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Thoughts on What It Means to Be Armenian

Special for the Armenian Weekly

This year, we traveled to Beirut to celebrate Christmas with my family. It was a joyful time despite the stresses of frequent suicide bombings and already nerve-wracking traffic, compounded by the Syrian refugee crisis and holiday mayhem. We shared great laughs, had mouth-watering food, admired the resilience and candidness of the people and, of course, heard many stories.

One of these stories has been stuck in my mind ever since, giving rise to questions about what it means to be Armenian, how we “stay” Armenian in the diaspora, and what role the existence of Armenia plays in this.

When a friend’s sister picked up her three-year-old daughter from a French school in a suburb of Paris, she was confronted with a question she was not prepared for: “Mum, why do I speak French at school and Armenian at home?”

“Because we are Armenian,” she responded.

Then: “But what does it mean to be Armenian?”

Sometimes kids ask the most difficult questions.

Of course, growing up in Lebanon I did not have to ask that question. Not when I was as young as three anyway. We didn’t need to wonder what it meant to be Armenian. It did not require additional effort or measures that seemed to be at odds with other aspects or realities of life. We just were Armenian. School was Armenian, agoump was Armenian, scout club was Armenian, we spoke Armenian at home and with friends, we had all-day long Armenian radio (more than one) and even satellite Armenian TV. My mum would have the radio on in the kitchen, and the TV on in the sitting room, so she could listen to Armenian in whichever part of the house she happened to be.

Even now, despite the impact that decades of civil war and ongoing political unrest have had on community life, you can still feel it when you’re in Lebanon. You still hear Armenian conversation from every corner while walking the streets of Bourj Hammoud, or have random encounters with complete strangers in Ainjar, which leads to a lunch invitation because he knows your husband’s aunt from when they worked together in Titsmayree years ago. My husband loves it all. Born and having lived in Australia all his life, he has the thirst for it.

After many years of living abroad, now so do I. I don’t know how the rest of the conversation with my friend’s niece went, but I’ve tried to imagine how I would have reacted, if I were her mother.

“There is a country called Armenia where we come from,” I would have said. It is the “simplest” and most logical response I can think of.

Identity is one of those concepts that are beyond straightforward definitions. What it means to be Armenian will differ from one person to another and involve a variety of cultural, political, religious, and geographic factors. However, looking at the diaspora there is no question that for many of us our Armenian identity has been so closely intertwined with the Armenian Genocide—that colossal event that has shaped so much of our thinking, collective memory, traditions, emotions, sense of justice, and both national and personal consciousness.

For most of us, the Armenian Genocide is the “starting point” of our individual family stories because we either don’t know much about what was before 1915 or because we don’t have “access” to it.

Beyond what it means to be Armenian, for the typical diasporan what involves being Armenian has come to be equated with taking part in community life. Community organizations and institutions, social events, and political awareness activities typically set the parameters of how we “exercise” being Armenian.

Yet, in recent years there has been another colossal event in our nation’s history: the emergence of an independent country, the longest surviving independent Armenian state of modern times. But its impact on what it means to be Armenian has been minimal. Many of us in the diaspora are yet to take ownership of Armenia, make it ours in one way or another, make it a part of our individual and family stories.

In diasporan communities where it is increasingly difficult to “remain” Armenian, relying solely on language, history or culture, and the parameters of community life, Armenia is that critical element that can make being Armenian more “real” than ever before.

This has certainly been the case for me. These days, when I’m getting takeaway coffee and the barista is trying to guess where I am from, I tell them the short version: “I am from Armenia.” While my family originates from Kayseri and Harput, over the years I have tried to make today’s Armenia mine and I have written some beautiful stories along the way. Armenia is where I met my husband, where we fell in love, and where got married. Armenia is where my niece was born, where I met her for the first time, and then a year later where I was godmother at her beautiful Christening ceremony. Armenia is what I studied, researched, and wrote about in my master’s thesis. Whether or not I got my degree hinged on that thesis. It is where I encountered and befriended all types of Armenians from all over the world. And it’s what I’ve made this column about.

These are the stories that form an intrinsic part of what it means to be Armenian for me, and they all involve Armenia. They connect me to my identity and ground that identity in a place I can touch and feel. And I know that our family has so many more stories that are yet to be written in and on Armenia.

