Identity in a globalised world
Jeana Vithoulkas looks at identity in today's world and how we identify ourselves when overseas
On Monday while boarding a Singapore Airlines flight to Hanoi, I picked up the local newspaper, curious to see what was being reported in that part of the world. I was drawn to an article on page three, about Greeks living in Singapore - all two hundred of them. Several people were interviewed including three students who were photographed, all declaring that they had no desire to return to Greece when they finished their studies. Bemoaning the economic mess and the lack of opportunities in the land of their birth, they expressed a desire to live in Singapore.
Let's leave aside, for a moment, the fact that the Singapore Government exerts great power in limiting citizens' rights, thwarting political opposition and a free press.
Homosexuality is banned and corporal punishment is part of the justice system. Those things might not bother everyone, but I was bemused by the notion that Greeks could settle in a culture so diametrically opposed to their own. But then, I thought of the fact that migration has been at the core of Greek culture since antiquity and that Greeks have settled in every corner of the world.
The fact of migration has, for thousands of years, been seen in a negative light. Folk songs dealing with migration were similar to songs about death: in Tzivaeri the mother laments that xenitia has taken her son. "You took him and made him your own." These songs reflect the finality of departing for a foreign land and the impossibility of return. Even in recent times in Greece, I encounter people who say, with sympathy, to me: 'How terrible for you to be so far away from your own kind.' But the world has changed. Technological advances and the ease of travel means that migration is not as final as it once was. We once wrote letters that took weeks to reach their destination. The other night, while in Hanoi, I was on Skype with my mother in Greece. I could see my dad in the background playing with the dog. Here in Vietnam I have seen Italian and Turkish restaurants. (I haven't been looking, but I'm sure there is a Greek one somewhere here as well.)
Globalisation means that we can pretty much find anything anywhere, although we risk a sameness and a loss of indigenous culture - for instance the Chanel shop in Saigon had long woollen dresses and coats in its window display. In a city where it's hot and humid all year round, I can't help but wonder who exactly such merchandise is aimed at. An American businessman having breakfast at the table next to me at the hotel complained that the main market in Saigon, wasn't like the one at home. Fair enough, I wanted to say. Why should we demand that everything be 'like home'? And two Spaniards I met were frustrated with the local cuisine. 'The food is so sweet,' they protest.
Recently, I heard Nikos Papstergiadis, professor at the School of Culture and Communication at Melbourne University, make the point that our identities, in terms of nationality are no longer fixed as they once were.
The notion of leaving one country, going to another, assimilating and 'becoming' whatever the host country deems its national character to be, is being challenged. However odious this is for nationalists who hanker after some homogenous ideal, it is a fact of our life. All this movement of people around the world, means that the way we live and define ourselves is changing. I have met several Greeks who are recent arrivals in Australia. They feel no pressure to 'fit in' with Australian culture.
There is a relaxed, confident attitude about who they are and the country they have migrated to. They view it with a different eye from me for obvious reasons: my whole life I've been questioned and challenged about who I am and why. My experience when travelling is a case in point about the usefulness or not, of fixed identities.
Walking around the lake in the centre of Hanoi one morning, I joined a group of women exercising to music. One song seemed apt for some tsifteteli moves and I started to do them. Pretty soon, I was surrounded by six women all copying me. At the end of the dance, they asked me in broken English where I was from. When I said Australia, they looked at me dubiously. So then I add: 'but from Greek background' and once that is translated, they all seem satisfied.
But in Ireland many years ago, the opposite happened. I was sitting by myself in Bewley's cafe in Dublin, when the waitress asked me if someone could share my table. A young man with reddish blond hair and blue eyes sat opposite me and pulled a book out of his bag. I glanced across and noticed it was a collection of Greek poetry, in Greek. In disbelief, I asked him if he was actually reading Greek.
"I am indeed," he said in a thick Irish brogue. "I'm studying it at university" "Really? Because you see, I'm Greek," I said.
To which he replied: "With an accent like that, you sound like something out of Neighbours."
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