By Effie Dimitria Trihas
TAMPA, FL – I am one of those proverbial “hyphenated Americans.” A “Greek-American,” to be specific.
You know the kind I’m talking about. They’re a combination of American and you name it! Ask someone for a hyphen ethnicity and once they’ve figured out what you’re asking you’ll get hit with a barrage of hyphens: Italian-American, German-American, Japanese-American, Irish-American, to name a few.
My parents instilled a strong sense of pride in me about who I was, so I grew up very proud of my Greek heritage. We were the creators and perpetuators of democracy, astronomy and the philosophy! Our food was amazing! My friends always wanted to eat over my house because Greek food was far more superior than anything they had ever had before. And our language…Rich beyond English words. The sheer poetry instilled into a 3-minute pop culture Greek song can leave the world’s greatest poets speechless (well, maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit).
Being Greek is something to be very proud of. But eventually, at some point, you find yourself wondering exactly who are you: American? Greek? Or a strange, new creation I call the hyphen?
I have visited Greece several times and early on I discovered something disturbing. Whenever Greeks would ask me where I was from I, would naturally say the United States. Then they would smile and nod their heads in understanding. Of course, I would follow this up with the fact that I was born in Greece, but had left when I was two years old. But these facts – facts that I held as proof of who I was – suddenly meant something completely different. With each new Greek introduction and new friendship, my identify was stolen.
“Ah, you were very young when you left. You grew up..there!” They would say in epiphany.
“Yes, but I’m Greek.” I would counter. “I was born here!”
They would just smile and shake their heads (or nod because Greeks do have a different way of “visually” showing yes and no than we do here in the States, which is just another distinction between us hyphens and them). But I knew what they were saying regardless of the confusion between head shaking and head nodding. They were saying I was not Greek.
For a long time I resisted this idea, instead believing they just didn’t want to accept me. Soon, my ego came to my defense. I was a little different, perhaps more worldly, I would say to myself. Many of my cousins smoked. I did not. I exercised. They did not. I couldn’t stay up past 2AM, no matter how much I planned for the late night. They didn’t seem to be bothered by the late hours. I was up at 8AM to seize the day. They rose around 3PM, apparently to seize the night. They could drink frappes all day and night, whereas I would get jittery after two.
As I grew, these superficial differences continued to intensify, too. I loved to entertain in the States and enjoyed the art of mixology and international cuisine. I cooked Indian, Mexican, Tai, and Moroccan food. I learned to make over two dozen kinds of martinis and became a mixologist in my own right. And I became a wine connoisseur. My cousins in Greece, on the other hand, exclusively cooked traditional Greek food. As for alcoholic beverages: finding a good lemon drop martini was next to impossible when visiting Greece. A hearty Cab with that lamb? Maybe. But more often than not you got the house special, something that came from grapes fermenting in the basement. These small superficial differences would continue to add up. And the more I reflected on them, the more I sounded horribly egocentric.
“Don’t you like the wine?” They would ask.
I would try to be polite, but couldn’t help but add “there’s not much of a selection here.”
Of course, they understood. Even waiters understood. All I had to say was “What kind of wine do you have?”
Their response: “You’re American!”
Apparently I wasn’t the first person to ask this question and it was obvious who had asked before.
As time went by, those small differences, differences that made me who I am, also showed me that they were right all along. I wasn’t Greek like a Greek from Greece. I was Greek like a Greek from the States. Those numerous differences had made me into a hyphen. An Ellino-Americanida. I can bake an amazing pastitsio and galaktoboureko – just as well as I can BBQ ribs on the grill while enjoying my IPA beer. I can speak a wonderful form of the Greek language – Greek-American – bastardized in such a comical way. Words like “karo” and “groceria” have become part of my language. Don’t get me started on “roofagee!” Every time I go to Greece I have to make a concerted effort not to use these “new” Greek words because no one there will have a clue as to what I’m trying to say. And I embrace these differences now. I’m a Greek-American: my ancestors are the pioneers of democracy, astronomy, and philosophy! But my first language is English and my second language is Greek. I come from the United States, the country that has embraced cultures from all around the world, and for that I am grateful because my experiences are richer because of it!
I can dance a mean zembekiko and impress my American friends, as well as talk up a storm on what constitutes real jazz with my friends in Greece. I can share my mixology expertise with my Greek friends and they can share their art of fermenting grapes in the basement with me.
I am not one of them. I think differently. I think like a hyphenated Greek-American, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.