25 Comments on Thoughts on What It Means to Be Armenian

  1. Enjoyed the article with mixed feelings. Many of us born here in the States did not grow up in a cloistered Armenian neighborhood. We grew up in a Christian Country and we grew up as proud Americans. Having said that, as a first generation Armenian-American I can say without reservation that I am proud of my heritage but would never deny the blessings this magnificant country offered my parents and our own families.

    My wife (also Armenian) and I have traveled back and forth to Armenia a dozen times since 1995. We founded an Orphanage in Vanadzor and we created the Adopt a Family project which provides monthly financial stipends to impoverished families living in metal shipping containers in Vanadzor.

    We are solid Armenians but we are somewhat disappointed with the way that country has evolved. Corruption and a lack of caring by the power brokers is enough to make us cringe. How can Armenians (that which you just described) treat each other with such a terrible lack of respect and Christian love.

    I have tried to get the attention of Vehapar in Etchmiadzin to ask that he intercede for the domig dwellers but we have not succeeded. Our request has been forwarded to the proper committee. Three months have elapsed and we are still waiting.

    But we are still passionate about our “free and independent Armenia” and will continue to help the poverty stricken citizens languishing in horrible living contitions.

    God Bless America and God bless Armenia

    • Hi Berge, sorry to be blunt, but, reaching out to the Vehapar is like barking up the wrong tree. Ever think the Vehapar could be corrupt himself? From what we hear from the rumor mill, the Vehapar bought his votes to become Vehapar. To me, that’s corruption.
      Never before have I heard anything said about the Vehapars, who have passed on to Eternity.

  2. I am from Historic Armenia.

  3. “Many of us in the diaspora are yet to take ownership of Armenia, make it ours in one way or another, make it a part of our individual and family stories.”

    The problem is that even Armenians in Armenia do not have a sense of ownership in the country. They are being denied that sense of ownership by its undemocratic government. They cannot change the government, and they have little voice in the government, which makes them angry, apathetic, and forces them to leave the country. By contrast, the same Armenians in the United States have that sense of ownership in their government and destiny. As a result, we are able to make our communities prosper. Look at Glendale, probably the best example where we Armenians have our own democracy. The problem is not with our people, but with the system in Armenia. When the Diasporans and Armenians in Armenia will have that key sense of owning their country, they will turn Armenia into a prospering miracle. The only way to attain that is by turning Armenia into a democracy. That is where Diasporans need to concentrate their efforts. And for that, we need to use tough love. Pressure on the government, and help to the pro-democracy forces among the people.

    • I wonder why pro democracy smarties never learnt the lessons of Ukraine and Georgia!You hope after pro democracy riots, Russia will hand over Artsakh back to Tatar-turks and to your corrupted Sultan as a gift!!This is not what real “Armenian god” wishes for his beloved nation!

    • The key is to establish the right democracy, i.e. a U.S. style democracy, by first adopting a U.S.-style constitution (since the U.S. is the longest lasting, stablest, strongest, and most prosperous democracy, four qualities we want for Armenia). If Ukraine adopts a U.S. style democracy (including federalism), nothing will defeat Ukraine (and no region will want to separate from Ukraine). If Armenia adopts a U.S. style democracy, nothing will stop it.

  4. avatar Silva Arzunyan // March 6, 2014 at 3:43 am // Reply

    I like your article and I think there is a place and need for this form of discussion in our time. As the world becomes increasingly smaller we all become increasingly busier and more distant. We need to be able to connect to maintain our identity.
    Berge Minasian, please tell me how I can become involved in the Adopt a Family project you mentioned. I was not able to locate anything through a Google search. I am also very lucky to have the opportunity to grow up in the States. Hence, I feel that has God placed me in a place of better opportunity so that I can help those with less.

  5. avatar Vera Parseghian // March 6, 2014 at 5:41 am // Reply

    Emotional, touchy and spoken from my heart. I have lived in Lebanon all my life, but when I visited Armenia for the first time, I felt a strange feeling of having been there before. An inner attachment, which makes me belong to Armenia, because it’s OUR ARMENIA!

  6. avatar Berge Minasian // March 6, 2014 at 12:06 pm // Reply

    Silva, sorry I didn’t mention that our work is conducted via the Humanitarian Outreach Foundation. We can be reached via tminasian@sbcglobal.net or call 858 481 8904. We have been helping orphans and the poorest of the poor in Armenia.

