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«Russell King, Anastasia Christou and Janine Givati-Teerling Sussex Centre for Migration Research, University of Sussex ABSTRACT This paper focuses on ...»

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Idyllic times and spaces? Memories of childhood visits to the parental homeland

by second-generation Greeks and Cypriots

Russell King, Anastasia Christou and Janine Givati-Teerling

Sussex Centre for Migration Research, University of Sussex


This paper focuses on one aspect of a wider comparative study of second-generation

Greek-Americans, Greek-Germans and British-born Greek Cypriots who have

‘returned’ to Greece and Cyprus. We analyse those parts of their life-narratives which refer to childhood visits to their ancestral homes in Greece and Cyprus. In nearly all cases these are memories of idyllic times and spaces – of beaches and the sea, of villages and the countryside, and of fine weather and happy times spent with extended families. The key trope running through these memories of childhood visits is freedom: how children were allowed to ‘roam free’ until late at night, in contrast to the strict parenting and limited spatial and temporal freedom they experienced in the host country. However, different and sometimes less pleasant memories emerge when the visits took on a different character: for instance, when longer-term stays resulted from children being ‘sent back’ to be cared for by relatives, or when the children were older teenagers. In the second part of the paper, connections are made between these childhood times in the ‘homeland’ and subsequent decisions, later in life, to return to Greece or Cyprus for a longer-term settlement. In general the hypothesis that childhood visits were instrumental in fostering a sense of belonging in the homeland, preparing the way for the adult return, is only partially supported.

Returns take place for a whole set of individualised reasons. Returnees find that their semi-permanent settlement in the homeland in early-mid adulthood poses a new set of challenges which contrast markedly with their childhood experiences and memories.

Finally, reflecting on their relocation, second-generation returnees frequently remark on the loss of the ‘authentic’ nature of the homeland. They highlight the materialism of Greek and Cypriot society nowadays and the impact of recent mass immigration.

However, they see the ‘homeland’ as a safer locale to raise their own children.

Paper presented to the AHRC/CRONEM Conference on ‘Diasporas, Migration and Identities: Crossing Boundaries, New Directions’, University of Surrey, 11-12 June 2009.


Introduction Relatively little has been written about the transnational links of the second generation with their parents’ country of origin, and even less on their specific experiences of childhood visits to the parental ‘homeland’. This paper aims to explore these childhood transnational or ‘counter-diasporic’ visits, taking as itsempirical frame a comparative study of three second-generation groups: Greek-Americans, GreekGermans and British Greek Cypriots. Our research subjects are respectively US-born and German-born Greeks, and British-born Greek Cypriots, who are now living in the ‘homeland’, Greece or Cyprus, where most of them have moved as young adults. We explore those parts of their life-narratives where they reflect on their memories of childhood visits to their respective ‘homelands’ and say what role, if any, these visits had on their later-life decisions to relocate to Greece or Cyprus longer-term or for good.

The extensive literatures which now exist both on return migration and on transnationalism are, for the most part, resolutely focused on the first generation. For return migration this might be semantically justified, for the second generation does not ‘return’ to a place it never came from (in terms of birth-place statistics). On the other hand, the affective connection to what is often regarded as the ‘home country’ may be very strong, so that the ‘return’ has ontological meaning even if it contravenes the logic of migration statistics.

For transnationalism the explanatory excuse might be that the migration is so recent that the second generation does not yet exist, or that migrants who have children have left them behind in the care of spouses or other family members, to be brought up in the home countries sustained by migrant remittances. Whilst these demographic arrangements of transnational migration are undoubtedly widespread, it is also evident from general knowledge of the post-war immigration histories of Western Europe, North America and Australia that migrations of family settlement have occurred on a large scale, with substantial host-country-born second (and now third) generations. It is true that, especially in the United States and continental Europe (but not so much in the UK where the socio-demographic notion of the second generation is less recognised), these second-generationers are being intensively studied, but this research focus is normatively guided by their progress along the path of integration or assimilation into the host society, especially in terms of their educational and labourmarket profiles (see the review of this debate in King and Christou 2008:7-9). Their homeland links are, by and large, ignored.

This last statement is now beginning to be challenged. Levitt and Waters’ (2002) edited book on the transnational lives of the second generation in the US was a major contribution here, with several chapters describing visits to various ‘homelands’ by older teenagers and young adults (but not by younger-age children). Other significant studies on second-generation transnationalism include Robert Smith’s acclaimed ethnography of ‘Mexican New York’ (with fieldwork also in Mexican ‘sending villages’; Smith 2006); Takeyuku Tsuda’s equally original multi-sited ethnography of Japanese-Brazilian nikkeijin (2003); papers by Menjívar (2002) and Leichtman (2005); and a volley of recent papers by Phillips and Potter on second-generation returnees to Barbados (Phillips and Potter 2005; 2009; Potter and Phillips 2006a, 2006b, 2008). Also worth noting is Gill Cressey’s (2006) monograph on return visits by young British-based Pakistanis and Kashmiris, although frankly this is not in the same league as Smith and Tsuda cited above.

Peggy Levitt’s latest contribution to this debate on second-generation transnationalism reasserts a focus on homeland influences and includes references to Boston-based young persons’ homeland visits to India, Pakistan, Brazil and Ireland.

Her conclusion is that ‘The second generation is situated between a variety of different, often competing generational, ideological, and moral reference paths, including those of their parents, their grandparents, and their own real and imagined perspectives about their multiple homelands’ (Levitt 2009).

