Back in the nineteen eighties, when I was young, it was not uncommon for youthful members of the first generation to congregate over the consumption of foodstuffs and extol the virtues of their race, in contrast with those of their Australian counterparts. Playing at their feet, we would learn with wonder that Australians were of inferior stock, deriving their origins from petty thieves who owed their presence in this country to penal servitude in the form of transportation for crimes committed.
Greek migrants on the other hand, were honest toilers who had never been to jail and were possessed of something known as "Αξιοπρέπεια.»
In their vast majority, Australians were not «αξιοπρεπείς.» There were tell-tale signs of this, ranging from the Aussie boss who would come to work dressed in unironed pants and shirt because his wife could not be bothered looking after him. Unlike Greeks, they left their infants unwashed, and usually scantily clad to play in the dirt and then wondered why their children were always sick. Then of course, there was that large proportion of Aussie dole bludgers who came in stark juxtaposition to the hard working Greeks who worked extra shifts in order to better their families and did not spend all of their hard earned savings on smokes and booze. Whereas Australians lived day to day and often ran out of money by the end of the week, one uncle assured me, in a darkened room, as it was a waste of electricity to turn on the lights at night, Greeks planned for the future, setting money carefully aside for their children. As a result, Greeks who had migrated to this country with nothing, paid of their home and bought others in record time, while Aussies languished with a mortgage that would not be paid off in their lifetimes.
Part of the reason why Australians were held to be so inferior to Greeks in this way, was inextricably linked to their lack of pedigree. Unlike Greeks, who could boast of a four thousand year old continuous culture in which such concepts as democracy, architecture and philosophy were developed and which presumably permeated every aspect of village life in Greece, Australians were devoid of culture and tradition. Consequently, they were devoted to such strange things such as VFL Football and their idea of a traditional «χορό» was to get together, drink themselves paralytic and dance the "Nutbush."
Inevitably, a lack of history meant that Australians would lack one particular element that was a prerequisite for greatness, that existed in large quantities within the Greek and was the binding element of its community: «Φιλότιμο.» According to the most impassioned pundits, this term could not be translated into English, for this was a concept that could not be understood by the Anglo-Saxon. Within it resided a labyrinthine collection of social norms who main aim was mutual social obligation, regulating behavior and reactions so that one could be highly regarded by their peers. Generosity, hospitality and compassion were also inextricably linked to this concept, attributes foreign to the Australian, who, regardless of how many times you would give him fresh produce from your garden, would never return the favour, and despite the countless times you helped him move in, or paint a fence or look after his children, would consider all these as counting for nothing and would pounce on you, if your trees encroached upon his property, unless they were fruit-trees, in which case, he would consider it his right to help himself and then tell you off.
Whereas Greeks would invite Australians into their homes readily, Austalians would not. When a much coveted invitation was ever received, the Greek would be surprised at the paucity of foodstuffs offered to guests, commenting that they would be lucky to be provided with more than a beer and musing that this is for the best since Australian homes were invariably filthy and messy to boot.
The reason for this messiness had to do with the Australian female who had no sense of obligation and did not realize that a clean home and clean children were a direct reflection on herself and her family. In general, Australian females were to be avoided. They were selfish, expecting their menfolk to cook and clean, bad mothers, given that they were only interested in themselves, neglectful of their parents, who they shut up in nursing homes, shamelessly not caring a jot about «τι θα πει ο κόσμος» and of particularly loose morals, seeing nothing wrong with having sex before or during marriage with a serial number of partners. What is worse, they brought up their daughters to be equally as negligent, loose and predatory. First generation young Greek mothers at this point would cluck their tongues relating with perverse horror stories of how young good Greek girls from good families were being led astray by their Australian friends, venturing into - shock horror! - nightclubs. Furthermore, good Greek boys were being tempted by the loose morals of Australian girls into the nail in the coffin for most Greek families - a mixed marriage, something too beastly to contemplate. Thereupon they would enter into a long listing of all those undeserving families who had endured the perversity of a mixed marriage, ending the evening with a mutual vowing never to let their daughters out of the house and a quoting of the popular sayings: «'Ελληνας να'ναι και ο,τι να' ναι,» and «Παπούτσι από τον τόπο σου, κι ας είναι μπαλωμένο.»
Some thirty years later, it is remarkable how such stereotypes have been well and truly discarded in the public Greek discourse. Rather than insisting that their children adhere to the behavioural strictures of the past, the youngest of the first generation parents, who more often than not arrived here at an early age, generally justify departures from the by now musty behaviour code of true Greekness to their contemporaries, through the chanting of the expiatory mantra: «Δεν πειράζει, ας είναι τα παιδία καλά και ευτυχισμένα.» What this shows us, is not that the first generation would not dearly love their children to follow the old ways, but rather that parental discipline is not what it once was and that as they grow older, the first generation have realized that a power imbalance is about to weigh heavily on the side of their offspring. If they antagonize them too much, and interfere in their lives, causing disquiet, instead of being looked after and honoured by a loving family to the end of their days, more likely than not, they will be placed in a «γηροκομείο.» This word, is synonymous with Hell and forms the final Greek-Australian yardstick of success. Where we now accept to our children's hitherto non-traditional lifestyles, their disengagement from the affairs of the organized Greek community and their ethnically mixed families, to accept stark displays of filial impiety is to negate the concept of the family, which is still, at least in the minds of the first generation, their primary indicator of identity.
Stereotypes are enduring, even when the basis behind their formulation is long gone. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, described in various recent newspaper articles as referring to a tradesman as "just a big Greek bullshit artist," and complaining that a brick fence constructed for her by the said Greek bullshitter needed re-building in order "to try and stop it looking quite as Greek, dare one say," does not mean that our Prime Minister is necessarily a racist, despite the howls of shock and anger that have reached hysterical proportions in some sections of our community. After all, Julia Gillard's provision of two million dollars to the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria for the construction of the cultural centre, coupled with the unassuming and thoroughly comfortable manner in which she consorted with members of the Greek community at this year's Antipodes Festival surely refutes any suspicion that the PM harbours a prejudice against Greeks. More likely, in her statement, she was doing what most people of the world do, repeating a stereotype, not in order to denigrate a race, but to distance herself from a particular person.
When taken out of context the stereotypes we employ, often seem virulent and harmful. Yet in the case of the stereotypes propagated by Greek-Australians of their Aussie counterparts, it is important to note that while such stereotypes were in existence, their prevalence in no way jeopardized or poisoned relation between Greeks and Australians. On the contrary the esteem in which they are held by Australians, mattered, as it continuous to matter to members of the Greek community. Even while nursing the prejudices mentioned above, the Greek people immersed themselves into all aspects of Australian social life, to the extent that the current emerging generations are, save for a few cosmetic points, culturally indistinguishable from their Australian counterparts and football is the major form of worship in an increasing number of Greek families - as are exhortations in Greek to players at football matches. Our stereotypes, along with those spoken by our PM are merely that, the stuff of fluff and nonsense that in no way prejudice the harmony and tolerance to whose end we have all worked so hard to achieve.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 8 September 2012