‘Greekish’: My obsession with a culture that wasn’t mine

L.K. Kalumba is Australian Congolese and was fascinated by Greek culture as a child. Source: Supplied

Growing up, L.K. Kalumba was so obsessed with Greek culture that he donned an Olympiakos shirt and pretended to be Greek. That fascination would later lead to a reckoning with his own Congolese background, he writes.

July 4th, 2004, was far from an ordinary winter day. Flares were erupting in the Melbourne suburbs of Oakleigh and South Melbourne. Greece had just defeated Portugal to win the 2004 UEFA EURO football tournament. I felt an unmatched sense of jubilation. My parents were bewildered. Why was their 10-year-old son in tears over Greece winning the championship? 

I felt so proud — as if the trophy were mine to claim. As if I was one of the tragic Greek nationals that had never expected their nation to pick up an international cup. I ran around our small unit early that morning chanting: “Hellas Ole Ole!!” 

The images of that day are instaurated in my mind, safely kept in a panoramic incorruptible file that includes a close up of a young teary Cristiano Ronaldo, the heraldry, blue and white flags and a cloud of red and orange flares captured by the news teams of all the respective channels. It was a big day for us Greeks. Particularly in Melbourne. Why is that, you ask? Well, the largest Greek population outside of Greece is surprisingly in Melbourne, Australia. 

athens 2004
Athenians celebrate at night after winning the final in the city, July 2004.

The final had taken place during our term holidays. Soccer training was scheduled for that night, under the floodlights. I was rearing to meet up with my teammates. Knowing that they, along with my coach Jim and our manager Jim, would be ecstatic over the victory. The lead-up to the tournament was characterised by a general indifference. 

The parents of the boys in my ethnic Greek soccer club were undeniably proud Greeks. Despite many of them arriving in a wave of immigration that had set their focus on assimilation and fitting in rather than highlighting their difference. Their parents didn’t care for the national team. Years of disappointment welded their pessimism. ‘What are they going to do?,’ they said of the national team, whilst smoking and watching us train. “It will be Germany or Italy. Easy”, I recall hearing a hale father claim with a smirk.  

Greek football fans celebrate their team beating Portugal, July 2004.

Their boys did not share the same sentiments, they were more so optimistic about their mother country. They were also suspicious of ‘Skips’ and their vernacular was largely curated by the show ‘Fat Pizza’. They were proud of all aspects of their nation and that naturally included their pusillanimous national team. However, the team played with a great deal of pluck and their unorthodox style produced haphazard goals. Energy started to mount around the team as they progressed through the tournament’s group stage. 

No one expected the team to make the finals. I was so thrilled to be part of the Athenian spirit. I scoured through the TV guides to make sure I wouldn’t miss a game. I knew all the players' names by heart. The captain was Gekas. The lodestar was Charisteas. No reality could deny my membership. Neither citizenship nor ethnicity. After the final, I accompanied my mother to the grocery store. I never got the Greek football top that I desired but I did have one of Olympiakos.  

‘Why do you want to wear a Greek jersey?,’ My father quizzed me after I begged him to buy me one. I struggled to find an adequate reason. So as it goes, I was sans Greek jersey. My red and white Olympiakos shirt would have to suffice. It was one of two popular Greek football clubs. I donned it proudly. It was a cold day and my mother advised me to wear a jumper. I refused, and to my surprise she allowed it. At the store, there were many people in Greek jerseys, beanies and hats. They smiled at me as they saw my Olympiakos top. I wanted more, I wanted them to recognise me, acknowledge me as one of them. But my interactions were lacklustre. My phenotype automatically excluded me from being seen as Greek in the eyes of my compatriots. 

However, I have no Greek heritage whatsoever. I'm an Australian of Congolese ethnicity.

L. K. Kalumba as a child.

I realised then that the stakes were to be raised. I was embarking on a Herculean mission. At training that night I basked in the celebration. The floodlights added a pandemonium to the already animated grounds. I was attentive so I was able to carve a space in the conversation with statistics. I did this mostly one on one with my teammates. I was shy and had just recently arrived in Australia. I was not of the proclivity of speaking loudly and drawing attention to myself.  

After training, I hovered around the grounds in a maroon knock-off Nike beanie that I had copped from the markets. I knew that whilst I was welcome to take part in the celebration, no one genuinely recognised my joy as being of any equal worth. I aimed to change that.

Weeks following the event, I made the erroneous decision of telling people that I was actually a quarter Greek. The percentage was appealing at the time. It was not large enough to be ridiculous but also not small enough to be insignificant. My plan worked and my friends would tell their parents and relatives that I was a quarter Greek. “Oh, ok!,” they would remark without inquiring any further. The cracks in the columns were surely there but I was running a large scale operation for a 10-year-old. The mendacity of my claims was sure to catch up with me. 

'Despite my efforts and a few trips to Congo, I was never fully welcomed into Congolese society,' L.K. Kalumba writes.

