A while ago, some old friends visited from out of town – their first time in New England. My mother, who was also visiting, doted on them with her old-country Greek hospitality, as she does on anyone spending an overnight.
Today, she speaks fondly of their visit, always referring to them as “Gregory and Victoria, those nice Polish kids.” I found her use of the ethnic label interesting in that Greg and Vik were born and raised in central Pennsylvania, into third generation families of Polish Catholic descent.
But tagging someone by national ancestry isn’t so odd for her generation, particularly having grown up during the Depression in New York City, an immigrant-rich place if ever there was one. In fact, the practice still continues in most big cities today, an exception to politically correct attempts to whitewash such popular monikers
What PC purveyors often deride now as stereotyping at best, or racism at worst, was the de rigueur way of identifying someone when Mom was growing up – by ethnic background or religion. While somehow managing to turn these into combustible subjects today, in the 1930s it was just the way things were.
That seemed to suit everyone just fine. Neighborhoods often defined an ethnic group, and in many ways, in urban areas, still do so. Astoria was the Greek place. Russians could be found at Brighton Beach. Today, in Boston, the North End remains decidedly Italian, and Charlestown proudly Irish. And how many cities have a Chinatown?
Religion played a key role in classification. Catholics tended to be heavily split between Italians and Irish, and Jews mostly hailed from Eastern European backgrounds.
Years ago I heard a friend of Mom’s – someone of her generation – refer to my sister’s husband as “that awfully polite German boy.” I tried to figure out who she was talking about when I recalled my brother-in-law’s Teutonic last name, and his family’s nth generation presence in the U.S. For a moment there, I thought my sister had moved to Stuttgart and got hitched.
This habit isn’t exclusive to the U.S. Geography plays a further role in ethnic IDs; at least it did for me when overseas during my Army service. In Germany, my neighbors in the farming village where I lived knew me as “Leutnant Halkias, der Griechische offizier” (“Lt. Halkias, the Greek officer,” which must have been news to my buddies in U.S. uniform).
The same held true in the Middle East during the Gulf War. In a group of U.S. troops, Arabs would always single me out as “the Greek one,” and treated me differently as a result. There, those of Anglo-Saxon heritage are more likely to be viewed as “Americans,” while others of Mediterranean lineage as someone closer in cultural norms and mentality.
The trend is strong in every other European country I’ve visited; even naturalized citizens or second and third generations are routinely referred to as “the Turkish mailman” or “the Indians who own that restaurant.”
The irony in all this? As a teenager in Greece, my native friends referred to me as “to Amerikanaki” (“the little American”), a derisive term that they foisted my way far more gently than they would to someone else.
Even in northern New England, arguably the least diverse states in the U.S., there is a strong French Canadian presence, especially up north. Once, when hunting for fresh veggies on a weekend, I was told to go see “the French guy at the farm stand,” only to find a Good ol’ Yankee whose family had settled here from Quebec more than a century earlier.
The trend continues, and by choice: a good friend of mine had once proudly baptized her nascent bakery “Crazy Russian Girls.”
There are so many permutations and combinations of how we identify others by ethnic group or religion. To be sure, the subject is far bigger than I can cover here, and it would be disingenuous if I didn’t acknowledge these same handles can be used by racists.
But that’s not the case with Mom. She’s just looking forward to Greg and Vik’s next visit, if only to show off her skills at cooking their native pierogi.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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