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Culture is defined as the historically transmitted and interrelated web of values, assumptions, norms, belief systems and behavioral patterns that differentiate one human group from another. Culture is manifested in music, painting, literature, theater, sculpture and films, shortly in all aspects of life. It influences the way we perceive the world, the way we attribute meaning to our environment. Therefore diversities and conflicts are commonly seen when people from different cultural backgrounds encounter each other. In this paper I would like to examine this cultural contact based on a movie called ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’.
The 2002 romantic comedy ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ is a great example for depicting cultural differences between the US and the Greek culture. It shows how differences in cultures may affect the lives of people through the main character of a 30 year old Greek girl Toula. Being brought up in the US by a traditional Greek family, Toula has to have a single purpose in life: to marry a Greek man and have as many Greek children as she can. Compared to her sister who has been married for a while and has 3 children, she is perceived to be seen unfortunate due to her reaching 30 and still being single. Her father continuously reminds her to marry soon because she started to look old. Toula is stuck with all of the Greek values in her life. She is working in the family-owned restaurant and has no free space for herself. From the time she was a child, decisions regarding which school she would attend or where she would work are all determined by her family. However; being raised in an American culture that is totally different from Greek culture resulted her to be unsatisfied with her life. The emphasis on individuality, being able to be autonomous affected her views as well. The realization of this uncontentment climaxed after meeting Ian while working at the restaurant. When Ian enters her life, she began to realize that she wanted to live her own life and she starts to make her own choices. With her mother’s help, she gets the permission for taking computer classes at college which she may later use for business. The approval of the father comes late because he thinks that city is a dangerous place to go. Even when her mother insists on this permission, he responds: ‘if a girl is enough intelligent, why bother going to school.’
This dilemma of acculturation process which Toula experienced is examined scientifically in Cigdem Kagitcibasi’s book of ‘Family, Self, and Human Development across Cultures’ as well. In her book, Kagitcibasi explains that the aspirations of adolescents have are influenced by the dominant society when there is a cultural contact between the culture of relatedness of ethnic minorities originating from collectivistic societies and the culture of separateness of the individualistic dominant society. In the culture of separateness, autonomy is highly valued because it is functional and adaptive in everyday situations. When these minority adolescents engage in a social comparison process, they see that their peers who belong to the culture of separateness enjoy more authority than they do. On the other hand, being related with their parents satisfies their need for warmth and security and it does not create a conflict. However; in some cases where parents lack enough education, parents see autonomy as a sign of disrespect or separation. Therefore they may not give autonomy to the child. Here we can talk about a ‘culture lag’ in which the traditional point of view in the family of interdependence still continues despite the fact that it is not functional in the urban, technological society. This culture lag creates a conflict where the autonomous-related self and the family model of psychological/emotional interdependence that adolescents favor collides with the heteronomous-related self and the family model of interdependence that parents value. Because the first one is more adaptive in an immigration context, it is likely that it will be the case (Kagitcibasi, p.324). However this transition would be tough just as it is observed in Toula’s struggle.
As it is examined above, autonomus related self is more adaptive in an urban lifesetting as it is the case with Toula in the movie. Autonomous related self is a concept that is established by Kagitcibasi that satisfies two basic needs which are autonomy and relatedness. Although the mainstream psychology has always thought autonomy as being separate, Kagitcibasi notes that these two are distinct concepts which are independent from each other. Autonomy refers to willful agency, being governed from outside; whereas being separate or close is about the relationship with others. This type of self is more compatible with an immigration context where there is urban lifestyle involving education and work. Because urban lifestyle requires individual decision making, in other words autonomy is needed for taking initiatives. However close self other and kinship relations continue to exist, too. Therefore it is more adaptive to have autonomous related self. But the process for migrant families with traditional lifestyle to accept the shift towards this type of self takes time.
After getting the approval of her parents, Toula’s differentiation process towards the autonomous related self begins. She gets herself a new hairdo, abandons her glasses and starts to wear make-up. Moreover she manages to find new contacts and becomes more outgoing and social. She quits working in the family owned restaurant. Instead, she starts to work at the tourism agency bureau of her aunt. In her new job, she feels much better, especially after getting the attraction from the guy, Ian, whom she met at the restaurant. After a while, Ian and Toula starts to date secretly but as Toula finds out that the guy she was dreaming of is non-Greek, things began to be challenging for both of them. As Toula is struggling with how to make her family accept Ian who is a ‘foreigner’, Ian finds himself confronted with the family of his love where things are totally different from his own. As opposed to Ian who has only two cousins, Toula has twenty seven. When Ian asks her what she does in her free times, she responds that there is no free time for her own because the extended family is together all the time. In addition to that, Toula’s family is very proud of their Greek heritage. Her father constantly states that all of the words have roots from the Greek language and he overemphasizes that there are two types of people, firstly the ones who are Greek and secondly the ones who want to be Greek. Moreover, her family tries to preserve their Greek identity in all aspects. Their house is designed in Greek style and there were Greek statues and miniatures all over the place. They engage in every traditional practice that a Greek family might have. They celebrate festive days in Greek way; they dance and eat with Greek relatives. They send their kids to Greek schools so that they acquire the Greek culture. The family also has a patriarchal structure where the father is the head of the family and where the mother helps with the care and support of the household.
