the Renaissance and the Enlightenment due to Ottoman rule…though fleeing scholars to Western Europe salvaging what knowledge they could helped spur the Renaissance. But we're proud that we managed to preserve our religion, culture, traditions, and even our language during the 400+ year Ottoman occupation. That sticks with you.
We're also extremely proud that Greeks beat the Italians and resisted the Nazis so bitterly during the Second World War. It's common for Greeks to claim that the Greek residence forced Hitler to postpone his Russian invasion until the winter, and we all know how that turned out.
Anyway, for a bit more on this, you can read more here about my recent trip to the old country:
Do you still hate Turks? This is a pernicious stereotype of Greeks, that we hate Turks or something. This is flat-out false, offensive, and just plain insensitive.
We don't just hate Turks. We hate Albanians and Bulgarians almost as much. And Germans, increasingly, too.
Get it right, people.
Why do you all have the same names? First, Greek is a pretty religious culture, so lots of names come from the Bible: John, James, Maria, Peter, Zachariah, and so on. And then there are other Saints (Nicholas, Gregory, George, Athanasios, Theodora, Irene, Katherine, Sophia), historical figures (Alexander, Aristotle, Sophocles, Phillip, Leonidas, Pericles), and mythological figures (Herakles, Achilles, Paris, Helen, Daphne, Artemis, Athena, Aphrodite, Diane, Demeter, Ares, Apollo).
There's a pretty big common pool of names…but that doesn't change the fact that these names are very common. Sure, there are regional differences, but they aren't that huge.
There is also the traditional Greek naming convention. In order to keep names in the family, the firstborn boy and girl are named after the paternal grandfather and grandmother, respectively, while the secondborn of each gender are named after the grandparents on the maternal side. After that, have at it in naming children. This helps explain both the prevalence of the same names in Greek families, as well as the pressure to have seven children by age 30.
All this aside, you'll never see anyone named Ephialtes.
So why are so many women named Toula, Soula, Roula, and Voula? Because these are the diminutive forms of longer names.
See, for feminine nouns, "oula" is one of the diminutive forms. "Demitra" becomes "Demitroula," shortened to "Toula." "Paraskevi" becomes "Paraskevoula" becomes "Voula." And so on.
This explains it, but it doesn't make it any easier when you have to explain which
one of the 73 Soulas you're referring to.
Are Greeks really mean to non-Greeks? Nah. Yes, we call them "xeni" (foreigners), but we love you all. We like it when you come to our festivals and dances and churches. We love sharing Greek culture with everyone. And it's awesome that Americans are so into exploring other people's traditions.
Greeks tend to prefer marrying other Greeks, but we're not offended when someone marries xeni. We just strongly prefer that they convert to Orthodoxy.
You people really like to dance, don't you? Yup.
Do Greek vegetarians actually exist? In your imagination, maybe.
What's up with the chest hair and cross? You say that like it's a bad thing…
The movie 300… Yes, I popped a Leonidas in my shorts while watching it. Find me a self-respecting Greek male who wouldn't?
Do you think the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece? After going to the Acropolis in the early 90s, and then seeing them in London some 10 years later, I used to think "No." But after seeing the new Acropolis museum in 2015 and how Greece has been working on preserving its heritage, I think the country is absolutely able to be the steward of its own culture.
Why do you roast whole goats and lambs and pigs on spits? Why don't you?
Seriously, have you ever eaten freshly roasted goat or lamb or pig? It is a little bit of heaven here on earth. And after fasting for nearly two months during Lent, that bit of delicious, succulent roasted meat is almost as glorious as the Resurrection itself.
And check out my Instagram here.