My allure to Greek culture was dictated by a guy named Steve in the year level above me. A comfortably self-assured boy that operated so slickly for his age. I would talk about Steve incessantly, with anyone that would listen. Steve was a great footballer. He carried a modest mullet, a silver ring and a bracelet. He was cool. He greeted with a head nod. He wore grey pants and laced-up Clarks. Mind you this was in primary school and everyone else wore green tracksuit pants and slip-on boots. He had style. So if he was Greek, I too was Greek.

Steve was rather astute. Perhaps he was suspicious about my recently discovered ethnicity. His acquiescent silence, which I had mistaken for solidarity, came to the fore as we drove home from training one night. He asked my mother if I was a quarter Greek. ‘Huh!!!,’ said my mother. That was enough to expel my follies. I was mortified. When we arrived home, I listened quietly as my parents lectured me on the importance of being proud of my roots. My father laughed. He could not understand why I wanted to be Greek. Maybe American but he struggled with Greek. I never discussed being Greek again and in good time nobody else even cared as the gossip cycle had disposed of my lies.

It was only in high school that he decided to investigate his heritage.

Years later, I attended a high school that had one African in every year level. We were asked by teachers and students whether there was any relation. I was Congolese and the others were Zambian and Ethiopian. There was simply no relation. 

In my year, I was closest to the ‘wogs’. The Italians, Greeks and Lebanese. I played soccer and was not an ‘Aussie’ so that group was most fitting. It was where I was most at home. I was knowledgeable about their sandwiches and knew a few slurs. Then again, most of them only knew how to curse in their respective languages.

It was only in the twilight years of high school that I decided to investigate my heritage. It was not that I didn’t interact with the Congolese- Australian communities. We did, but we lived in the South East and most of the Congolese resided in Melbourne’s Northern and Western Suburbs. 

My family belonged to the Catholic tradition and the others went to Congolese protestant churches with Congolese pastors. I decidedly educated myself on Congolese history. I made an effort to speak French and Swahili. I was ropeable about Western involvement in Congolese politics and disgusted by the assassination of the country’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. This accelerated me down a rabbit hole of Pan-Africanism, where I was able to engage with the writings of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and others.

It was through these thinkers that I wedged a space to cultivate my identity. I distanced myself from American ‘gangster rap’; both out of an inability to naturally adopt traits associated with this stereotype and my bourgeois sensibilities. I embraced conscious hip-hop that promoted Zulu beads and lampooned heavy gold chains. Presently, I laugh at that distinction and can enjoy both ‘conscious’ and supposedly ‘unconscious’ hip-hop in their own right. Albeit at the time the connection to hip-hop that was simultaneously pseudo-spiritual, puritanical, conspiratorial and political helped design my then worldview. 

Despite my efforts and a few trips to Congo, I was never fully welcomed into Congolese society. It is always difficult to rediscover your roots, seldom does that journey occur smoothly and without some inimical force that plunges you in a hysteria. I have always resided in a liminal space. Despite my Australian passport and Congolese ethnicity. There is always a Steve processing your papers. It was like the Greek effect all over again, only now I had a genuine claim.

In more recent years, it is more facile to see Afro-centrism being absorbed and promoted by many of the youth. With a sense of pride, they take part in African food, they listen to afrobeat being produced elsewhere and you may even see a dashiki or two. Distinguishable from the Australia I grew up in. I knew Congolese people that claimed vehemently to be French and even Portuguese. It seems as though Afro shame to some extent is passé.

He believes perhaps "to some degree, we are all Greekish."

Upon reflection, it appears my allure to Greek culture was, in a way, sensical. It was a well-established minority group that was a visible alternative to the Anglo mien. It was synonymous with the popular blockbuster ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’. The Olympics had made their triumphant return back to Athens in 2004. In the early noughties, there was something pervasive about Greek culture.  

Perhaps if I was in Western Sydney, I may have been more attracted to a specific Lebanese Culture. Or in Abbotsford, the Vietnamese. In a place like Australia, there are rushes of anxiety related to identity. The Anglo majority grapples with its identity, trying arduously to form an identity that is represented interestingly by movies such as ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’. Samoans in Sydney are making waves with drill music, a popular deviation of rap that started in Chicago and re-emerged in the UK. African American culture is popular amongst ethnically and economically marginalised groups from Shepparton to Bankstown. This influence is not specific to Australia but can be seen globally. Glorified elements of Black America are looked at adoringly by minorities because it speaks of the potential vitality accessible to marginalised youth, although it is a culture on the periphery in the United States it has a centripetal magnetism.

In a sense, I feel as though identity does and should allow for a synthesis of immeasurable flows along a concatenate of disjunctive groups. The desire to be something that we are not and to rid ourselves of something that we are is potentially inherent to the human experience. For me, being Greek was something real and tangible. In the end, it is merely just an idea, a concept that has been rendered capitulating and innate. I may be overstepping, but perhaps to some degree, we are all Greekish.