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Where Does My Armenia Stop and My Diaspora Begin?

Gegham Mughnetsyan (photo by Karineh Minissian)

Gegham Mughnetsyan (photo by Karineh Minissian)

I was born in Armenia (in Gyumri to be exact) when the Soviet Empire was taking its last breaths and Armenian independence was only months away. I belonged to a generation that had to grow up in a period of political, economic, and cultural change, which only brought confusion about who or what was to blame for that gloomy, endless transition.

Fifteen years later, I found myself a world away in Glendale, Calif., in pursuit of a life that promised better opportunities for my parents, my two brothers, and me. Aside from having to learn the language and the customs of this strange land, we found ourselves conflicted about our “Armenian-ness” in the land of the diaspora; many of our peers did not speak Armenian nor had ever been to Armenia, yet they considered themselves equally Armenian. Unlike them, my childhood was not spent at Homenetmen or youth camps, my mother did not make choreg, I did not go to Sunday School, May 28th was not that special, my grandparents were not genocide survivors, and April 24th was not a day of protest but rather a day off when we’d gather around the television and watch “Mayrig.”

For our peers who were born in the diaspora, Armenia was the “promised land” where everyone spoke Armenian and one could see Mount Ararat from their window. For us, Armenia was and is a collection of memories from a childhood spent in cold winters, with a shortage of everything from drinking water to textbooks to electricity—always in a state of constant need and of less and less hope…

I have been grateful to this country for all that it has given to me and my family. I have found “little Armenias” in church groups and student organizations, and have kept those Armenias close to my heart. I have walked in Little Armenia (Glendale) and chanted “1915 never again,” I have donated to the Armenia Fund, attended banquets, danced while Harout Pamboukjian sang. Yet, I still constantly find myself outside of the diasporan structure.

I have looked at the diaspora’s efforts and been critical of how it is not a unified force. I’ve been equally critical of how Armenia treats the diaspora as an ATM machine that exists solely to provide monetary resources with as little involvement in Armenian affairs as possible.

Today, after having graduated from Berkeley, where in my capacity as the president of the Armenian Students’ Association I got to meet with Armenians from different “stages” of the diaspora, I am at crossroads. As a member of the first generation of so-called “Stantsis,” who were born in independent Armenia and left to pursue opportunities thousands of miles away, I find myself equally distant from both directions. And I’m trying to figure out where my Armenia stops and my diaspora begins.

 

Gegham Mughnetsya​n was born in Gyumri, Armenia, in 1991. He moved to the United States in 2006 and settled in Glendale, Calif., with his family. In May 2013, he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in peace and conflict studies. His honors thesis was titled, “The United States’ Foreign Policy toward Nagorno-Karabagh.”

18 Comments on Where Does My Armenia Stop and My Diaspora Begin?

  1. I think there is an unfortunate misunderstanding of who is a Genocide survivor or not.

    The author’s grandparents (or their parents) were indeed Genocide survivors, whether he thinks so or not, by virtue of the fact that they resided in either (1) The Armenia of Czarist Russia or (2) The Armenia of the 1st Republic.

    This is because the Genocide was perpetrated not just in Ottoman Armenia but across the border in Russian Armenia when the Turks invaded in 1914 down through 1920.

    This history is not well-understood by many in Hayastan and the Diaspora.

    That is unfortunate because it leads to a lot of misunderstanding as to the nature of the Turkish threat.

  2. I agree with David B. The “Stantsis” as the auther is saying, need to be educated about the “Genocide years”. All Armenians are victims of the Genocide, but during the 70 years of Sovient Union, The Armenians in Hayastan did not have the chance to learn about the truth. It is the duty of the Deaspora organizations, schools and Churches to teach the truth. I want to congratulate Gegham for this article. In 2009, when he was a high shool senoir he was the second place winner of the ‘Visi Armena, It Is Beautiful” Essay Contest, when he wrote in Armenian about “Why I want to visit Armenia”.

    • avatar Shushan // June 26, 2013 at 2:45 pm //

      Thank you for the enlightening article and the very eloquent way you described your “crossroads”- perhaps now with your unique perspective, and well accomplished knowledge base you can offer your expertise to what we have left of Armenia, in Armenia…and to its hopefully flourishing future. Our small nation needs strong youth to invigorate its lands once again…perhaps its time to go home.

  3. I think David and Ara may have missed the point of the article. While the ancestors of “stantsis” were genocide survivors, the identity of a Eastern Armenian person is not based on genocide survival as much as that of a person whose family survived or perished in Adana, for example. Armenian identity is much more complex than having just survived genocide and needing to deal with its continued denial. Saying that we need to be more educated about the spread of the genocide serves to reinforce the feeling of being outside the diasporan culture that Gegham writes about. The impact of the genocide is different in each of us. It is not a matter of lack of education, but a matter of different family histories being passed down to the new generations

  4. I agree with the the comments of Ara and David,sadly they have not been taught well in Armenia due to circumstances.

  5. With all due respect, I don’t think this author needs a history lesson. While the genocide is in the consciousness of most Armenians in Armenia and outside Armenia, one shouldn’t have prove, claim or search for links to the genocide in order to feel a connection to the diaspora.

