One of my all time favorite movies is My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The brainchild of Greek-Canadian comedian and writer, Nia Vardalos, who wrote the script and starred in the movie, it surpassed all expectations by grossing a cool 238 million dollars. Not bad for an independent film, in fact, it is in the top fifty highest grossing films of all time. The film is a hilarious comedy that details the trials and tribulations of a Greek American thirty something spinster named Toula who falls in love with a WASP schoolteacher. The story of their courtship and wedding interspersed with the frequent involvement of her parents and extended family speaks volumes about the Greek immigrant experience. Its popularity owes much to the universal aspect of the story and characters that permeates the movie and appeals to all people regardless of their ethnic identity. MBFGW really touched me, however, because it was a reflection, in part, of my own immigrant experience. It made me laugh so hard I cried.
In my humble opinion, Nia has been able to capture the very essence of the Greek immigrant family trying to negotiate the pitfalls of living in a multi-ethnic society while trying to retain their sense of Greekness. When I first saw the movie in a packed theater I found myself often laughing at certain points when the rest of the audience watched in silence. Perhaps Nia was talking to the general audience but in her own special way she was talking to those of us who shared her experience of growing up Greek in America or Canada. She has also been able to give Greek Americans something else, the precious ability to laugh at ourselves.
Interestingly, some Greeks and even a few Greek Americans were insulted by what they saw as caricatures of themselves. Speaking to friends in Greece I found that MBFGW was not as popular there as it was in the States. The Greek daily, Kathimerini wrote that "it is not a flattering film. Those that have seen the movie might not be all that happy at its surprising success abroad." Opinions about this film typify the gap between Greeks abroad and Greeks in the Patrida. Greek immigrants reflect in large measure a mythological version of a Greece that existed when they or the parents or grandparents immigrated. They are mostly socially conservative as exemplified by the hope that their children will marry other Greeks, their strong attachment to their family, the Church, and their adherence to standards and mores that are dying in modern Greece. In my own rural hometown, we have a Greek community centered around our 100 year old Church that is a microcosm in many ways of an insular Greek "horio" or village. Many diasporan Greeks have no idea what life in present day Greece is really like since they subsist on an idealized version handed down over the generations. During my frequent visits to Greece, friends and relatives are often astounded by some of my opinions, familiar to older Greeks, rather foreign to younger ones. I often hear the refrain "you are more Greek than we are."
Just about every Greek has a relative living in a diasporan community. Unfortunately, their understanding of us is not much better than our understanding of them. Many see us as naive, simplistic, tainted, "horiates" ( villagers) epitomizing all the foibles of the nouveau riche. The reality of Diasporan Greeks is difficult for those Greeks living in Greece to fathom. Stelios Vasilakis in his essay appearing in Greekworks.com entitled "Forging An Identity" writes: " the experience of displacement, being away from one's homeland, can be interpreted as embittering and frustrating. From another standpoint, however, the challenge of fusing or living between different worlds, languages, cultures and identities is a rich and enriching experience, as well as liberating. Certain members of the community are marked by the desire to return to the rhythms of a lived historical past or in the case of second and third generation Greek Americans or Greek Australians a familiar historical past, while others are marked by the desire to experience an immemorial present."
Michael Constantine, a Greek American actor who plays Toula's Dad in the movie, proclaims at one point "they are two types of people in the world, Greeks and those that wish they was." What MBFGW has crystallized in my mind is that there are two types of Greeks in this world, diasporan and those living in the Patrida. Maybe it's time we Greeks started talking to and trying to understand each other so we can bridge the gap. We'll all be better off for it.