  7. It’s the gift my family entrusted to me.

  8. avatar Sylva-MD-Poetry // March 7, 2014 at 6:51 am // Reply

    What ‘It-Means’ to be Armenian…
    It means,
    We are Ancient Race
    Our God is Ararat.
    We are honest Race
    We work Very Hard
    To invent, create and
    Serve heartily our earthy mankind.
    We are Artful Race
    We carve Khachkars to
    Decorate our tombs
    Before and after we sigh…!!!
    And wait for savages
    To reach and crush
    With their evil hands…!!!
    Sylva~MD~Poetry
    March 7, 2014
    written instantly

  9. America gives you opportunity and (freedom?)
    1-2 generations later, America takes the soul of your family and blends it until its bland and does not resemble the prior. So grand yes, but a facade.
    Opportunity yes, but you loose your soul.
    Plenty yes, plenty of filth.
    Fake yes, that’s what The American Dream is build on, abuse, lies, dishonor and lack of family. It thrives on the DEATH of other cultures. We know we are losing ourselves and heritage here in this country in less than 2 generations. But we pretend, just like early Armenians from Fresno, New York and Boston with their multiple Churches and sense of Armenia. Where are those Armenians but wasted and blended in the WONDERFUL CULTURALLY CONSUMING WHIRL WIND OF THIS COUNTRY. Having come from Genocide, those early Armenians should be our litmus test. If they with all their Armenianisim and strong cultural Armenian feelings did not survive here as Armenians 1 hundred years later, how will my children in this media ridden world of rewritten histories? I can always pretend by finding examples of exceptions, but Fresno speaks loud and clear as to what will happen to Armenians who stay and pretend with the fake grandeur of this bubbled up magnificence of a country. Let us be real, the Italians came and are gone, the Germans came and now they are gone, the Irish the Danes, the Scottish. Now its our turn to come and be gone in this system that was setup to destroy souls of others cultures for their gain. This will happen to whomever stays here long enough. This system wants us to prosper but not as Armenians. There are plenty of countries whose Armenian populations have grown since the migrations of the genocide era but not here. This country can not allow our cultural baggage to survive. They don’t need it they just need our thousands of years of life experience which they make their own as soon as they disconnect us from our heritage and usually the first thing that happens is Armenian language is forgotten. Does that happen forcefully or voluntarily in this Grand country of facades?
    It happens with systematic forces meant for the purpose of acculturation. Why is it that you think it takes 5 years to become a citizen. Because that it the least amount of time proven to be necessary to make sure their investment migrant do not return home and 5 years is plenty of time for a 5 year old Armenian be born in America and not speak Armenian so in essence be lost in less than half generation.
    Regardless of what anyone feels for America, it is a country build on the death bed of thousands of years of human culture, starting with the millions of Native Americans slaughtered before its inception as a country. And regardless of how high and mighty it might look, this country must have migrants, it survives because it has a ruthless migration system. What you think it was good fortune and luck that we ended up here? Or is it that America is so Grand that it takes care of all the misfortune people of the world? NO
    When America purposely destroys countries the first thing they filter the top rich and brightest for themselves (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Germany WWII)
    Should there not be thousands of Syrian refuges here, poor poor Iraqis, Africans, destitute Chinese? Why are Armenians given the fast pass of immigration to this land of the plenty and the free? Well my Armenian friend, that is because they are after desirable traits in cultures. Armenian are ripe already. Why bring 5, 10, 50 million Africans and uneducated Chinese when you can systematically bring the profitable cultures. Is it by chance Indians are pouring in? No, systematic.
    We are systematically being wiped off but we pretend our henchman is our savior. Shame on us, because for America, it just business, we are not the first people they have walked all over and committed genocide against. Its we who need to see and be warned to what is to come. (who coined the term white genocide, an Armenian)? Most likely not. Most likely coined by those in the genocide business. America being a perpetrator for not agreeing with past atrocities is in the front line of rapist nations. Beware and follow the money. Our natural competition (enemy) hates us and wants us destroyed. Armenians beware.

    • avatar Hagop D // March 9, 2014 at 4:58 pm //

      You bring up good points, but I think that part of that fault is our own. America is not just the problem, it is everywhere and every time throughout history. We had Armenian communities before in India, Singapore, Holland and other places, those are nowhere to be found today too. The US is just another, except it is lasting longer because large numbers of us went to the USA, and keep going to reinforce the old migrations. But you are right, in the end they will all disappear into a culture which is always changing itself, both in genetic makeup and values. I once heard a lecture on this and the conclusion was, assimilation cannot be stopped, but it can be slowed down.

