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Monday, August 25, 2003

Diaspora

On Not Speaking Greek: Whose Diaspora Is It Anyway?


At the level of everyday experience, the “fact” of my Chineseness confronted me only occasionally in the Netherlands, for example, when passing 10-year-old red-haired boys triumphantly would shout behind my back, while holding the outer ends of their eyes upwards with their forefingers: “Ching Chong China China,” or when, on holiday in Spain or Italy or Poland, people would not believe that I was “Dutch”….

[T]hus, “Chinese” identity becomes confined to essentialist and absolute notions of “Chineseness,” the source of which can only originate from “China,” to which the ethnicized “Chinese” subject must adhere to acquire the stamp of “authenticity.” So it was one day that a self-assured, Dutch, white, middle-class, Marxist leftist, asked me, “Do you speak Chinese?” I said no. “What a fake Chinese you are!” was his only mildly kidding response….
— Ien Ang, On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West

The battle for the soul of the Greek diasporic communities continues today as intensely as ever. Repeated references in the Greek American press, for example, on the annual meetings of various Greek American associations emphasize the presence of government officials and politicians from Greece, whose participation is motivated by the desire of the “center” to play an active role in determining and controlling the ethic identity of the “periphery,” and to help the latter maintain its national ties to the homeland.

In a recent article on this Website (see “Who Decides Who’s Greek?,” greekworks.com, July 30) Alexander Kitroeff discussed a conference in Rethymno in which the pivotal issues were “the past and the present of the Greek diaspora, as well as the current state of Greek education in Greek diaspora communities.” It focused on the Greek state’s perception of what it means to “be Greek,” as expressed by the chairman of the Greek parliamentary committee for Greeks abroad, Grigoris Niotis. Mr. Niotis’s notion of the Greek diaspora is of a coherent community held together by a common language and culture, the consciousness and identity of which are formulated and settled by the “natural” center of Greekness, Greece. Alexander Kitroeff pointed out that the Greek MP focused on Greece’s involvement in the educational issues that preoccupy the Greek communities of the diaspora, justifying the center’s insistence on determining and imposing educational policy on the periphery on the basis of the homeland’s financial support of education in the diaspora, and as a way to neutralize the Church’s engagement with educational affairs.

Nevertheless, despite assertions that the center should and is willing to depart from an approach that views diasporic communities as identical and fixed historical and cultural entities within which Greekness remains a constant, Greece continues to maintain the same attitudes in its engagement with the diaspora. The notion of Greekness emanates from what Greece considers and defines as certain absolute and exclusive ideas of ethnicity and authenticity. Defining and determining the content to Greekness are policies that have been consistently promoted by the center, and accepted by the periphery’s leadership and the majority of Greek diasporic communities. Blood, language, and culture are the elements that are employed to impose the notion of Greekness on diasporic communities.

Alexander Kitroeff and others have, of course, argued for a more dynamic and fluid definition of Greekness, which would defy a fixed racial, linguistic, and cultural content, but their views constitute a minority. Much depends on the government’s direct involvement with the Greek diaspora, however, as well as its patronizing of the educational and cultural landscape. People are hesitant to invest and promote a notion of Greek identity that is fundamentally different from the one promoted by the center. Which is another reason to look at the experience of other ethnic communities, especially those that might not, at first glance, seem to be particularly relevant to Greek diasporic reality.

Ien Ang’s On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West is a comprehensive and complex discussion of the way diasporic communities attempt to define themselves and construct identity. Ang uses her personal experience as a non-Chinese-speaking ethnic Chinese woman — born in Indonesia, educated in the Netherlands, now living in Sydney — to theorize on the different definitions of “Chineseness” for disparate Chinese diasporic communities. She reflects on the ever-changing relationship between immigrant and host communities, on that between center and periphery, and on the different ways that communities and individuals choose to construct their identities. For these and other reasons On Not Speaking Chinese provides a valuable and useful theoretical perspective and framework for exploring the topic of the Greek diaspora.

In her introduction, Ang contemplates the complexity of attempting to construct an identity based on two contradictory categories. Identifying someone as “Asian-American” implies a particular form of schizophrenic hybridity since, being Asian, as Ang points out, means “being non-Western.” This “double consciousness” characterizes the Greek American and Greek Australian communities, and points to the definitional ambiguity that characterizes them. Although the concept of “double consciousness” in Greeks of the diaspora has been touched upon before, it has not received detailed attention, despite the fact that this particular form of identity construction is significant in understanding the relationship between host and immigrant environments.

The construction of identity in diasporic communities is motivated by two major impulses/desires. The first seeks an identity related to a homeland that will impart strong cultural, historical, and racial roots to the diasporic community. This form of identity requires a strong connection between center/homeland and periphery/diaspora. The second seeks an identity that imparts cultural roots to the diasporic community but at the same time remains autonomous from a homeland, and consequently from a “territorially bounded nation.” Ang is critical of both approaches. Whether constructing an identity in relation to a homeland or in opposition to/autonomy from one, diasporic communities remain closed communities characterized by both exclusionary and inclusive mechanisms.

In Greek communities, identity is constructed by means of a strong connection to the homeland, which determines the elements that define Greekness. Although there are obvious tendencies within these communities to assume identity mechanisms that are distinct and autonomous from the homeland, they are continually opposed. The dynamics of such forms of identity construction have received little scholarly attention. In his article, Alexander Kitroeff referred to Professor Michalis Damanakis’s concept of politismiko elahisto, that is, to “forms of Greekness found among Greeks abroad…assimilated into their host societies and which, in extremis, entail…an elementary, imagined, or myth-based form of Greek identity…based on a minimal sense of culture.” What Damanakis defines as politismiko elahisto, Ang refers to as the “outer border of the diaspora”: a porous, malleable area of assimilation and a continuous shift, in Ang’s case, between Chinese and non-Chinese, or, in Damanakis’s case, Greek and non-Greek. Damanakis’s concept of the politismiko elahisto elicited a very negative reaction at the Rethymno conference. Assimilation in diasporic communities is considered anathema to Greekness by both community leaders and politicians in the center and the periphery. This “outer border of the diaspora,” according to these leaders and politicians, compromises the construction of a Greek identity based on race, culture, history, and language.

The strong reaction against it has resulted, with very few exceptions, in a lack of analysis and study of this particular form of Greek identity. The consequences of avoiding this issue can be significant. As Ang points out, in an era dominated by multiculturalism and globalization, the “border area” is increasingly becoming that which defines diasporic communities in their majority. To understand these communities today, it is essential to understand the assimilation zone. This is especially true of the Greek American and Greek Australian communities today. An ever-increasing process of assimilation and transmutation defines both. The politismiko elahisto is becoming the main form of identity construction in Greek communities. The Greek government’s insistence on focusing on non-prevalent forms of identity construction signifies the beginning of the end of the center’s ability to determine diasporic identity. It also signifies the gradual elimination of the possibility of playing a role in the intercultural processes and developments taking place within the politistiko elahisto framework.

It is time for Greece and the leadership of the Greek diasporic communities to begin focusing on the different definitions of Greekness that are characterized by “hybridization” and “intercultural encounters.” It is also time to begin supporting the scholarly and systematic examination of these processes in the Greek diaspora. Ien Ang’s challenging and brilliant paradigm of theoretical analysis and personal experience is a rare model for exploring and understanding the Greek diaspora.

In addition to being a co-founder of greekworks.com, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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