On March 23, 2013 at Seattle’s Greek Independence Day celebration, University of Washington student Demetra Xenos presented a Commemoration Speech. That speech and the Youtube video of her presentation are the latest donations to the Museum Collection
Socrates once said “Anybody can be a Hellene, by his heart, his mind, his spirit.” So it poses the question, what does it mean to be Greek? Well for starters, it means that there is way too much to squeeze into a five minute speech, but I’ll try my best.
You see, my answer to this question has changed throughout the years. In elementary school, I would have told you that being Greek means something along the lines of bragging rights to the coolest culture ever. In middle school, I would have told you that it means stereotypes of gyros and olives, cringing when teachers pronounced letters as “Gah-mma” and “Beh-ta”, and groaning whenever students asked “So, you’re Greek…does this mean you worship Zeus?” In high school, I would have told that it means uniqueness, albeit one in the form of a big nose, a funny accent, and a name nobody can pronounce, but uniqueness nonetheless.
But now, now as a university student, the question becomes nearly impossible to answer. Being Greek is much more than bubbling “Other” for race on an exam. It is much more than correcting people on the pronunciations of letters and words during school. And it is much more than simply being proud of one’s heritage.
Being Greek means having an unparalleled history. We gave the world democracy, philosophy, and politics. We gave the world thinkers, writers, and leaders. We gave the world language, theater, and mathematics. We gave the world the keys to civilization. And let’s not forget that we overthrew the Turks to win our independence, played a key role in WWII by holding back the Germans and Italians, and said OXI to Mussolini’s attempt to occupy our land. That’s a pretty impressive record for a country that’s smaller than the state of Alabama.
Being Greek means being united. We have a unity through our cultural activities, from Greek dance to AHEPA and its organizations. We have a unity through our oikoyenia, one that is much larger than the simple nuclear family and spans cousins, Nounas and Nounos, god brothers and god sisters. And most importantly, we have a unity through our Greek Orthodox faith, which keeps us united in times of hardships and times of peace.
Being Greek means having parea. It means having people that share your same laughs and sorrows understand when you randomly throw in some Gringlish in a sentence and why spending time with Yiayia is just as important to you as a sleepover with your friends. It means having a community like this to lean upon in times of need, to talk about everything in life over tavli and kafe, to come together to celebrate our heritage. The parea that we share through our Hellenism means, that anywhere in the world, when you meet someone Greek, you have an instant bond, an instant friend, and instant family.
Being Greek means living life. Our culture is the epitome of the word kefi. We’re loud, we’re fun, and we’re passionate. We are constantly finding the joy in life, turning struggles into opportunities. We speak our minds, using untranslatable words like philotimo and agape that express so much more emotion than anything in English. And sometimes we even create our own Gringlish hybrids. We eat a lot, we laugh freely, and we love openly. We as a people are the living, breathing representation of kefi.
Being Greek means having a never ending source of inspiration. Yes, our historical figures like General Metaxas and Socrates are inspiring, but we mustn’t forget that we have our very own history makers in our daily lives. Papous and Yiayias, Theos and Theas, Babas and Mamas, they are all an inspiration. Their stories, their struggles, their contributions as Greek Americans, are truly remarkable whether or not they’ve been published in a history textbook. As President Obama poignantly recognized, in his 2012 Greek Independence Day Proclamation, “for generations, Greek Americans have profoundly enriched our national life. They stand as leaders in every field and every part of our society, and their cultural legacy still echoes in classrooms, courtrooms, and communities across the nation.”
Being Greek means being proud. Proud of our ancestors and their accomplishment, from Aristotle and his theories to Yiayia and her ability to move to a new land, without speaking any of the language, and make something out of nothing. Proud of our traditions, from roasting lamb at Easter to celebrating names more than birthdays, and proud of being a part of preserving the world’s richest, most spectacular and valuable culture by being involved in our ministries, in GOYA, and in AHEPA and its auxiliaries.
When I received an invitation to speak tonight, I thought “Yeah, sure, why not? I talk about my Greekiness all time.” But I was not prepared for the challenge I would face while preparing this. To say what being Greek means is extremely difficult for me to articulate because it’s something that I truly believe cannot possibly be expressed in words alone. It’s a feeling. It’s an energy. It’s a lifestyle. It’s those inside jokes of “Greek Kid Problems”, those memories of Yiayia’s cooking and Papou’s stories, and those shared bonds of the dance program, of Sunday school, and of Maids of Athena and Sons of Pericles. It’s knowledge of an unparalleled history. It’s the blood running through our veins. It’s truly having the spirit of an Ellenes.
In the words of Maria Portokalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, we “are lucky to be Greek”. Because being Greek means something that no other culture can possibly replicate. It means history, parea, and kefi. It means inspiration, pride, and agape. Being Greek means you, it means me, and it means all of us, all of this, here tonight.
Efharisto para poli, kai pali mia fora, zhto hellas.