Here’s the second contribution in our ongoing series Seeing Ourselves Through Others’ Eyes.
Hélène Stelian’s story raises the idea of what is often called the cultural “melting pot” that is America. A popular metaphor and one I was taught to believe in from grade school on, it holds that as new waves of immigrants reach our shores, they join the simmering “melting pot” and blend in.
But somewhere along the way, I began to think of us as more of a stew, where we still know which is the mushroom and which is the carrot — which is the Irishman outside of Boston and which is the Scot in the hills of Tennessee. The resulting dish wouldn’t be the same without each ingredient. In more simple terms: our diversity is what makes us so delicious. And we celebrate those very differences.
I’ll add Hélène’s various links at the end. For her bio from the start of this series, click here. Here’s her updated bio that came out after that introductory post:
Hélène Tragos Stelian is a life coach, speaker, and author.
As a certified life coach, she helps people who feel stuck or lost take bold steps into a life of renewed meaning and purpose. She leads workshops on many subjects, including purpose, perfectionism, success, and goal-setting.
In her blogs, Purpose Stories and Next Act for Women, she shares inspirational stories of people who have found their life’s calling—and are living it—at any age. She also writes about purpose, midlife, women, parenting, and college for other sites, including the Huffington Post.
And now, here’s her story, telling us how she found herself, here in this “e pluribus, unim” (out of many, one) land.
Finding Myself—Out of the Cultural Melting Pot
I am the product of multiple cultures, yet at home in none. The daughter of a Greek-American and a Dane, I grew up in Paris, France, where I attended a French all-girls Catholic school—nuns and all. I knew I was different. Neither French nor Catholic, I was excused from catechism classes (I hung out with the other non-Catholic, a Protestant girl).
My parents spoke English to us at home, and my siblings and I answered in French. We spent Christmas holidays with my mother’s family in Denmark and summers with my father’s relatives in Greece. I was exposed to many languages in my home and on our travels, not to mention learning German at school.
The extent of my Americanism during those years was confined to regular visits to the American grocery store in Paris, where my siblings and I got to choose one box of sugary cereal each—I’d try to protect my Apple Jacks when my older brother and two younger sisters inevitably finished off their Cocoa Krispy’s (with my delayed gratification, I’d have aced the marshmallow test!)—and our twice yearly treat of a movie and lunch at McDonald’s on the Champs Elysees (the only one at the time in Paris), where I always had a Big Mac, French Fries, and a vanilla shake. Still, I felt more French than any other nationality, despite my American passport.
As you can imagine, moving to the US in 1977, when I was 13, was quite the culture shock. My father had always wanted his children to go to American universities, and with my older brother turning 16, it was now or never.
We spent the summer in Denmark while our furniture was on a slow ship to America (French wine smuggled into the many boxes of belongings), then flew to JFK, where my Dad, who’d arrived early, picked us up in our new station wagon, a shockingly enormous car by European standards.
This was to be the first of many surprises and discoveries as we acclimated to our new house in Greenwich, Connecticut, a tony suburb of New York City.
While I’d heard English at home from my parents, and taken one year of it at school, I did not speak it much at all. Our parents worked on our English with the help of books (I remember being shocked at the word “apologize” as I’d never heard such a strange sounding word with the same meaning as sorry). They also hired a popular Greenwich high school boy to help us learn baseball (we were no match for him despite his having only one arm, and I was not nearly coordinated enough to learn the sport, or its complex rules).
My dad decided to complete our American cultural education by taking us to the movie Saturday Night Fever, which only scared the heck out of me (and was the last movie you’d want to see with your father). Happily, there was a McDonald’s on the Post Road so we were able to indulge that craving enough that it soon lost it special appeal.
Now imagine a geeky, 13-year old walking into public school on her first day, in her Catholic school uniform complete with navy blue skirt, white button down blouse, and white bobby socks. I’d been put in 9th grade based on the number of years of schooling I’d had but was one year younger than my peers. Yep, you guessed it, I was bullied mercilessly. That was a rough year. From a fairly outgoing and confident French teen, I quickly turned into a shy and awkward American wannabe.
My siblings and I were hell bent on losing our heavy French accents. We did it by watching a lot of TV. At the time, there were only a few stations in the US, but the programming was far more family and kid friendly than anything we’d experienced in France. I was glued to the tube. Favorite shows? MASH, Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels, Brady Bunch, Happy Days, Three’s Company, Cheers, The Partridge Family, and Bewitched.
After 9th grade, which was part of middle school, I moved on to Greenwich High School, an enormous place (900 in my graduating class) where I could lose myself and escape the nasty girls who had bullied me and now had bigger fish to fry, as in older high school boys to chase. I made some friends but still felt very nerdy, not a label I embraced as fully as kids seem able to these days.
It didn’t help that I taught AP French Language my senior year, and found myself chasing down class skippers (Renata, I’m looking at you). Not a recipe for popularity. I was fascinated by the cliché groupings in the school: We had an enormous central atrium with areas staked out for the Greasers, Potheads, Jocks and Cheerleaders—just like in Happy Days!
Fast forward 35 years: I live in Chicago and am the married mother of twin 19-year old girls, a new empty nester. My husband and I were determined to expose our daughters to many nationalities and learn to appreciate diverse cultures; we made it a priority to travel extensively as a family.
We’ve visited every continent except Antarctica, with amazing voyages from hiking in Patagonia to climbing the Great Wall of China, cruising in the Galapagos islands to trekking with gorillas in Uganda, rafting the Grand Canyon to sailing in Sydney Harbor, visiting Peter’s grandparents in Romania to checking out my old home in Paris.
It’s only in my 50s that I’ve started feeling more authentically myself, and own it. My motley background has informed my empathy and understanding for those who feel “other.” I still pronounce some American words strangely and get quizzical looks when I’m in France and speak with fluidity yet without knowledge of the current lingo.
I guess it’s no surprise that I’m now a life coach, helping women figure out who they are and what they want out of life—how to own their authenticity and use it to find meaning going forward.
Thanks for adding your story, Hélène. Coming over as a young teen, must have been doubly traumatic; teen years are difficult enough without adding being totally uprooted from familiar surroundings and put in a class where everyone was a year older. It’s the to-be-expected bullying you suffered in 9th grade that struck a nerve. I’m of the “zero-tolerance” for bullying camp and, frankly, am agog that the powers that be in Greenwich CT weren’t more on top of that.
The mother in me wants to ask what form the bullying took, how you responded, what you told your parents, how they responded (and so many more). But the blogger in me just asks,
How about you? What questions do you have for Hélène?