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Ask Away: 5 Questions with a Fulbright Scholar Upon Return from Greece

 

We’re asking students, professionals, and language enthusiasts five questions on how languages have played a role in shaping their personal and professional success…

Meet Steven—a Fulbright scholar with an MFA in Creative Writing whose early love of Greek mythology led to a new language and culture, a series of Greek adventures, and a forthcoming book.

ASK AWAY Steven photo

1. You first studied Spanish in high school… What prompted you to begin learning Greek?

Since I’m from Southern California, studying Spanish in high school seemed like a practical choice, yet I never spoke Spanish outside the classroom or had a reason to learn it besides the school requirement. So, after four years in the classroom, my knowledge of the language quickly faded, revived only when writing the occasional short story.

I began learning Greek two years ago when I decided to apply for a Fulbright to write a book in Greece. I’d always been enthralled by Greek mythology, and learning the language seemed like a gateway into the culture. My language teachers were like cultural ambassadors from Greece, and as they taught me verbs and conjugations and declensions, they also taught me about Greek history, superstitions, and food. They also gave me a ton of travel recommendations!

2. Tell us about living in Greece as a Fulbright fellow: What most surprised you about the culture when you arrived and have you brought home any new habits?  

The Fulbright Foundation in Greece gave me both the support and the freedom to set my research goals and itinerary. As a result, I accumulated a variety of experiences during my Fulbright year. In the fall, I volunteered in refugee camps and interviewed Syrians and Iraqis awaiting relocation in Athens. In the spring, I taught a creative writing workshop at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. And throughout the year, I traveled widely within the country, visiting archaeological sites, sites from mythology, and collected photographs, audio files, notes, and interviews.

“What most surprised me about Greek culture were its similarities to Chinese and Filipino cultures: The attentive parenting, different expectations of privacy and personal space from the U.S., emphasis on food as hospitality and care, the strength of superstition and religion in the culture.”

I also began living in unexpectedly healthful ways while I was in Greece. While in the U.S. I often shied away from vegetables and exercise, in Greece I subsisted on a Mediterranean diet and would often hike hours to a remote ruin or Byzantine church. During my final week in Greece, I climbed to Mytikas, the highest peak of Mount Olympus. My friends have hoped that I’d bring this zeal for hiking home, and I’ve already been on a few hikes since I’ve returned.

3. Could you share with us a funny or touching anecdote about an interaction in Greek, either at home or overseas?

When you’re starting to learn a language in a foreign country, you inhabit this fuzzy perceptual space where everything that is said to you has multiple potential meanings. Your friend might say, “Δεν έχω παει στη βιβλιοθήκη ακόμα,” and you may wonder whether he hasn’t gone to the library, hasn’t wanted to go to the library, couldn’t go to the library, or just hasn’t gone yet. And this ambiguity, where everything you hear is infused with possibility, becomes a very interesting state to inhabit.

Greek people have been overwhelmingly supportive of my effort to learn Greek, and I love seeing the confusion and enthusiasm on people’s faces when they discover that an Asian-American guy from California can speak their language. Vacationing couples have stopped to take selfies with me in Zagorohoria, owners of bakeries have given me bags of cookies, and I’ve made quite a few friends just by striking up a conversation with them. Near the end of my time in Greece, I was filling up my rental car at a gas station in Alexandroupoli, I got to talking with the attendant, Antonis, and we became friends. Now, the next time I return to Alexandroupouli, I’ll have someone to get a drink with.

4. How about your favorite exchange involving language or culture with the Greek students you taught?

My students at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki were incredible, and I feel so privileged to have taught them creative writing for a semester. I taught in English, and they wrote fiction and poetry in English, and though this was not their native language, their final portfolios were fantastically diverse, attentive to language, with rich settings and characters and realistic dialogue.

As the semester progressed, we’d often go out for drinks or food after class, sharing huge variety platters and laughing over differences between our cultures: They’d tell me how my class syllabus, which detailed every reading and assignment for the semester, scared them with its thoroughness; how it could be difficult to make plans with people in Greece because they would agree at first, but would see their agreement as nonbinding and conditional; and also the way that people walk in Thessaloniki, strolling often with linked arms, unaware of impatient Americans trying to squeeze by. My students brought me spoon sweets and halva made by their grandmothers and mothers; outside of class, they told me about their lives in 3-5 hour recorded interviews. During my last week in Greece, I visited one of my students in his hometown of Drama and climbed Mount Olympus with another!

5. How have your language or cultural skills and experiences enhanced your professional aspirations?

I’ve always been interested in Greek mythology and frequently use allusions to myths in my work. I spent my Fulbright year in Greece researching a book that rewrites Greek myths in conversation with the country’s economic and refugee crises.

Once I arrived in Greece, though, I realized how little I knew about the country and its people. I tried to immerse myself as much as possible in Greek culture, and learning the language was an essential part of that. Even now, after a year in Greece, I feel like I’m just scratching the surface.

During my Fulbright, I worked for the NGO SolidarityNow, and in April I will return to Athens to do a storytelling project with SolidarityNow’s communications department.

“My Fulbright year in Greece has given me the seeds for hundreds of stories, and I’m excited to return to Greece in April to continue exploring and learning.” 

BONUS QUESTION: What are some of your most memorable experiences with people in Greece?

A few favorites:

Having tea with a Japanese and an Australian monk at Mount Athos, the only monastic state in the world.

Roadtripping with Greek friends through Crete and the Peloponnese.

Camping on beautiful Kedrodasos Beach in Crete with a Greek couple I met in Zagorohoria the previous winter.

Learning to cook tyropita and beef with tomato sauce and pasta at the home of my Greek teacher in Athens.

Attending the wedding of another Greek teacher in Athens and visiting his family home in Chios.

Barbecuing in the alleyway of a fortified town in Mastihohoria, Chios.

Befriending the caretaker of the Nekromanteion archaeological site along the Acheron River. 

Inspired to learn Greek so you can navigate the myths and islands like Steven? Check out our Lead with Greek page and watch Steven’s video here! Then see our Grants & Scholarships page to learn more about federal funding opportunities for travel and study abroad, like the Fulbright program.

Does one of the above questions speak to you? Share your answer by joining the conversation @LeadWLanguages on social media!