Saturday, June 23, 2007

Greek birthday party

Last night we joined our Greek friends to celebrate their son's birthday. Without saying much, I can say that their son is closely associated with where I work. And he's doing very, very well. Well enough that it's easy to forget what brings them to Memphis.

His mother and I have become buddies, originally linked because our daughters became fast friends in school. Masha has made numerous friends in the Greek community in her two years here, but I seem to have become her official "American" friend. Which means that when my family visits their house for a celebration, we're the people in the room who don't speak Greek.

And when I say we don't speak Greek, I'm saying that I have no ear for it at all. Spanish, French, German, even Italian, I can comprehend a little. If I overhear a conversation in one of those languages, I can probably tell you what is being discussed. If it's the right topic, I might even be able to tell you more. Heck, I can even pick out a little Japanese here and there. But Greek? Nope. None. Embarassingly, I can't even keep names. Especially of one person, this sweet Greek man who has lived here for years. And I told him yesterday that I've renamed him Gus. He laughed and didn't get mad at all, and then he taught me to say "I love you very much" and "You're a big dummy" in Greek. I'd completely forgotten both phrases by the time we had gotten home, a seven-block drive.

I like hanging out with European people. And I'm lucky to be able to do so frequently, due to my primary job and my very-part-time employment as a Local Care Coordinator for a large Au Pair placement agency. The perspective, of this family and of the group of au pairs I work with, is different; their experience is different. It's easy, as an American, to think that our culture is the "normal" culture in the world. Our language is almost universally spoken (at least a little); we've exported enough of our culture that most major cities have at least a few American things that add a sense of familiarity.

But spending some time talking to someone from another country, like Greece (or Bulgaria or Poland or Romania or anywhere else, really), gives me the opportunity to hear a different viewpoint on the war, on our government, on politics, on race relations, on recent history. In particular, spending time with this Greek family, who enjoy the privileges of class and wealth (the dad is a celebrity in his country, and is also an elected official there), gives me a different vantage point in looking at our world.

I try hard to avoid looking like an ignorant, "ugly American." That being said, I don't follow current events very closely. My commute is not spent listening to NPR; it's spent listening to music on my MP3 player. I rarely watch the news, other than "The Daily Show." I don't read much beyond Gourmet magazine and Tony Bourdain. So I don't have a hell of a lot to add to a discussion of today's political scene, the upcoming presidential election, or similar topics. But last night? I held my own, and even did America proud by (accurately, in context) quoting Karl Marx (woot!) and mentioning that Al Gore's post-political career reminds me of Jimmy Carter's. (I know, great analogy, right?)

Not surprisingly, I learned more than I contributed. I learned how hard it is, as a foreigner, to endure what happens upon entry into the country these days. "Humiliation" was a word I heard a few times last night. "I'm just a damn foreigner," was said with a rueful smile. American citizen "Gus" told of being treated very differently in airports because of his accent and Mediterranean complexion, despite his American passport.

And I know, with a little bit of shame, that the same thing would not happen to me if I were to visit their country. I would be treated well. I would have no problem finding people who speak my language, who understand my culture. And not just because I'll have well-connected friends when I visit. But because my skin is white and my birthplace is America and my speech is unaccented. edited to add: I'm talking about how I'd be treated coming INTO America, dealing with customs. Not being overseas.

But I also learned that the American life, despite its commercialism and materialism and relative lack of cultural history, is good. Masha and her kids love their lives here, no matter the circumstances that brought them to Memphis. Gus's daughter, who is in her early 20's and as American as I, confided in me that she thinks the kids will have a hard time adjusting to life when they return to their country. Masha has told me the same thing, months ago. I suspect they're correct.

I did, however, see the gleam in her daughter's eye when she told me on Thursday that she'd be flying to Greece in three days. She hasn't been home in two years, and she can't wait. I know she's not had an easy time: two years ago she spoke no English and had become a great reader in Greek; changing to an American school with English textbooks and English-speaking kids must have been enormously difficult.

Gus's daughter and I had a nice chat; she's a lovely young woman who is just beginning her adult life. She's visited Greece many times (her father still owns a home there) and cannot comprehend why some of her friends are resistant to visiting. She also told me that knowing this family has made visiting Greece even better, since they are so well-connected. I had already suspected as much, and have begun planning a trip to Greece, once their son is well enough to go home. Given what I heard last night, I have a feeling I may not want to come back.


Ms. Theologian said...

For the longest time, I thought that all the Greek conversations I heard at Greek seminary and with relatives must be deep and meaningful, but with a little bit of Greek, I learned that much of the conversations were essentially:

Hey, how are you?
I'm fine. And you?
All right. How's your wife?
She's well, and yours?
Good. How's the sciatica?

etc. :) What we all talk about.

Mom said...

You said, "And I know, with a little bit of shame, that the same thing would not happen to me if I were to visit their country. I would be treated well. I would have no problem finding people who speak my language, who understand my culture. And not just because I'll have well-connected friends when I visit. But because my skin is white and my birthplace is America and my speech is unaccented."

I say, "You are idealistic again!" You do have an accent! And living in 'someone else's country' can teach many lessons, among them that the USA is the home of the free in many ways you don't expect. It isn't just the material "stuff" that is available to us, but among other things, the churches on frequent corners where you live, and free public education. Many places abroad have historic churches with few worshippers and some places say they have free public education, but there are restrictions (unaffordable school uniforms) that disenfranchise the lower economic groups.

I doubt that I could afford to live abroad in today's world, and there are many places I do not even want to visit because of the turmoil, anger and fear that seem to create an atmosphere of uncertainty in parts of the globe.

As only an English speaker, I found the border guards in some places in Europe were quite difficult although I was with a tour guide and children. As an alien resident of a Caribbean country, I did not understand the "patois" spoken there, and I was certainly intimidated by dealing with people whose primary language I didn't "get."

Where's your Greek text book?

Cheryl said...

I have to agree with mom up there. Not to belittle the plight of immigrants or foreigners in America at all, but I encountered a fair bit of anti-American sentiment in Europe long before we even got involved in Iraq. I hate to continue the "Stupide Americaine" stereotype that western Europe seems to have against the U.S., but that was almost all I experienced from the general public in Belgium, excepting guys who were hitting on me and a few restauranteurs. It seems that no matter where you go, xenophobia is just one of those constants and only differs in it's enthusiasm.