Being bi-cultural brings conflict, especially while female. My mind holds a wrestling match between two heavy weights of identity—the traditional subservient good Greek girl in one corner vs. the independent, modern American feminist on the other. Sometimes the good Greek girl bearing a baking rolling pin pinions the American Annie free totting a big gun.
What’s so bad about being a caretaker, a mother, a dutiful daughter? Making a happy home and raising children are the most significant jobs a woman can have. There is nothing demeaning about taking care of the man you love and the children born from that union. It is the most fulfilling job. How can a woman put the needs of her own career and yes, even herself, in front of her children’s? That is unheard of, the Greek good girl pulls her hair. A woman who is not able to sacrifice her own needs for her family’s is not worthy of being mother or wife. Greek culture socializes women to feel needed. They gain importance and legitimacy from their role as nurturers and homemakers. That is their most important function in society. They are groomed for it. They do not complain neither do they question it. It makes them happy to serve others. That’s what good Greek girls are for.
The tradition culture works because men and women in such societies have clear delineated roles. Women take care of the upbringing of children, the cooking and maintenance of home; they act as the CEO of the family organization. Men are responsible for making the money to support the family unit. There is nothing unequal or disparaging about this “patriarchal” system. Men take care of the public sphere; women, the private. Women are supposed to keep silent in this type of system. Their identities become subsumed by their husband’s. It is what is expected. Not only do they lose their last name when they get married, in some parts they lose even their first name. My grandmother whose given name was Dafne was known as Christena by her neighbors, from Christos, my grandfather’s first name. It was not uncommon for a wife to be called by the feminine form of her husband’s name. A man named Yianni would have a wife named Yiannena even when her own name might be Sophia or Irene. The idea was when you got married, you lost your own identity and meshed with that of your husband’s. That’s what all good traditional Greek girls did. They sublimated self to keep the family together. As a result, they were worshipped for it. There is nothing more holy, more pure than the ideal of “mana” or mother. Like the looming image of the Theotokos at the center of every dome in a Greek Orthodox Church, she is the pillar of the world.
There are definite perks for women under this system. Because they are not expected to hold down a paying job, their realm of responsibility and hence their stress and effort are limited to their household. That leaves them with much time on their hands. They do not have to stress all the details that come with career climbing, so they can spend their time socializing with one another, shopping, or even just watching soap operas. They can get by quite relaxed because the burden of financial responsibility is relegated to the husband. It is a convenient trade off for many women: “I’ll put up with doing the dishes,” my Greek aunt told me, “when I don’t have the stress of paying the bills. He has to worry about that.” Most women of a previous generation actually preferred this patriarchal system. They looked to marriage as a way of getting them out of the drudgery of low-paying jobs as the expectation was they would quit once they could sequester a man to provide for them.
Aaaaannnnnnnd–in the other corner of the ring lies the American modern feminist decked out like a red, white and blue Wonder Woman, rolling her bullwhip. You see, in the adopted homeland I was raised in for over 40 years now, women are given many more liberties. They are expected to achieve, to grab life by the horns, to take their own self-fulfillment seriously. They move out of their parents’ house at 18, travel to remote corners of the globe by themselves, vie with their brothers for the golden ring. They make it a point to demonstrate to themselves and to those around them that they can do any job their male counterparts can do and can do it better. Women are raised in America with the same sense of rugged individualism as the Marlboro man. They run marathons, run for civic office, write books, paint paintings, study giant squid, in addition to having babies and tending the home fires. They do not suffer (as much) from the guilt of not having children. They do not wrack in fear that they have not married by the time they are 35 (at least, not that much anyway). They are taught to put themselves first as much as anybody. They are given guns by their fathers at 12 and go hunting wild turkeys.
I observed how my American roommates carried themselves, speaking up in full classrooms, riding horses, navigating jungles in Central America, holding down dirty jobs, cutting a one-way ticket on the Greyhound to NYC in search of their dreams, and I was amazed. These women were extraordinary. They had careers, they jogged and took care of their bodies, they karate chopped obstacles. They were superwomen. Could I too fit in their ranks? Hell, that was the only kind of woman I wanted to be—an independent, freedom yielding, devil-may-care, carve your own path kind of pioneering woman like my American sisters.
The more American I became, the more freedom I relished as a consequence of allegiance to the ideals of American womanhood, the more guilty for abandoning my Greek identity.
So herein is the rub—I live with two competing versions of womanhood in my head. This has created all sorts of internal and external conflict, the kind that someone who has been brought up in just one culture wouldn’t have an inkling about. I have had to fight tooth and nail for the type of freedom women in American culture breath in as a matter of course. I was not allowed to go out with a friend for a coffee at a local coffee shop until I was 18. My traditional Greek parents thought that girls should be guarded in a golden tower of parental protection. If I ventured to leave the house, they would swoop down on me like hooded inquisitioners, “Where are you going?” With whom? Why? What are you doing there? What time will you be back, you have to be back by 10? “ My 11 year old brother would be allowed to roam the sidewalks until past midnight. When I’d question them about it, their answer always was “he is a boy.” The harder they tried to hold onto me, the more desperate my measures to escape.