  6. 4 of the 6 comments (thus far) emphasize “genocide.” And then what? Of course Gegham’s piece is indirectly connected to issues such as the one emphasized in the comments, but the piece is rooted in a different inquiry, yes?

  7. Gegham, thank you so much for this. I have been fascinated for years by the question of where notions of homeland and diaspora intersect. After getting my BA from UC Berkeley (and serving as ASA co-president, Go Bears!) I did my MA at the American University of Beirut and wrote my thesis on Lebanese-Armenian notions of homeland. I am third generation, half Armenian, and grew up in a very small community in northern California totally outside of formal diaspora structures, all of which complicated my own diaspora experience. I loved hearing about your experiences exploring these questions from a very different perspective.

  8. avatar Berge Jololian // June 26, 2013 at 4:06 pm // Reply

    I have lived in the US for most of my life, was not born and raised in Armenia, and do not have any family relatives in Armenia; but the only place I feel at home is when I travel to Armenia several times per year.

    There is no stop sign for Armenia and there is no start sign for diaspora.

    Stay connected with Armenia – reach out to people in a remote village in Armenia – provide assistance within your own field of expertise, direct people-to-people help with immediate results – skip the bureaucracies, delays, misguided diaspora organizations and make a difference in people’s lives in Armenia.

    Armenia is so precious and so worth fighting for despite the difficulties in dealing with it.

  9. avatar Igor Grigorian // June 26, 2013 at 4:27 pm // Reply

    The issue is much more complicated than the author and commenters were able to ackonwledge; it is simply in the disunity of the diaspora and Armenia Armenians. Being tought in Armenia extremely well, Armenia Armenians had other goals in their life – to build new country in what was left of Armenia. Bare necessities were luxury, food plain, salaries low, freedom of speach and movement limited. Diaspora, on the other hand, did not have these problems, so it concentrated on uniting itself (whithin political parties, of course) with one goal in mind – Genocide. This is just an outline what could arise to a major discussion, if anybody is interested.

  10. In addition to geographic separation with the homeland, the main impact of the diaspora is the creation of several
    ” sub-cultures.” Although these have built identity for people within that sub-group( just as for Western Armenian survivors of the genocide the Sepastiatzis and Kharpertzis connected with one another) , the groupings today are a reflection of the influence of many diverse cultures… Some part of which becomes part of the “new Armenian sub-group” . Prior to 1991, the , it consisted primarily of many different disaporan experiences. Today, we have the added dynamic of immigration from Armenia….. Which amplifies the eastern and Western Armenian cultures, but is much more complex than that obviously.
    With this reality, our institutions and leaders must emphasize what binds us together….not our learned differences. It is complicated but similar the challenges our people have faced for centuries. Our history is not nearly as united or common as we perceive, but we have built an identity as Armenians with it. We connect with the ideal of Armenian identity.

  11. I want to encourage Gegham to pursue his studies further and to consider earning a Master’s degree. Your prose demonstrates a talent for languages and an eloquent manner, which can be so influential and helpful in promoting our community in the United States. As a fellow Armenian-American (born in Yerevan in ’86), I recognize the challenge to our identity that you describe here, but I always view it as an opportunity and an advantage, rather than a hinderance.

  12. avatar Vahe Ardzat // June 27, 2013 at 1:15 am // Reply

    Gegham congratulations on your article. You are clearly an eloquent writer. You have accurately described the situation in a typical diasporan community ( as viewed by a neutral observer and a hayastani hay).
    Yes your piece gives some precious food for thought to all who who will read it but i would have like to see the ANSWER to that question. Where does your Armenia end and where does your Diaspora begin? It’s the other way around for diasporans! Do we have to have an end and a beginning? Why not have leaders in Hayastan that can make it possible for a diasporan to invest their money and lives in their homeland without fear and doubts? My family has paid ‘blood tax’ to the ottoman empire. The genocide MUST be recognised. The priority, however, should be the AVOIDANCE of a new geno(sui)cide. We need unity, education and a national strategy. All that starts with diasporans becoming more understanding of the real needs of the homeland and its people (inside and outside the country) and with ‘hayastani hayer’ adapting faster to their new environments and adopting the diasporan brand of selfless patriotism.