      Lebanon and Syria have been two places where Armenians have by and large kept their culture, even though some assimilation is going on there too. For one, living among (friendly) Muslims has proved a benefit to us for keeping both our culture and religion. The west is not like this, whether it is America, France or elsewhere. In Muslim majority countries, Muslims stay Muslim and Christians stay Christian, it is simple as that. That is also another reason why Iran’s Armenian community also managed to survive. And also, I believe another reason, yet more important, is the fact that Armenians form the Middle East having lived through the Genocide tend to be very patriotic and they want their ancestral lands back, which is mere kilometers away.

      Those same Armenians largely from the traditional diaspora that are now in the US are the ones who have built up Armenian communities, with churches, schools etc. in order to “keep their culture”. This worked out well in the past, but in this day and age, the future looks bleak.

      As for Armenians from Armenia having arrived in the US in the past decade or two, I don’t know what will be of their future generations in the US, but I am not too optimistic because many of them keep their distance from diaspora Armenians that have been in the US longer. The reverse might be true too, but it is a difference of, as we say “sovorutiun”.

      In the end we can all agree, there is but one place on Earth where Armenians will be able to stay Armenian: in Armenia itself. However, we can’t implement a mass repatriation program yet, there are many issues waiting to be worked out.

    • Dear Ruben,
      As a proud American of Armenian heritage, American-Armenian, I take umbrage to and resent your offensive, caustic and venomous ramblings regarding the United States of America.
      As a first generation American-Armenian, I, along with many other American-Armenians was honored to serve in the United States military.
      Since you apparently are not pleased living in the United States of America, I suggest you return to where ever you came.

  10. Dear Ms. Mayissian,
    Thank you for your poignant writing.
    Regarding, “Armenia is what I studied, researched and wrote
    about in my Masters Thesis”.
    Is it possible to post your thesis on this web site?
    Thank you.

    • Quite intense. It was nice to see my feelings/thoughts “written” down by someone else.

  11. My maternal and paternal roots go to Harput. However, at this point in time 6 generations have now lived in the US. The earliest 2 generations survived the genocide and 4 born as Americans. The family stretches from London to LA. Armenian is no longer the primary identifier.

    We clearly see ourselves as Americans. Americans with Armenian lineage but Americans first and foremost.

    Unless members of the diaspora move back to Armenia-then increasingly the Armenian identification will recede–it will be an interesting part of the the family lineage but certainly not primary.

    The point-if you want the Armenian identity to survive as generations unfold-then move to Armenia. If you continue to live here and expect subsequent generations to share your strong and heart-felt identity as an Armenian, then you may live to be disappointed.

  12. avatar gaytzag palandjian // March 8, 2014 at 5:51 pm // Reply

    To whom it concerns and looks at it without Armenian J…..
    A. I have just written a PLEA/Prompting the Govt. in RA to accept.-
    5 permanent delegates from our main 5 continent-Diaspora,i.e. N.&S.Americas,EU,RF,and the Middle East. within the Ministry of Diaspora. To , thus cooperate not only with the local executives at that ministry but within themselves to co ordinate all issues re enhancement of issues in RA.
    B. I have also ¨´suggested¨´ that RA Govt. allow 5 permanent Diaspora delegates(as above) within the NATIONAL ASSEMBLY!!!!!
    C. I have also ¨¨suggested¨ that the National Assembly consider to issue ¨¨Special Passports¨¨ say for Ten yrs to the Yoiuth-Young of the Diaspora(s) ,thus encouraging visits of same to homeland and feel proud with these passports(dual citizenship permitting in given Diaspora country9.While these would undergo,besides language, culture and hisoty teaching MILITARY CADET TRAINING for a month, togetherwith the newly conscripts.Our young are not thus trained in many countries where military service is no more compulsory.
    C. To also consider at National Assembly , to have a Second Higher Legistlative Chamber.That of a ´S E N A T E ¨.We need that in RA.For many of our ex diplomats, politicians patriots are left in the margin.We need those there to cooperate etc., etc., etc.,
    If these important issues are not considered,then the present unenviable situation w/rgd to Diaspora will continue.At best as a Formality, as it is n ow!!!!
    Best wishes and luck Armenians.And do carry on your individual Aids/help ñlike some mention.Who doesn´t?? indeed who don´t let them be satisfied that they don´t.Pêriod

