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Essay: Somewhere in the Middle

By Photine Liakos

“Could you repeat that?” I ask the bank employee seated across the desk from me.

She does.

I look at my lawyer, waiting for a simplification of what I’ve just heard.

I’m solid in conversational Greek, but this is beyond me –– the trappings and nuances of such bureaucratic language leave me bewildered. It’s a language of its own. Navigating the convoluted details involved in inheritance issues –– in a foreign language, no less –– is daunting.

I can converse in Greek without an accent. I’ll admit to conjugating irregular verbs incorrectly on occasion. My reading ability hovers at about a third-grade level, my writing even more limited. But for the most part people assume I’m a native, based on the way I speak.

It’s not accurate though. I may sound Greek, speaking with a distinctive Athenian accent even, but it’s an illusion when it comes down to topics more complicated than shopping, eating out, or casual conversations with family members.

The conversational skills I do have are a legacy from my grandmother, this ability to be casually bilingual. It traces back to the nightly bedtime stories she read to me in Greek when I was young.

My grandmother vowed she would never follow my parents to the US. She had no interest in traveling overseas. Air travel made her anxious. That all changed when I started preschool and the Greek I had swiftly disappeared. She was horrified at the idea her only grandchild would someday be unable to communicate with her. She made yearly trips from then on, often lasting half a year or more, to keep the language close to me. So she could remain close to me.

The language has stayed with me because of her.

My parents and I always spoke in this mix of Greek and English –– Grenglish — the result of years of living in the States and the easy fluidity of switching from one language to the other when the right words won’t come to mind. It doesn’t require active thought –– we didn't even notice when we would switch mid-sentence. As the years passed our speech skewed far more to English, except at moments of heightened emotion when my parents would fall back into their original Greek.

It is a liminal space, being connected to Greece by language primarily, without the other components that exist to define ethnicity and culture.

My parents emigrated by happenstance –– two professors of art history who were invited for a short lecture tour of US universities. Weeks of planned lectures became months, which in turn expanded to long-term visiting professorships, which eventually led to job offers and tenure.

A one-year odyssey transformed into a forty-year legacy of teaching university students about the art and archaeology of their homeland.

Me? I was along for the ride.

I think the idea that initially this was not a permanent resettlement kept them grounded in a Greek mindset. They came here with the expectation that it would be a short-term stay, but ended up living in the US for most of their lives.

This resulted in an odd sort of assimilation, an assimilation that provided somewhat of a veneer of fitting in. My parents believed they were raising me as they had been raised; in later years I would find that inaccurate, as I compared notes with my Greek cousins and found they were accorded a level of freedom that I did not have in the US. The combination of being in a foreign country and an inherent anxiety about this unfamiliar society they found themselves in, resulted in my parents being far more restrictive and protective –– truly helicopter parents years before the term became common –– than their counterparts in Greece. In fact, far more restrictive than their own experiences.

As one might expect, this led to some conflict. To a resentment on my part for having restrictions placed on me that my counterparts didn’t have, to focusing the bulk of my frustration on the Greek elements of my upbringing for making me feel different, foreign, out of place. The language. The food. The stereotypes. The times I would cringe in my school classrooms, my parents the invited lecturers for the day and the inevitable jokes that would follow me for weeks: about the naked statues, the lustful myths, my parents' accents, and other unsavory comments about Greeks in general. I did not want my Greek heritage to be the factor that most identified me. The pride my parents expected me to have in being Greek was more of a sullen acceptance when I was young.

It wasn’t much better overseas, when I visited Greece. I didn’t quite fit in there either. I didn’t dress like my counterparts, wasn't familiar with the day-to-day slang, didn’t get the jokes or cultural references, had a cadence of speech that was just a bit off.

Not quite one or the other.

Unconsciously, I made a choice. It was easier to lean into the familiar and inescapable culture of the US. I did not think of myself primarily as a Greek, as my parents did. Or a Greek-American, as some of their acquaintances did. I was an American of Greek origin. It’s a subtle difference in wording, but it’s what felt most accurate.

As I sit in this bank in Athens, sifting through the mounds of paperwork needed to settle my mother’s affairs, I feel the gap in my knowledge, my ability, the incompleteness of my duality.

As I sort through my grandmother’s belongings, I don’t know the weight of the history behind the objects, the significance of the portraits on the walls, the knowledge held in the books on the shelves.

I can’t even read the letters my father sent his mother during the war.

There is a void there, a blank space I don’t have the ability to fill. A missing piece of the puzzle of who I am.

My children rest comfortably in their own spaces. They have a knowledge of their heritage — Greek/Indian/Swedish –– but they have no expectations put upon them in regard to that legacy.

It’s where their families came from, but does not define who they are.


About the author:

Photine Liakos has spent her career as an orthopaedic surgeon. She received both her undergraduate degree in Comparative Arts and her medical degree from Washington University in St. Louis. Her Pushcart Prize nominated writing has been featured in Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine. She has essays in the book “What We Bring to the Practice of Medicine: Perspectives from Women Physicians.” Writing makes her feel like she is more than a small cog in a big machine. Baking is her love language. She is endlessly fascinated by all things related to J.R.R. Tolkien and The Beatles. Photine can be found @music_in_the_or on Instagram.

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