Week 43: Know My History

Q is an expatriate at heart.  In the course of studying abroad for her undergraduate and graduate degrees, she has spent almost three years living in France.  I’m shocked I was able to persuade her to return to the States.  Last time, it took a diamond ring.  Following the syllogism of “Mockingbird,” I’ll need to procure a looking glass if she escapes to Paris again.

Her new scheme to take us permanently across the Atlantic involves me applying for dual citizenship with Greece.  Since my grandfather on my mother’s side was born there, I have the minimum ancestry required to be eligible for dual citizenship.  With this, Q and I could trapeze through the European Union, visas be damned.  We could send our future children to school in Italy, spend an entire year attending theatre in England, and I could run for prime minister of Greece.  The only catch – and when I say “catch,” I mean “Jeff Goldblum-sized fly in the ointment” – is that I would have to serve in the Greek military for nine months.

Pshaw! says Q.  What’s nine short months of an enlistment against a lifetime of geographic freedom?  And shame on me for thinking Q is only being self-serving!  There’s something in it for me too!  After all, I’ll need a new blog topic pretty soon, and serving three-quarters of a year in the Greek army practically writes itself.  It could be just like Eat, Pray, Love, except I could call it Cry, Pray, and Cry.  Needless to say, there are just some vocations I won’t attempt in the name of manly science.

ferry sign

However, this whole discussion of sacrificing myself for Q’s globetrotting brings up an interesting thought: what defines me more, my Greek heritage or my American history?  Greece is tied to my religion, family, and genes, but I don’t feel like anything less than a full-blooded ‘Merican.  I don’t find it necessary to align myself with a single heritage (what would American be, after all?), but straddling the two cultures has had a deleterious effect – I’ve been able to claim both cultures without fully embracing either.  I brag about being Greek as if it sets me apart from other Americans, but I haven’t bothered to learn the language.  Isn’t it a responsibility of any citizen, and by extension, any man, to be knowledgeable about his own history?

I set out to remedy my foolishness this week, starting on the Greek side.  Both my father’s grandfather and my mother’s father emigrated from Greece via Ellis Island.  I had looked up this information years ago for a school project, but could scarcely remember the details today.  I visit Ellis Island’s passenger lookup database and find that nearly one hundred years ago, my great-grandfather John Andreadis traveled from Chios, Greece, to Ellis Island, before landing in Lancaster, PA, with only twenty-five bucks in his pocket.  It’s more than a little shameful that it’s taken me this long in my manly journey to remind myself of his story.  I’ve been smoking a pipe and drinking scotch in search of an elusive rite of passage, but my great-grandfather achieved it at only seventeen years old.  I don’t feel able even at twenty-seven to move to a new country without first learning the language, securing a job, and having more than $527.16 in my bank account (my great-grandfather’s twenty-five bucks adjusted for inflation).  Even missing one of these safeguards would make me trepidatious.

It’s amazing, though perhaps not surprising, how little I’ve appreciated the comfort of a geographic home considering it’s been a given my whole life.  Though the act of emigrating to another country would break my rule of manly challenges not lasting longer than a week (among other excuses), there is a small effort I can make to begin to empathize with my ancestor’s plight.  I decide to take the United States Citizenship Test.

ellis island ledger

The civics portion of the citizenship test contains one hundred possible questions, of which ten are administered on test day.  The hopeful citizen-to-be must answer six of these ten questions right in order to pass the exam.  Though I did well in high school history, I wonder if without a need to retain this knowledge, I’m left with a gaping hole in my brain where state capitals and Civil War battle names used to reside.  Perhaps I’ve neglected the history of our forefathers in the same way I’ve neglected the history of my great-grandfather.

I ask my mom to take the citizenship test as well, partly for support and partly because a little competition never hurt.  I will take the test first without any study and then retake it after reviewing the online study guide the Smithsonian provides for potential American citizens.  I first attempt the seven-page written test on the subway ride home from work, giving myself a mostly uninterrupted hour.

I am pleasantly surprised to find many random American History facts tucked away in crevices of my memory despite not accessing them in a decade – it’s a testament to my public school education I suppose.  I can thank my participation in my high school’s production of Schoolhouse Rock Live! for leaving the preamble to the Constitution on the tip of my tongue (sing it with me now: We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquilityyyyyyyy…).  But some of the dates elude me, as do the rights and responsibilities of United States citizens – you know, the trivial stuff.  I also thought Susan B. Anthony sewed the American flag.  When I tally my score, I end up with an 80.5 out of 100 – barely a B-minus – and the possibility of a revoked citizenship were this test for real.

greek ship

After a few days pass, I visit the Smithsonian’s study guide for some crucial cramming time.  In the meantime, my mom returns her test to me, scoring a 92 and mentioning that the test didn’t pose a challenge only because she has been helping my sister study for Government class tests this year.  I think she’s being modest – she’s always been up-to-date on current events and lives in one of those original thirteen colonies (Question #64) bordering our nation’s capital (Question #94), which – fun fact – happens to be named after our first president (Question #70) and father of our country (Question #69).  Still, her proximity to the government’s headquarters doesn’t account for everything.  She’s always been bright and superb at retaining knowledge.  When the test asked her to name her district’s Representative, I bet she didn’t panic and write down “Al Roker.”  Not that that happened to me.

My retest goes exponentially better, though I do take it mere minutes after studying for a few hours – not exactly exam conditions.  But I’m satisfied that I could name James Madison as one of the writers of Federalist Papers, count 435 Representatives in the House, and know that Susan B. Anthony and Betsy Ross are not the same person.  This time, I score a 98.5, enough points to keep me in this country a little bit longer, at least until Q convinces the Greek army to hire a blogger.

statue of liberty

Taking the citizenship test of your home country is such a tiny gesture, especially when others have to take it in a newly learned language.  I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the Greek government, except that I think they have a parliament.  Wikipedia claims they have a “300-member elective unicameral Parliament,” but they’re just showing off.  Taking the United States Citizenship Test should be required of every citizen, no matter how they were granted their American passport.  Let’s give it every year around tax season, and offer tax credits to passing grades, or at the very least, award “I PASSED” stickers like the “I VOTED” stickers that we wear so proudly.

My mother’s father emigrated to America from Chios, Greece, when he was eight years old.  I hope his village wasn’t too close to where my dad’s grandfather lived.  My grandfather passed through Ellis Island in 1939, unfortunately too late to show up in their online database.  However, in searching for this information, I discovered that he actually arrived via a Turkish ship since the quota for Greek immigrants was full that year, and if he had stayed in Greece, he would have been enlisted in the army, which, at that time, was gearing up for a fight against Mussolini’s troops.  His life, and subsequently mine, would have gone in a very different direction had he not come to America to create a life for himself despite not originally knowing the language.

Q says I should be thankful there’s no Greco-Italian War going on now.  Pshaw, I say.


2.78.  Studying and taking the citizenship test twice took a grand total of four hours.  It’s the absolute minimum effort I can make to know my history, but it’s a step in the right direction.  I can say that I value the struggles of my ancestors, but it’s an empty statement when I can’t begin to understand the obstacles they overcame. I’m going to continue my search for my grandfather’s record of entering Ellis Island and will hopefully come up with something before the next Challenge Update.