  13. Great article Gegham. I often feel a similar discord between my Armenian and my Diaspora. After much internal struggle I am settling on living a life in the diaspora due to necessity. This country has given me every opportunity. I have lived in the US since I was 10, in 1992. Having escaped the dark days of Armenia. This is now my “home”. Yet I love Armenia instinctively and it feels more like home to me. I come from an “Axpar” mom, a family of genocide survivors, and a “theghatsi” dad. All these titles. To me the genocide has become an issue that may lead to the doom of Armenianess in the Diaspora. The resources, time and effort spent in the Diaspora on genocide recognition are precious resources taken away from building Armenian schools, teaching our kids Armenian history and establishing programs for diasporans to return to Armenia, to serve our country with our knowledge and expertise, revitalize and change our homeland. Genocide was an atrocity. But another atrocity awaits us – genocide by Armenians of Armenians. Diaspora youth (and adults) are assimilating and losing their ties with Armenia and people in Armenia are in despair, ready to flea anywhere but Armenia. It’s time we shift our priorities and unite for a better future.

  14. Dear Gegham , your questions come from a real place and are natural, especially now that you are evolving from “1915 never again “ chanting age group into a responsible, “welcome to the real world” group.
    Like you, I was born and to the age of 14 was raised in Armenia. Although of a different time and nature, my family also experienced hardships back home. Similarly, I come of age and became a “diasporan” in the rich mosaic of cultural, social reality of “little Armenia” ( Hollywood and Glendale). Unlike you, I did grow up with stories of genocide, the lost homeland and western Armenian culinary traditions, as all sides of my family were descendants of the genocide survivors.
    Never less, at about your age, some 25 years ago, I did have the same concerns and questions haunting me. Since then, my life experience has brought me to the awareness that Armenia and diaspora are parts of same reality and identity and a person who values and is honored with Armenian identity should understand and embrace both without separating one from another, without allowing the outdated sectarian mentality to “divide and conquer” that some still entertain in order to satisfy their own insecurities. Embrace it without accepting the still lingering arrogance of any one segment to “teach” or to “educate” to the other part of the whole. Gegham jan , Your diaspora began when you set foot in it and started participating and shaping it with your presence and participation. Accept it as it is and take part in it, shape it as you can, and as your fresh, new, evolved education and vision will allow you. God knows allot can be improved and more can be achieved… (Not to say a “Tahrir square” or a “Gezi park” “cleansing” in our reality is long overdue and will help allot). The Armenian diaspora has a long history even before the catastrophe of the genocide and has existed, functioned and evolved as long as it did. Some might flatter themselves, but dear fellow Armenian, no one has a monopoly to the diaspora, or a “diploma” / membership giving authority as it is part of your Armenian identity no matter where you live as an Armenian person. Welcome to diaspora, now starts shaping and enriching it, as I’m sure you will.

  15. The diaspora cannot be organized under a single umbrella taking care of all its aspects. The diaspora has to be active within the polticial, cultural and social spheres and all these spheres require that each community interacts with the local population and adapts to the local rules, regulations and values. Considering that none of those local values has precedence over the others, which one will be guiding the instance speaking in the name of the diaspora? This takes you back to my first point, where the Republic of Armenia has the right and is expected to set its own set of rules and values.

  16. Very often we find ourselves in our service to others.

  17. avatar gaytzag palandjian // June 28, 2013 at 1:21 pm // Reply

    Bravo Berj Jololian,
    Keep going to RA and stay connected.All else is )))))))))))))))000000
    Because we do have an Independent Republic now.Few know that some Euro small countries or peopl that have different language than that spoken within that Euro country, is theirs..Like take yesterday i met with a Welsh Couple in remote, spain…we got t o talk about ourselvews.I set forth that I was Armenian and that I knew their Parliament rgdless of the Brits ahd recognizesd the Armen Genocide and that we appreciate that!!!!
    Keep the flame alive ablaz whatever. otherwise we shall become like those Welsh ,B asque or Catalan or sicilians that CRAVE TO BE INDEPENDENT BUT NO DICE…AN AMERICAN SAYING GOES…
    FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.FACT IS I HAVES A T SHIRT THAT SAYS SO UP FRONT OF IT. SEE MR. NEWCOMER TO GLENDALE..
    WE SHED BLOOD TOBECOME INDEPENDENT IN 1918 AND AFTER TCHAT TOO WE GAVE 200,000 ARMENIAN LIVES AT THE GAGTES OF BERLIN, THAT THE SOVIET RUSSIAN MORE OR LESS APPRECIATE IT..AS WELL AS THE ALLIES OF THE TIME.DEEP IN THEIR HEARTS KNOW THAT THE ARMENIAN PEOPLKE HAS ALWAYS BEEN ON THE SIDE OF THE GOOD GUY!!!!
    BUT SO FAR ,ALAS THEY HAVE NOT PAID BACK TO US.BUT THEY WILL HOPEFULLY SOON,WHEN THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY COMES AROUND *OF OUR GENOCIDE AND WE RAISE OUR VOICES QUITE HIGH THIS TIME OVER,HOPEFULLU.
    LET US ORGANIZE ,RATHER RE-ORGANIZE NOW…BOTH DIASPORA ND RA/ARTGSKAQH
    BEST HASGCOGHIN

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