Our parents came to Australia for a better life, a small suitcase and $50 in their pocket. Many were escaping poverty and war. My father was meant to work for a few years for the family then go back. My mother was sent here to find a husband because my grandfather had no dowry for her. Many had plans to go back but never did. They made the choice to remain in the lucky country, to sacrifice their homeland and families for a better life.
So when we came along – the first generation Australians – we were born with a lot of expectation on our shoulders. I was taught having a respectable job that pays well and gives you security is one of the essential criteria for a successful life. This criteria is one that has brought me much misery. It wasn’t until much later in life, where I abandoned my career as a computer programmer to fulfil my dream of being a writer, that I became much happier. But I had to fight hard, and suffered a lot of cultural pressure and stigma because of my choice. And I still have anxiety around money and saving vs spending.
Lawyer and freelance journalist, Konstantinos Kalymnios, understands this pressure all too well, but says he was lucky his parents discussed politics and history at the dinner table rather than money. “Unlike many other Greeks in the community, who I observe to be obsessed by money, I was brought up to expect to make a living but not to make the acquisition of money the sole focus of my life. I was taught by my parents that education, self-cultivation and community service is far more important as a life-goal”.
I am always looking for opportunities to grow my wealth, but it’s like an addiction that stresses me. I can’t disappoint my father because he did so much for me.
But is it just a Greek thing? An established and successful businessman of Italian heritage who I interviewed for this piece, Frank*, equates his fixation on making more money to a sickness that causes him much unhappiness. “My father worked hard to create the business so that was my destiny, to follow in his footsteps, and I never questioned it. He sacrificed to give me the best life where I don’t have to worry about having enough money to survive. I am always looking for opportunities to grow my wealth, but it’s like an addiction that stresses me. I can’t disappoint my father because he did so much for me.”
Providing for not only your future but your children’s future is a mentality all too common in migrant culture. But no matter how many times I try and convince my parents to splurge in their retirement years, they don’t. Granted, it would be nice to have inheritance, but not at the expense of my parents letting their hair down. Frank admits it’s his fear of not leaving enough wealth for his children that also fuels his drive. “I don’t want them to worry about money, just like what my dad did for me. And my dad keeps reminding me of that all the time. But my life has just become about work. I hate it but I can’t stop it.”
Kalymnios says he is happy with the amount of money he makes and has recently cut back his work hours to spend more time with his children. However, he admits that if he were unhappy, he would increase his hours to provide for their future.
There is a tendency in migrant cultures to rely financially on your parents, including living at home until you’re married. This is perhaps a cultural tradition as it still happens in Cyprus, my parents’ homeland, even today. But is there more to it than just providing for their future? “Money can often be used as a means of control,” Kalymnios says. "As a lawyer I have come across not just a few cases in the Greek community where first generation [migrant] parents have brought up their children to be financially dependent on them, or offer them financial incentives in order to dictate to them, how they will live various aspects of their lives.”
Money can often be used as a means of control.
But one has to question if keeping the cycle going doesn’t just set up our children to experience the same burdensome relationship with money as us. I do believe as generations progress, this expectation, along with others, will begin to fade. Kalymnios’ father migrated with his family at the age of five, whereas my father and Frank’s father migrated as adults.
Either way, I have fought hard to teach my own daughter that money isn’t everything, despite my parents repeatedly reminding me that as she gets older she will need more things and I will need to provide. Yes that’s true, but I feel that if I can provide the essentials, and I have to rent, just so that I can also fulfil my dreams, then that just might mean that my daughter may not have as much inheritance. I know people look down on me, but so be it.
“Many Greeks arriving in Australia saw acquiring money as a means of obtaining the respectability and class status that they felt they were entitled to and denied in Greece,” Kalymnios tells me. “If you were poor you were given scant respect by those considered "above" you and paths to self-improvement were blocked.” A lot has changed since then but I think we still have a way to go.
*Name has been changed for anonymity
Koraly Dimitriadis is a freelance opinion writer, poet, filmmaker and the author of Love and F**k Poems. Her debut theatre show KORALY : “I say the wrong things all the time” will premiere at La Mama in Nov-Dec 2016.