As little kids, my siblings and I all owned T-shirts that said GAP: Greek American Princess (or prince, if you were my brother). When I was in middle school, a boy in my English class asked if being Greek Orthodox meant that we believed in the Greek gods, like Zeus and Hera. On every trip I’ve taken in my life, I have found an icon hidden in my luggage that my father stowed without me noticing. Currently, I have a container of olive oil sitting in my apartment that was made with olives from my family’s grove in my grandfather’s village in Greece.
These are only a handful of the Greek American stereotypes I have experienced in my life. As the grandchild of Greek immigrants on my mom’s side and the great-grandchild of Greek immigrants on my dad’s side, I have never known a life where I wasn’t immersed in my heritage. I was baptized in the Greek Orthodox church, I spent afternoons as a kid in Greek school, I was in Greek dance troupes and I attended a Greek summer camp every year. And although the Greek American community is large — so this is not a particularly unique experience — it nonetheless can feel a bit isolating in terms of modern media representation. Until “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
I was 3 years old when “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” came out, so my experience as a Greek American is indelibly tangled with the movie. Greek Americans have adapted the vernacular of that movie so seamlessly that it feels like we’ve always recited this quote as if it’s scripture: “There are two kinds of people: Greeks, and everyone else who wishes they were Greek.”
I think there was a time when I genuinely thought my mom had been the person to originate the saying, “The man is the head (of the house), but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants,” because she loved and referenced the sentiment so much.
I was probably 10 the first time I watched the movie; I was young enough that my eyes were covered during the scenes where Ian (John Corbett) and Toula (Nia Vardalos) are at his apartment, but old enough to reckon with the mirrored image of my life being played before my eyes.
Right away, I saw a kindred spirit in Toula. She could articulate things I was experiencing long before I ever had the words for them, such as: “When I was growing up, I knew I was different. The other girls were blonde and delicate, and I was a swarthy 6-year-old with sideburns.”
I, like Toula, was a visibly ethnic child in a primarily WASPy neighborhood in the Midwest who understood on some level that I was different from my school peers. I used to joke that my life as an adolescent mirrored that of Hannah Montana, although instead of switching between celebrity and normal-girl personas, I was leading a double life as an American at school and a Greek in the evenings and on weekends. It’s a disorienting experience.
But “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was pivotal in my understanding of how much I love my culture and how special it can be to share my heritage with others. I have always been enamored of the love story at its center. I didn’t really grow up with the ideology that I absolutely must marry a Greek; I just understood that it would probably be easier that way. After years of rom-com watching and love story reading, I still don’t think there is a more beautiful and intimate expression of love in media than the scene in which Ian gets baptized into the Greek Orthodox church for Toula. It makes my heart swell every viewing, and it reinforces my belief that it would actually be very lovely to envelop a partner in my culture.
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and its sequels have continued to play a sentimental role in my life throughout the years. I love to show the movie to people who have never seen it, who are usually non-Greeks. When I was 20, I lived in Athens for a few months to do an internship and take a class, and my most beloved memory of the movie is watching it in a hotel room in the small village of Koroni while my class was on a trip. My new friends and I piled onto two beds and screened it on my laptop while I translated some of the most deep-cut jokes for them. It was a perfect example of getting to teach a bit of my culture to people who wanted to learn, a platonic reflection of Ian and Toula on the small screen in front of us.
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” came out in 2016, and I saw it in a movie theater in metro Detroit that was packed with at least 20 of my family members. I was a high school senior that year, deciding between going to an in-state or out-of-state college, and lo and behold, that was a major plot point in the movie. Even though I’d pretty much settled on staying in Michigan by the time the movie was out, my mom still cried in the theater at how particularly poignant the story was for us.
In the second movie, Ian and Toula’s daughter Paris (Elena Kampouris) is deciding between staying in the Midwest for school or going to New York City. In the end, Paris is told by her very traditional, straight-from-Greece grandmother, of all people, that it’s OK to leave.
Although I only went to college an hour away, I had a similar experience almost two years ago with my own grandmother. I decided to move to New York (cue the mental image of Toula’s father Gus, played by Michael Constantine, saying, “Why do you want to leave me?” in the first movie) and was most nervous to tell my grandparents. But when I told them, they couldn’t have been more excited for me. After all, New York is where my grandmother settled when she immigrated to the U.S. I am also her namesake, so in a way, it felt like coming home.
So last week, New York is where I saw “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3.” Quite honestly, the sequels pale in comparison to the first film. In this movie, the gang travels back to Greece to visit Gus’ village to tend to unfinished business after his death. Although the film was incredibly cheesy, I still found myself surprisingly emotional.
Perhaps it was aspects of the plot that resonated, perhaps it was homesickness, or perhaps it was feeling detached from the community that I grew up with now that I live somewhere new and far away from what’s familiar. I’m still reckoning with how to feel in touch with the culture that was fostered through my family now that I don’t live near them. It’s tough, and the third movie’s overall message of returning home hit me hard.
So although I grew up entrenched in my cultural roots, I am feeling a bit disconnected from it these days. I think it is a form of whiplash that a lot of second- and third-generation Americans feel. As a kid, I sometimes resented being different from my peers and felt suffocated and exhausted by being Greek (a sentiment that Toula and her daughter express in all of the movies). But in my adulthood, I feel almost too Americanized. Without the pre-planned activities and traditions of my youth, I am left with the imposter syndrome of wondering if I am as Greek as I think I am.
But as I figure out what it looks like for me to be Greek American in this new life I am creating for myself, it is a source of comfort that I have a movie that feels like taking my family with me wherever I go. And as Maria says to Toula in the first movie: “I gave you life so that you could live it.”
And that’s exactly what I’m doing.