  13. avatar Shayen(shahen) Tuntoglu(tuntayan) // March 8, 2014 at 9:38 pm // Reply

    All our stories are simular,my mother also from Kayseri father Sungurlu,being born in istambul,went to Armenian school spoke Armenian at home came to Canada at1961.Come to Armenia,unfortunatley the rulers god is money people think they are going take all their posetions with them when they dia.We as people lets do our best by going to Armenia if we can wisit them once every 2 years stying with them by buying 1 Kilo of tomato will help them eventually their economy needs our help a kilo of tomato at the time as Berge Minasian does ,imagine if we wern’t exiled and killedwe would of been one hundred million strong look at Chinese they are even opening a school in Armenia to teach Chinese.
    let’s also remember our Armenians in Syria.

  14. Dear Ruben;
    As a proud American of Armenian heritage, AMERICAN – ARMENIAN,
    I umbrage to and deeply resent your caustic and venomous ramblings
    regarding the United States of America.
    You are apparently unhappy living in America and I strongly suggest you return to where ever you came from.

  15. There’s no such thing as “Armenian” or “being Armenian”. There’s no scientific rationale behind such a notion. Race and ethnicity are all socially constructed ideas that should might as well be socially destructed. Our DNA doesn’t say “Made in Armenia”. It doesn’t make that differentiation. Everything we associate with “being Armenian” are attributes that can be applied to every human being regardless of their race.

  16. avatar Yerevanian // March 11, 2014 at 5:33 am // Reply

    It appears that Senator McCain’s neurotic servant is again making a desperate and failed attempt to convince everyone that having a democracy will automatically produce prosperity, as well as military power. However, one has absolutely nothing to do with the other. If we take a look at the two non-democratic countries of Russia and China, they both actually happen to be military superpowers. In terms of economic prosperity, there are actually many economically prosperous countries out there which don’t happen to be democracies, such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Kuwait, and China. As a matter of fact, contrary to his/her false claim that the United States is the most economically prosperous country on the planet, it actually happens to be number 24.

    On the subject of U.S. style democracy, the United States has actually never been anywhere close to a true democracy. A democracy is a form of government that represents all its people, in which all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. If we examine the history of the United States, we will discover how various races of people in America were excluded from any kind of democracy. A perfect example of this, would be the African-American people. In addition to being subjected to brutal slavery for so many years, they were totally deprived of any kind of basic human rights for over three hundred years of American history. What about the Latinos? What about the whole entire population of American citizens of Japanese ancestry, over on the West Coast, who were locked up in detention camps surrounded by barbed wire during World War 2, right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor? What about the original Americans (Native American Indians)? Not only was their entire land stolen, but in addition, they were subjected to genocide by the United States. And now, whatever is left of that once rich and thriving Native American Indian civilization, only exists in tiny pieces on those miserable reservations. Where’s the democracy in all this? This sure isn’t the definition of democracy. This is the definition of hypocrisy.

    In terms of the U.S. constitution, the Bill of Rights, which happens to be the heart of this particular document, doesn’t carry very much weight anymore due to the enormous suppression of it by Uncle Sam. As a result, the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens today, are much less than what it used to be. It’s quite evident that the United States is rapidly moving in the direction of being a police state. That sure does not constitute the definition of a democracy. As a matter of fact, that’s the exact opposite of a democracy.

  17. E pluribus unum–That is what it says above the front door. If you enter don’t whine about assimilation. If you stay-don’t keep plaintively crying “ain’t it awful” Armenians are leaving behind their ethnic-tribal affiliations here in the USA.

    There are options:

    1. Relocate to Armenia

    2. Relocate to a middle eastern country-where people are grouped by tribe and sect and live in fear that binds them in enclaves. There are many Armenian enclaves where the identity is continually reinforced by hostility borne of the tribal mentality of others.

  18. Actually, on the subject of enclaves, you have just as many enclaves inhabited by people living in fear, right here in the United States, as you do in the Middle East or anywhere else for that matter. Take a look at all the Black ghettos which exist in America today. Take a look at all the Hispanic barrios which exist in America today. Take a look at those Native American Indians living on those miserable reservations. Hey, the United States is a nation filled with enclaves. That’s what happens when you end up having a foul capitalist economic system, ruled by wealthy Anglo-White supremacists.

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