Toula’s family fits into the model of interdependence as it is described in Kagitcibasi’s book. The model is associated with close family relations and is often characterized by patrilineal family structures (Kagitcibasi, p. 136). Toula’s family also has strong familial relations, they celebrate everything together with the extended family, cousins altogether work at a family owned restaurant in order to contribute household jointly. As it is expected from Toula, this type of family structure demands fertility as well. Moreover, the child’s dependence is ensured by obedience-oriented socialization and authoritarian parenting as it is the case with Toula. Even reaching her 30s is not enough to make decisions regarding herself alone. Still she needs the approval of her father, is strictly controlled when she comes home late. This type of socialization promotes ‘loyalty’ and ‘interdependence’ as it is seen in the movie.
As opposed to Toula’s family which values interdependence, Ian’s family is characterized in the model of independence which is the typical model of the western individualistic, nuclear family that is found in the industrialized societies (Kagitcibasi, p. 139). This family model values interpersonal independence. The family exists in nuclear structure and low level of fertility is common. Socialization practices enhance the independent self where there is less control in childrearing. That’s why Ian’s family does allow the marriage at first sight and does not interfere with the process. Moreover, Ian lives alone and has no sibling or twenty seven cousins like Toula which is seen in family of interdependence.
The differences regarding the values and beliefs are mostly seen through reaching the end of the film where the two families start to meet and interact. When Ian’s family comes for a dinner which was supposed to be a quiet dinner for meeting each side, they are shocked when they see the crowd which is waiting for them. Every single member of the extended family was invited for the dinner and the dinner turned out to be a party where everyone eat, dance and sing Greek songs which is common in Greek culture. As opposed to Toula’s crowded family, Ian’s family comes to dinner with only the nuclear members of the family composed of mother, father and Ian.
As the wedding preparations accelerate, Toula’s relatives continue to intervene in every single detail. For example; Toula’s mother has already prepared the wedding invitations by herself and didn’t ask Toula’s opinion about whom to invite. Her wedding dress is already planned by her cousin and the place of the wedding is arranged by Toula’s family, despite of the fact that Ian’s family thought a club would be okay. As it can be predicted, marriage from the perspective of Toula’s Greek family is just not about uniting two people, but it is the joining of two clans. As opposed to this, marriage can just be a ‘consumer decision with utilitarian value shared with associates at a club’ (Denny Wayman & Hal Conklin, 2002). On the day of the wedding, Toula’s family intervened in all the details as well. When Toula has noticed that she has a pimple on her face, all her female relatives help her to cover it with a foundation.
Lastly I would like to emphasize some of the similarities between Greek culture and Turkish culture that I have observed throughout the film. In the film Toula’s family reminds me of the traditional Turkish family with extended family ties in rural context. The development of the related self is assured with obedience socialization and control. Though not being in a rural context, Toula’s family is committed to their values and traditions so strictly that they do not let their daughter be free like the people in the American culture. Toula finds herself in a complete dilemma where she wants to change things in life but out of respect she can not exercise it easily. Another similarity that I have observed is the Greek traditions which are also common in Turkey. For instance; hospitality is highly valued in Turkish culture, too. When a guest comes to visit a Turkish family house, the host family offers delicious meals to enjoy their time. When Ian first visits Toula’s family, although he responds that he is not hungry, Toula’s mother says: ‘Ok I make you something to eat.’ The concept of the wedding is also similar in the way that all the relatives even the ones who live far are invited to the wedding ceremony. After the ceremony, they celebrate the day with dancing, eating and wishing a happy life just as in the Turkish culture. They dance sirtaki which is a popular dance of Greek origin just like the Turks who dance ‘halay’. They also have the traditional desert baklava like the Turks and use the same word ‘portakal’ for orange.
Lastly, Turks also give presents to the newly wed couples just as it is seen in the movie where Toula’s father has bought a house near to them. Buying a house near the parents’ also shows that ‘loyalty’ and being close are highly valued in Greek culture where there is a culture of relatedness.
In conclusion I would like to stress that My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a great movie which conveys the message that no matter how different two cultures may be, there is a universal aspect of humanity in all over the world. Though history is filled with great atrocities, wars and pain resulting from differences among cultures, the hope for our future may rest in us being able to love and accept one another because of these differences. The scene right before the film ends also summarizes this view perfectly. Before the visitors all are dancing and singing, Toula’s father states in his speech: ‘You know, the root of the word Miller (the surname of Ian) is a Greek word. Miller comes from the Greek word “milo,” which means “apple,” so there you go. As many of you know, our name, Portokalos, is come from the Greek word “portokali,” which means “orange.” So, okay? Here tonight, we have, ah, apple and orange. We are all different, but in the end, we are all fruit.’
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