Movie Mix

My Big Fat Greek Column

We are most able to achieve the heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul connections we long for by letting our ethnic idiosyncrasies flourish.
Diversity. From newsrooms to boardrooms to classrooms, America's high priests of culture are working to promote it.

I recently had back-to-back close encounters of the diversity kind, first at this year's meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, then at my own kitchen table.

The journalists' confab featured discussions on diversity that included benchmark goals for racial and ethnic parity in newsrooms. Later that same week, my youngest daughter, responding to my nightly grilling on what she'd done at school that day, told me that she and her fellow fourth graders had taken part in their own diversity class, wherein they discuss ways they can better get along with people of other cultures. It was, she informed me with an emphatic roll of her eyes, "really, really boring."

That seems to be the problem with so many of these high-minded efforts. Like spinach, diversity can be unappealing when served up as a healthy but mushy obligation: It may be good for us but it looks so unpalatable sitting there on the plate. If our country's well-meaning but crushingly earnest purveyors of diversity really want to get their message across, I suggest they hightail it to the nearest multiplex, where the flavorful outcome of cultural collisions is being celebrated in hit movies such as "Monsoon Wedding" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien," and especially in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" -- a little gem that is slowly being released across the country.

The film, based on the real-life experiences of its writer and star, Nia Vardalos, is a comedy of cultural quirks and contrasts that centers on what happens when a Greek-American woman introduces her boisterous and bountiful family to the love of her life, a decidedly non-Greek WASP named Ian. Nia's off-the-reservation romance is a seismic occurrence that threatens her family's core values, summed up by Vardalos as: "Marry a Greek boy, make Greek babies and feed everyone until the day you die."

"Greek Wedding" was produced by Rita Wilson -- who is half-Greek -- and her husband Tom Hanks, who saw his own experience reflected in the story. "You're one of those girls," Hanks wrote to Vardalos after seeing her one-woman show, "who come into the lives of men like me. Non-Greek men. We see you, then we work up the courage to speak to you. And then we fall in love with you and ask you to marry us in one of those big fat Greek weddings where you walk around a table three times, and then us non-Greek men live happy forever."

In the tradition of "Zorba the Greek," the movie captures the lust for life that permeates Greek culture. As someone born into that culture (though you'd never know it from my perfect American accent), I found myself howling with recognition at Vardalos' spot on depictions of Greek family life: the loving intrusiveness, the overarching pride in all things Greek, and the way everything leads back to food, always the food.

In our house, my mother's philosophy was: "If you're sad, you eat. If you're happy, you eat. If you're hungry, you eat. And if you're not hungry, you eat." As Vardalos puts it: "My Mom was a typical Greek mother, cooking up dishes filed with warmth and wisdom and always a side dish of steaming hot guilt."

Aristotle -- who had a couple of Greek weddings of his own, first to Pythias and then to Herpyllis -- said that the man who lives alone is either a beast or a god. And in "Greek Wedding" no one is ever alone. There are no casual relationships -- and no nuclear families. The addle-brained great-grandmother is included in all the festivities, even though she is utterly convinced that Turks are out to kidnap her, and there is a never-ending parade of grandchildren -- all of whom seem to be named Nick. With dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins always around, no one in this clan has to worry about child care or a lonely, sullen son making bombs in the garage.

The night I saw "Greek Wedding," Nia Vardalos was there with 49 members of her family -- all applauding and adoring her, even when the jokes were at their expense.

The characters in the movie could not have been more Greek and yet they are utterly universal. Rita Wilson recounted a pungent exchange from the TV pilot based on the movie: "Look at the news," the father says, "the world is going mad. The only way not to be lost is to stick with your own kind." "Sticking with your own kind," the daughter replies, "is the reason the world is going mad."

While so much of our culture tries to achieve homogeneity by paring us down to some washed out shared experience -- eating at McDonald's, sipping at Starbucks, shopping at the Gap -- this movie shows how we are actually most able to achieve the heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul connections we long for by letting our ethnic idiosyncrasies flourish.

It's a paradox the diversity mavens across the country should take to heart. They can start by seeing "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." And then going out to eat.
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