At school, I've sometimes been known as "that Greek girl." In Cyprus, the country near Greece that I'm from, I'm usually seen as a tourist. I've always felt like I don't fully belong in either place, so it's hard for me to identify with a single culture.
When I entered 6th grade, I wasn't exactly bullied but I definitely wasn't liked either. Coming into a tight-knit class of twenty kids would've been hard for any ten year-old, but it was especially hard for me because I was struggling with social anxiety. It was nearly impossible to acclimate myself to this foreign environment, I felt totally overwhelmed. Slowly, I began to make a few friends, and school became easier, but I also began to get teased pretty consistently. Most of the time, the subject that they focused on when making fun of me was my heritage and how I looked. Just like most Greek kids, I grew up with a pretty impressive unibrow and a mane of untamable hair. It was never something that I had really noticed until I entered 6th grade, because nobody had ever made a big deal out of it. During my first year, I remember two boys walking up to me with big grins on their faces and, in my head, I thought to myself, "I can't believe they actually want to talk to me!" As soon as they became close enough, they made a joke about how I looked like Chewbacca and started laughing maniacally. I didn't know anything about Star Wars at the time, but I did know that I had been insulted. After looking it up on the Internet, I realized that they were talking about some kind of monstrous, hairy beast.
Throughout middle school, I was repeatedly bothered about how I looked. Beyond comments, one classmate actually brought a razor to school and told me it was a gift so that I could shave my arms. Even as a ten year old, I was utterly shocked that anyone would go so far out of their way just to get some laughs from their friends. Even more shocking was that a lot of my classmates thought these stunts were hilarious. Over time, I began to resent my heritage and where I came from. I equated the word beautiful with straight, blond hair. After a certain point, I would no longer wear my hair down because I grew to be so ashamed of my curls and frizz. For about two years I didn't leave the house unless my hair was up in a bun.
As my resentment grew, I entered high school. By this point, my eyebrows had been waxed along with my arms and legs, and I began to wear my hair down with the help of a thousand hair products. I wanted a fresh start, and I most certainly didn't want anyone to know that I was Greek. From experience, my heritage had only been synonymous with insults and taunts, and I didn't want a repeat of middle school. I begged my parents to let me go to a bigger, nearby high school where I knew not many people would know me. Instead, they sent me to an extremely small, rural high school filled with most of the kids I had gone to middle school with. I tried to make the best of it, and still thought of it as a fresh start since it was a step-up from a class of twenty kids.
During freshman year, the worst thing I could've imagined happened. I don't remember the exact situation, but I do remember a classmate telling me: "Go back to Greece where you belong." As soon as the words left his mouth, my heart dropped right out of my chest and I hurried out of the room before anyone could see my embarrassment or the tears quickly forming. I was absolutely mortified. I had tried so hard to distance myself from where I came from, but here it was again, making my life harder. I wanted to scream hateful things at my parents for moving to America, a place where I so obviously did not belong and would never belong.
Before I entered junior year, I spent the summer in Cyprus, the country in which I was born. Day by day, my resentment began to fade as I fell in love with my country and its beauty.
Spending time with family I hadn't seen for years (some of them actually looked like me!!), and being completely immersed in the culture of Cyprus made me rethink all that I had built up in my head, and I allowed myself to embrace my heritage. Although I was still seen as an outsider/tourist since I didn't grow up in Cyprus, I didn't mind as much as I thought I would. When I was with family, it didn't matter. One of the hardest things was (and still is) the language barrier. Not being able to speak with some of my family members who only speak Greek was especially difficult. I know bits of Greek such as "hi/bye," "I love you," and others of the sort, so I wasn't completely helpless, but it was still extremely challenging.
As I pack my bags to head to Cyprus again this summer, I'm preparing myself to fall in love all over again. Ever since that trip two years ago, my pride and love of Cyprus has been experiencing nothing but growth. Although there are still struggles and bumps in the road, I will forever and always be proud of my Cypriot roots. I'm learning that being a part of two different cultures is actually a good thing. Rather than not belonging in either place, I belong in both.
Lead Image Credit: Aggie Kallinicou