They would not hear of me going away for college. “You mean you are going to sleep by yourself in a building with other girls with boys in the next building?” they’d ask mind boggled. The very idea of young girls sleeping away far from the gaze of parental scrutiny equated to setting them up as prey for pimps. Girls and boys sleeping away from the eagle eye of their parents had the effect of turning them into orgy-seeking satyrs and nymphs, bumbling with wine and maniacal dance (judging from frat parties and other dorm room antics on most undergraduate campuses, they might have been right). My Greek traditional culture taught me to my very crooked roots that girls could not be trusted to listen to their own voice, that their duty to their parents and their society should take precedence over any private passion; it taught me that I was weak, that the world was far more dangerous and cut throat for my own powers to handle.
“Och Panagia mou!’ my mother, my role model for womanhood, would cry on the phone, What are you doing a lone girl all by yourself in a different country? Don’t you know that there are all sorts of dangers a girl on her own is exposed to?”
Even when I do things I know in my gut make me happy because I am free, trekking through the Central American rain forests for example, the Greek side of me tortures me with guilt—“How dare you leave your children alone? They need you.” It’s like having a private executioner, the Greek guilt, “Having a good time by yourself, are you? I’ll take care of that.” And then my mind gets flooded with fear that my child will be run over by a bus because she had no one to look after her crossing the street. “A week is too long to be away from a clingy child and a nagging mother on chemo,” it harpies.
I cannot make a decision without second guessing or flip flopping. How would I? I have internalized the traditional patriarchal messages that I can’t make my own decisions without seeking approval from a wiser father/mother/elder.
I’m going to dye my hair pink. That’s really in and artsy now. Plus I like the look.
What? A sovari, serious, mother of two does not dye her hair pink. Act your age!
I am going back to school for a third degree
Won’t that interfere with your kid’s education? Shouldn’t you be saving money to get your daughter through school?
My Greek culture instilled in me the mortal fear of living life on my own terms. At the same time it encouraged me to get an education, it whispered educated as you are, you cannot be happy unless you have children and marry.
In many ways I have lived up to the expectations of my traditional Greek culture. I let go of an exciting career and chose one that was more family-friendly for the sake of raising my children. The needs of my children trump the needs of my own career fulfilment. Even though I complain a lot, I would not have felt fulfilled if I had not become a mother. I have served these past 20 or so years tending to the educational and emotional well-being of children. I adore children. I have guided thousands of youngsters to a better understanding of themselves and their world. There should be nothing to be ashamed of for filling in the blank with homemaker.
But that Diana in me pricks up with the moonlight. You should have taken that job in the Middle East. If you do not seek out your own fulfillment you are telling your daughter unconsciously she should not live up to hers either. You have so much more in you. Your children will understand if you leave them. You are teaching them to be women who run with the wolves. You need to be free too. Don’t be afraid.
It is a complicated wrestling match, one too close to call.
The problem arises, however, when the patriarchal system that is supposed to take care of women starts breaking down. If a man does not bring home enough to keep food on the table, or if he is abusive, or is incapacitated In some way or another, then the woman is left in a very vulnerable condition. This is what happened in my family. Because my father suffered from mental illness, he treated my mother horribly. But because she was raised to be very dependent, she never had the nerve to actually divorce him. When patriarchy fails women and the family structure, those are its most pathetic victims. It is from the ones who fall through its cracks that raise the most resistant trumpet call for its demise. It’s the same kind of argument made for slavery. While ideologically it touts to take care of those serving it, in reality by stripping them of the ability to govern themselves, it makes them vulnerable to all sorts of abuses. There is no protection from a system that is there to exploit you into serving its needs instead of your own. It packages itself by convincing you that your needs is its needs. You need me to survive but I am the one making the parameters of your survival. You exist for me because you cannot exist without me.
I reacted viscerally to the stupidity of such a system by rebelling against it. In early adulthood I divorced my culture. I wanted nothing to do with that backwards, goat-herding tribe of troglodytes. But as I got older, the need to center one’s identity in the roots of the past, to pass the torch of tradition to the new generation surmounted my prejudices. I have returned to my church, resurrected the rituals around my ethnicity.
The double bind of identity is trickier for women from traditional cultures because as they embrace the liberation and equality (at least in theory) of the dominant culture, they register it as a betrayal to the culture of origin. They feel less Greek Indian Chinese Egyptian as they move away from the implicit patriarchy of their traditional culture and take on the ideals of the new one. But as women they benefit from that adoption by virtue of the fact that American culture garners much more freedom than the worlds they come from. Do you necessarily have to lose your identity and your root culture identification at the same time you adopt the ideals of liberated form of womanhood in your adopted culture?
Perhaps it will take more than one lifetime to find out.