Last week an intelligent nine-year-old boy, ever so full of beans, asked me: 'Dimitri, what nationality are you?'
Joel is a student at the run-down inner-city primary school where I work as a volunteer teacher-aid.
'Nothing complicated,' I answered, grinning. 'My dad's Greek and my mum's Australian.'
'What kind of Aussie is your mum?' asked Joel.
'She's Scottish/Irish/Cornish, with some English thrown in.' I was impressed — if Generation Y has such inquisitive minds our world's future is looking awfully bright.
'My dad's half Greek, half English and my mum's half Argentinian, half German,' he announced proudly.
'Wow,' I replied, 'what a mixture! Makes mine look awfully simple.' We high-fived and returned to class.
Joel's a typical example of the pupils at the school, who come, on average, from three or four different nationalities. My own mixed heritage appears ever so simple compared to theirs yet I've been letting it confuse, depress, and stress me for decades.
Every time I enter the grade 3/4 classroom I am, in my mind, returned to the late '70s, when I was a pupil at a suburban Anglican primary school for two-and-a-half years.
In a predominantly Anglo-Saxon/Celtic school I was a mixed bag of Celtic and Greek.
Sure there were Polish, German, Indonesian, Chinese and Indian kids at school, but they were not products of a mixed marriage. I was a rarity.
Still, we all seemed to get on famously. Racism was not an issue, segregation was an unknown concept, and now I see similarities between that school and the primary school at which I do volunteer work today. In both cases 'acceptance' seems to be the key word.
Acceptance — now there's a word that took years to strike a chord with me, to become integrated into my vocabulary and psyche.
Whenever my Greek father picked me up from school, I'd be struck by sheer panic. What do I do now? I thought. Should I hide from him, or should I run over and tell him to meet me in the car? I'm ashamed of his appearance and accent. Doesn't he know that? I've told him so.
Yes, my father was a thorn in the flesh back then. Part of me was terrified that my mates would fall about laughing the moment he opened his mouth. Now I think someone once giggled at my father's strong foreign accent. But only once! That occasion, though, was enough for me to construct a sophisticated denial of my father's existence, so that I could maintain my position within my group of school friends.
Once the '70s had drawn to a close the tables were turned on me. Dramatically.
Gone was my little suburban heaven, my father having decided to relocate the family to Greece. By September 1980 I was forced to face certain harsh realities. In my new class, I was the odd one out. I was the one with a foreign accent. I was different from the other kids, and I knew it.
In Australia I had never been taunted or bullied because of my migrant father, but in the village, I was ridiculed and bullied, sometimes physically, because I was half-foreign, and because my mother was entirely so. Within months I considered my mother the new thorn in the flesh, and I began to do my best to deny her existence.
Back in Australia in March, 2008, I look up at the class clock: it's 3.30, and the kids of grade 3/4 are dashing gleefully to the door. They've just broken up for school holidays. Before I get the chance to become melancholy (again!) over my tormented school years in Greece, I take a look at the kids and remember Miss Sarah, their teacher, telling me: 'Dimitri, more than three quarters of these kids are from single parent families.'
I can't afford to become melancholy, and I won't. At least both my parents were around and saw me through my school years, for better or for worse. Sorry Mum, sorry Dad, for turning my back on you both.
Dimitrios Bouras has spent half his life in Greece and half in Melbourne, the city of his birth. He has worked in various areas, including teaching English as a foreign language, interpreting and translating. He does regular volunteer work at a local school.
Flickr image by Georgios Karamanis
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04 June 2008
Thank you Dimitrios for your story. It touched a nerve! I am from English/Irish background, I even have convicts in the family tree. I married a lovely man from the Island of Mauritius and we had three children. I have printed out your story for them to read and in doing so check out their experience of growing up with an Australian/Mauritian mix.
06 June 2008
I read your story with great interest, and I feel for your earlier torment which was real for you. You obviously have a great talent for self expression.
In 2004 I visited some of the Greek village places you spent part of your life in.
Iam an Australian with a distant British German background. I am married to a woman with similar plus Irish background. Ours is the traditional Australian mix.
However personally, I find the offspring of a more diverse ethnic mix usually the more interesting, as they have even broader experiences to call upon.
I would like to say to anyone who has had a perceived ethnic baggage weighing them down, "be unashamedly proud of your mix" and remember the advice of Desiderata (which is stapled to the inside our toilet door).
We are all children of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, and we have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to us, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
28 June 2008
Congratulations Dimitri on your articulate writing. It needs to be published widely to bring more understanding to those who do not think.
I knew your mother in primary school, I too had a sheltered early life, a child of Scottish, Irish and English pioneering ancestry, I can understand her lonliness and difficulties living in Greece. I'm sure your father was also teased at school in Australia.
Our children were teased when we moved to the USA because they had strange accents, each struggled quietly, one finally rebelled and blamed us for his problems. Like you, all could finally speak about it intelligently and even thank us for the opportunity of travel.
13 March 2013
Good on you, Dimitri, you're an Aussie gem! People like you (& your parents) have made this place what it is & a damned good place it is in comparison with other places where for various reasons, often totally selfish, "multiculturalism" (probably best replaced by "tolerant cosmopolitan") has failed. I think, given the sort of ethno-religious strife that exists in parts of the UK & Europe we may have to show the way. There are always ethno-religious "leaders" who stir things up as much as the local rat bags. Fortunately, it appears that many groups, like the Muslim community, is becoming aware of this and are distancing themselves from such people. Ethnic gangs & ethnic crime - long a problem in the USA - are developments we need to avoid.