My father’s parents were born in a small village in the Peloponnese. They were kind and humble people that eventually made their way to Athens. My mother’s parents were born in Kafkaso, a town in Minor Asia, which at that time belonged to Greece. With the war of 1921, the Turks forced my mother’s parents to flee to Athens. They were wealthy and proud, as were many Pontian Greeks at that time. Both of my parents were born in Athens in the fifties. My mother left Athens in 1969, America bound and my father followed soon after.
Born to immigrant parents in the United States has had its challenges. I was raised in a Greek household with Greek morals and ideals, which at often times clash with those of American culture. The outside world is perceived inversely when your inside world is conducted in a completely different manner. However, having been born to immigrant parents I have the ability to empathize with other cultures. This is a gift, which in this field I have often times used.
One of the traditions that have been passed down in my family, thanks to our culture, is attending church every Sunday. Church, for Greek-Americans, is more than just a place of worship; it is also a communal gathering. Through church attendance we maintain our religious traditions, language, Sunday school, even meet our future mates. Even though some Greeks marry outside of the culture most choose partners with the same ethnic background. Many may argue that this is a form of brainwash from our parents but those of us that have married outside our culture tend to think our parents were correct.
In addition to attending church nearly every Sunday and attempting to stick to our own, Greeks are very affectionate people. As a race, we publicly and obviously like to show our love for one another. At times, I have found my non-Greek friends taken aback by my affectionate demeanor. We kiss friends upon meeting, touch them often during conversation, brush a bit of food off of their face, if need be, and ask a lot of personal questions. We do all this and expect the same in return. If this affection is not reciprocated we feel as if we are not loved in the same way. This is a perfect example of a culture clash. Greeks lay out their dirty laundry for friends to help find solutions or to simply console them while Americans see discussing personal matters as taboo (Cabral & Smith, 2011). Being an American woman raised by Greek parents, this can become confusing at times.
Regardless of the differences between Greek and American culture, I consider myself extremely lucky to be a part of both ethnicities. I am proud to be an American because this land is beautiful in more ways than one. America has given me opportunities to do things with my life of which citizens in other countries have only dreamt. However, my pride to be Greek does, at times, run a little deeper. I suppose I could thank my parents for this intense love of Greece, but the truth is that I really am proud of my heritage and its 2,500-year-old history. As a family, we are proud of my parents’ accomplishments more than my or my brother’s. Although immigrants that to this day barely speak English, my parents managed to raise one doctor and a soon to be clinical mental health therapist in pursuit of her PhD.
Greeks are not easily ashamed of many things. As long as they attend church and educate their children everything else is just a bump in the road. A common misconception amongst many is that the Greek Orthodox Church is strict. Our church has changed with the times. Situations like divorce, abortion, and homosexual partnerships are not celebrated but they are accepted. Since the Church in understanding and caring Greeks often times confess whatever it is they may be ashamed of and then move on with their lives. It may sound strange to others, but it is the essence of the Greek culture.
This essence of Greek culture does place a stigma on Greeks trying to co-exist with Americans (Hays, 2008). Since I was a little, I recall standing up for my parents when they were being mocked, due to their accent. I remember my brother stepping in countless times when others were trying to take advantage of my parents through the language barrier. Even though reminiscing on these instances is upsetting, I realize that without having experiences the other end of these battles I would not have the compassion I do today for immigrants and their children. However, I do recognize that other than the language barrier, being White European in the United States does make things easier.
Being White European has allowed my parents to start their own successful auto body shop facility. Since we opened the shop in an impoverished neighborhood we were given grants to help us get started. In addition, many customers that visited the other body shop, not owned by white people, have become our most loyal clients. At often times I hear customers say that our shop is very clean and dependable like something you would expect to see on the north side. In Chicago, the south side, where our shop located, is primarily African American while the north side is predominately white.
Hearing African Americans prefer the north side to their own neighborhood explains to me why racism is still so prevalent. Greeks may prefer to marry their own but one thing we are not is racist. In all my years of being raised in a home where not only was English never even spoken but the television was always tuned in to a Greek station, I never heard a word about racism or discrimination from my parents. This logical and pure world-view my parents have given me has molded me into a young woman that can see things through the eyes of individuals from various backgrounds. I am able to relate to a young Mexican-American girl whose parents simply do not understand her, because I have been there.
Children of immigrant parents live two different lives; one is the role they play at home and the other is the role they play in American society. At a younger age, it is hard to deal with these unsteady lifestyle changes and can be negatively affected by the confusion as an adult (Hays, 2008). As a clinical mental health counselor I will be able to tell my patient that, not only do I know exactly how they feel, but I also know how to help them through their dilemma. However, if a patient from a diverse background that, I am not familiar with seeks my help, I will do my homework and prepare myself to counsel this individual in ways that will help build a concrete relationship between us, with mutual respect. Without a strong bond a therapist will not get very far in their counseling sessions and treatments (Hays, 2008).
Being Greek-American I will have to be wary of certain ethnic groups that I may overwhelm. For instance, Indian culture does not promote affection or even the open discussion of personal issues. As long as what you are doing with your life is for the well being of the family, your happiness is secondary. My culture hugs their family, cries with their family, hates and immediately after loves their family, unconditionally. As a therapist, I must place any bias thoughts about a certain cultures family unit to the side and empathize with my patient. This will not be an easy feat but never the less essential in my clinical career.
These barriers and many more must be torn down before one can successfully treat a mentally distraught individual. Multicultural awareness is key. It teaches therapists that each of us is born into a culture with existing beliefs and traditions and that each of these effects the way we perceive the world (Sue & Sue, 35). A good therapist should be aware that social and demographic factors strongly influence society’s views on particular groups of people. In return, this also affects how these individuals interpret their role in society, be it good or bad.
A therapist that works with patients of various backgrounds must be prepared to alter their strategy to better fulfill the needs of this particular patient. This is easier said than done. Even the DSM-IV has been strongly criticized for its lack of multiculturalism. Regardless, a therapist should make it a priority to understand the distinction amongst cultures and show respect towards all patients. In addition, as a therapist I will seek out books and advice that will help me better treat a patient from a different background. All people are capable of understanding cultures and difference; we must simply make the effort.
Cabral, Raquel R. and Timothy B. Smith. (2011). Racial/Ethnic Matching of
Clients and Therapists in Mental Health Services: A Meta-Analytic Review of Preferences, Perceptions, and Outcomes. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58, 12-27.
Hays, Pamela. (2008). How to help best: Culturally responsive therapy. Addressing Cultural Complexities in Practice: Assessment, diagnosis, and therapy (2nd ed.). 275.
Sue, D., & Sue, D.W. (2008). Culturally diverse: theory and practice (5th ed.) Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.