Our research enables a fleshing out of some of the key elements in Levitt’s statement above. We draw on our AHRC-funded project (2007-09) on ‘Cultural Geographies of Counter-Diasporic Migration: The Second Generation Returns “Home”’, the core methodology of which has been the collection of life-narratives from quota samples of second-generation Greek-Americans, Greek-Germans and Greek Cypriots (30 of each) who had relocated to their parental home countries. Interviews were taken mainly in urban locations (Athens, Thessaloniki, Nicosia, Limassol, but also some smaller towns and villages) and involved roughly equal numbers of men and women (a slight majority of the latter). Most of the interviews took place in the first nine months of 2008, i.e. just before the global financial crisis struck.

The interviews were life-history narratives, sometimes recorded over two or more sessions, with fairly minimal intervention from the interviewers (Anastasia Christou in Greece, Janine Givati-Teerling in Cyprus). Hence interviewees were ‘guided towards’ talking about childhood visits to the homeland rather than being explicitly asked the direct question. The fact that so many of the participants spoke about these visits, often in the same way and with the same themes emerging, gives a measure of robustness to our findings and compensates, to some extent, for the lack of a rigorous random sampling approach in the selection of interviewees (which would have been impossible anyway in the absence of records of such individuals).

We see the homeland visit as a performative act of belonging and (potentially) of researching and discovering one’s roots (cf. Fortier 2000:3-5). For childhood visits, individual agency will vary somewhat, according to the age of the child and whether they were ‘taken’ by their parents, or, as older individuals, such as college students, travelled independently. The ‘roots’ metaphor has powerful resonance in studies of diaspora and of tourism directed to real or imagined diasporic homelands; in many countries with a history of emigration ‘roots tourism’ has become an important niche market within the tourism industry. For Basu (2004, 2005), who did fieldwork in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, ‘roots return’ is both actual physical mobility – a performative act expressed through visits to ancestral and heritage locations – and a more collective general project of (re)connection to the homeland. For Baldassar (2001) studying Italo-Australians visiting their ancestral villages in the mountains north of Venice, these long-distance returns have the character of a secular pilgrimage.

This paper, then, is about childhood, memory, multiple notions of home, and eventual relocation to the parental homeland. All are potentially interconnected, but none is a straightforward or simple notion. With childhood, the boundary is blurred, and in the narratives we hear different interpretations of homeland visits as the child matures into adolescence and adulthood. Memories are inevitably reconstructed post hoc. If articulating memories is an act of representation (and of performance in the interview setting), then we must ask what is its relationship to ‘fact’ and whether memories are ‘real’ and ‘authoritative’ reconstructions of self, home and history (Agnew 2005:7).

Yet, is this the right question to ask? Memories are more than mere repositories of fact; they are an act of remembering that can create new meanings and new understandings, both of the past and of the present (Giles 2002:22). They ‘ignite our imaginations and enable us to vividly recreate our reflections of home as a haven filled with nostalgia, longing and desire’ (Agnew 2005:10).

But, for the second-generation individual, where is ‘home’? One of our very reasons for studying second-generation Greek and Greek-Cypriot ‘returnees’ in the first place, was their unusually complex and ambivalent senses of home. Amongst people living in diaspora, conceptualisations of home are inevitably multi-sited and fluid, even more so when the second generation has moved counter-diasporically and when we are dealing with Greeks and Greek Cypriots who have a powerful sense of both diasporic identity and their national homeland. According to Blunt and Dowling (2006:199), the lived experiences and spatial imaginaries of diasporic people often revolve around complex dialogues about home: ‘the relationship between home and homeland, the existence of multiple homes, diverse home-making practices, and the intersections of home, memory, identity and belonging’.

Let us take a specific, albeit hypothetical example, before we turn to our ‘real’ data.

Consider a London-born British Greek Cypriot studying at a university in another part of the country (but not too far away). Every afternoon, after lectures and classes, she returns ‘home’ to her rented flat which she shares with two other girls. Every now and then, she goes ‘home’ to see her parents and younger siblings in London for the weekend. And every summer, the whole family flies ‘home’ to Cyprus for a holiday visiting friends and relatives. In this case, home is the space one currently inhabits, the place one’s immediate family lives, and also the country of origin, where other family members live. Being-at-home involves the coexistence of all three registers of home, each with its own different – and fluctuating – meaning (cf. Ahmed 1999:338).

Key themes in memories of childhood visits

Before we present the key themes which emerge from our data, we need to make some important points about timing. Fieldwork in Greece and Cyprus was synchronous, as noted. But the three migration systems we are researching have different temporalities. Greek Cypriot migration to Britain was largely a phenomenon of the 1950s and 1960s, with a further brief boost in the mid-1970s following the partition of the island in 1974 (when all Greek Cypriots in the Turkish-controlled North were displaced from their homes and fled to the government-controlled South, whence some emigrated). Greek migration to (West) Germany was roughly contemporaneous with the Cypriot flow to Britain, except that it started a bit later: its heyday was the 1960s and early 1970s. Greek migration to the United States has a much longer history, starting over a hundred years ago and continuing, with interruptions during the two World Wars and the Great Depression, until the 1960s (see Saloutos 1956, 1964).

These different historical phasings have implications for the appearance of generational cohorts. For Greek Cypriots and Greek-Germans, second-generation returnees tend to be now in their late 20s, 30s or early 40s and to have returned within the last 20 years. Greek-Americans, on the other hand, embrace a wider age-range including some who returned several decades ago and who are now quite elderly, as well as young returnees who are the progeny of the Greek migrants to the US in the 1960s. The age of the interviewee is important as this will closely govern the historical time (the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s etc.) at which childhood occurred, and therefore the stage of ‘development’ that Greece and Cyprus were in at that time when childhood visits took place.

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