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Connecting to my Greek culture and family

Struggling to connect with my cultural identity as a Canadian citizen
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As The Varsity’s Associate Features Editor, part of my job this year included creating a new online subsection. When I was considering what to pitch, the idea of ‘Intersections’ seemed like a natural choice. The concept resonated with me: how do people’s ethnic identities play into their Canadian experience? Many Canadians are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, like me, and I find that my ethnic identity plays a large role in my worldview. I believe that, by telling our stories, we can foster better relationships with our communities and understand ourselves better.

I am a proud Canadian. I was born and raised here. I’ve been fortunate enough to explore five of our provinces, and I’ve seen both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. I recognize and acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly of our history, and I seek to play a role of promoting a better society. Part of that is by acknowledging and respecting both the similarities and differences of those who live in our city and our country.

We may live in a ‘cultural mosaic,’ but we also live under cultural assimilation. Reclamation efforts by those such as Indigenous communities and French-Canadians have made strides, but there is still a long way to go.

But how does cultural reclamation work for descendants of immigrants feeling a lack of identity altogether?

Unlike my grandparents, who struggled to learn English and integrate into Canadian society, or my parents, who became fully bilingual in Greek and English while straddling both Greek and Canadian culture, I have been fully assimilated and thus struggle to hold onto my Greek culture and language.

Perhaps it was visiting Greece and struggling to talk to my family and other locals in Greek, or perhaps it was living with my grandma, who has to translate most of what she says into English, but I feel as though I can’t fully connect to my culture, and more importantly, my family.

As someone who was born and raised in Canada, it might seem strange that I’d be writing about my own multicultural experience — but the stories of our identities and how they form and change affects us all, irrespective of who we are.

My family moved to Canada seeking economic prosperity. My paternal grandfather came in 1957 and changed his name from Kalantzakos to Kell to assimilate easier. My maternal grandmother followed her brother to Toronto in 1965 while seven months pregnant, in hopes of a better future for her children. My grandparents emerged into the middle class through menial labour and odd jobs, achieving success against frequent cultural and language barriers.

My identity is Greek-Canadian. That’s how my parents and I describe ourselves, but what does that mean? Identity is a weird notion, but it is a powerful one. The problem is, I have no idea what I truly am. I was born in Canada, but Canada, for better or worse, has no real identity at least not one that isn’t fundamentally taken from English or French culture. Most of my family has become isolated from the Greek diaspora community. As a result, I struggled to learn Greek, which I only started truly understanding two years ago; we barely eat Greek food due to the prep work required and the fattiness of it; we have mostly stopped going to church; and I can’t have any meaningful relationship with Greek societies on campus, which are more party clubs than cultural ones.

However, at its core, much of my complaining comes down to identity. Some innate, indescribable need compels me to try learning more Greek, become more immersed in Greek culture, consume more Greek food, and be more involved in the Greek community. Unfortunately, I feel that there is no easy way for a third-generation immigrant of any ethnicity to meaningfully reconnect with their family’s historical culture, unless they are forced somehow to do so.

I went to Greece once in 2016. It was the closest I ever felt to a cultural belonging. Despite my scarce vocabulary, I spoke Greek almost as much, if not more, than English. Greece was a paradise, and the euphoria from being able to connect with my culture was amazing. However, I realized I didn’t truly belong there when I went to a bakery one day and a woman behind me asked me a question in Greek, and by the time I understood her question, she indignantly remarked in English, “Oh, you’re not Greek.” In Canada, I could simply say I’m ethnically Greek in English and not have to prove it in Greece, there was no such mercy, and it hurt.

I can’t reclaim my culture by simply complaining about it. I’m proud to be a Canadian and will forever be grateful that my family chose to immigrate here. However, it’d be hard to reclaim one’s culture by using methods that have failed. The best way I can reclaim my culture is writing about it, gathering my thoughts, and learning as I go.

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