Manjikian: To Look Armenian (or Not)

Here in the North American hemisphere, we just welcomed the summer solstice, which means longer days of sunlight and the official beginning of vacation season. We have all felt that sense of liberation when taking off on a much-needed break. Less stress, the degree of anonymity that often comes with landing in a new spot, and a slower pace, combined with landscapes offered by nature, allow for us to decompress, re-group, and re-connect with ourselves.

When I do take off, there is one aspect of my everyday life that I don’t fully give up, as much as I enjoy giving up email for a few days. I have noticed that I cannot go too long without interacting with other Armenians. And no matter where I am in the world, I am always on the lookout for other Armenians; it is likely a congenital defect. However, once I do find myself in a new city or town, identifying other Armenians is not as obvious as it may seem. There is no definite way of identifying one, given the reality of global dispersal, which only makes my quest to find other Armenians more interesting. Just like Armenians living in France, Argentina, or Lebanon pick up local accents, lifestyles, cuisines, and cultural cues from their current dwelling place, our physiognomies are increasingly changing. Furthermore, we don’t have a particular mark that identifies us as being Armenian. Sure, the common staples remain Armenian eyes in reference to women and Armenian noses for men (sorry guys). Nevertheless, I have always had issue with comments like “Oh, he looks so Armenian” or “She has to be Armenian.” I find such comments to be irrelevant, seeing as each individual is so distinct. To confine one’s appearance to his or her ethnicity or cultural background is reductive, as much as we all do it unconsciously.

While vacationing in the United States recently, once again my Armenian radar was on high alert. I am always curious and eager to meet other fellow beads that come from other places and have rolled along various trajectories. I wasn’t in an Armenian stronghold like Los Angeles, but a relatively large community was in proximity. So the chance that I would run into other Armenians was not impossible but less likely compared to other cities or regions.

Two interesting encounters that occurred during my trip came to reinforce the futility of associating physical appearance with ethnicity.

My Armenian friend (whose mother has both Scottish and Irish ancestry) and I were at a grocery store checkout line. A young woman working at the store was helping fill our grocery bags. In the process, she was observing me intently, which my friend discretely brought to my attention in Armenian. I smiled to the woman and she smiled back.

As I thanked her for helping us, she asked in proper English with an accent from the Caucasus: “Where are you from?” When other people asked us this question during the trip, my immediate response would always be either Montreal or Canada. I immediately answered saying, “We’re Armenian.” Her response was: “Menian? I don’t know… You look Turkish.” I then asked her where she was from and she replied, “I’m Turkish.”

At first, I didn’t know what surprised me more—the fact that she claimed to not know Armenians or that I looked Turkish (which was a first; I’ve gotten Italian and Lebanese in the past). By the time my friend and I reached the parking lot, I realized that the woman at the grocery store was not far off at all with her comment on me looking Turkish. My maternal grandparents are, after all, from Anatolia.

The next day, as I was browsing a kiosque in the middle of a shopping mall, a young man who looked like the shopkeeper greeted me by saying hello. I said hello back and he immediately interjected with “Hye es?” (Are you Armenian?) I thought I was having an auditory hallucination. I said, “I’m sorry?” He repeated, “Hye es?” I replied in English that I am and then asked him where he was from. He said that he was born in Jordan and that his grandmother spoke clear Armenian. He seemingly did not speak it. I asked him how he knew I was Armenian. He replied saying, “I don’t know… You look Armenian, your eyes maybe.” I smiled and walked away.

In a matter of two days, I was identified as being Turkish and Armenian.

From my Armenian friend who looks Irish but speaks fluent Armenian, to an “Armenian-looking” young man who doesn’t speak Armenian, to me passing as being Turkish, goes to show that looks can be deceiving, and associating physical traits with certain ethnicities and cultures is futile, though scientists who study genetics may not fully agree with me.

I find that such associations were perhaps more reliable in the past. Today, however, the fragmented and hybridized reality we live in throughout the diaspora debunks the so-called claim of “looking Armenian.”

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Lalai Manjikian

Lalai Manjikian holds a PhD in Communication Studies from McGill University (2013). She currently teaches in the Humanities department at Vanier College in Montreal. Lalai writes and teaches in the areas of human migration, refugee social exclusion and inclusion, the ethics of migration, media and migration, intercultural communication, and diaspora studies. She is the author of Collective Memory and Home in the Diaspora: The Armenian Community in Montreal (2008). Lalai writes a monthly column, titled “Scattered Beads” for the Armenian Weekly.

12 Comments

  1. Great article Lalai !
    It’s so true, everywhere we go, we keep our “radars” open in search of other Armenians… perhaps, it’s because we’re constantly trying to reconnect with our routes. In my case, I’d love to hear stories of survivals, because I know each one of us has a different one to tell.

    And let’s not forget the overall characteristics of Armenians: We are curious people after all. We won’t rest until we know where a person comes from or what nationality they are… lol.
     

  2. I was in Istanbul recently and, must say, that about 50% of the peope I met could have been relatives of mine. The other 50% looked Armenian ;-)

  3. This was a nice read but I have a few comments. This question of looking Armenian or not is dangerous indeed because there are, for example, adopted Armenians who feel more dedicated to their culture and community than anybody else.  So what is an Armenian? It’s someone who accepts that he or she is Armenian.
    It is perfectly normal for Armenians hailing from various regions of historic Armenia and from the 4 corners of the globe to be different from one another. I personally have some hard time distinguishing Georgians from Հայաստանցի-s. With my dark brown hair and white skin, here in Canada, I’ve passed as Lebanese, Argentinean, Mexican, North-African, Italian, Turkish, Russian, you name it… But most Armenians do spot that I’m Armenian.
    That Turkish lady at the grocery store may have thought you’re Turkish because she had never seen a large quantity of Armenians in order to be able to clearly recognize and distinguish them, and she may have associated your traits with those of the Turks who themselves are a heavy mix. So one may wonder about Turks the same things you wondered about diaspora Armenians.
    And by the way, some Armenian women also have quite prominent “Armenian noses”. :) It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

  4. I enjoyed reading your clear, roseful English.
    English is my third language.
    Here is my story from my clinic diagnosing Armenian ethnicity from the hands!

    In spring of 1992, a Bedouin old woman brought her grandson to me, her face was covered as usual. Her petite white hands were holding her grandson in a delicate and artistic way that reminded me my grandmother’s hands and made me interested to see her face. She became friendly with me and, after detailed conversation, said my father was an Armenian orphan from the genocide, brought up by a Syrian family, and later married their daughter, who was my mother. She said at the end, “I am short like my father and have the same personality. He was a kind and intelligent man.” I do regret I did not collect more information; I never thought one day that I would be able write a poetry collections on genocide*. I knew so much that I thought everyone knows about our untreatable pain.
    If I can say, almost all people living in the Middle East, Iran, Egypt, and Arabia know about the genocide, even the recent generation, but in Europe and USA, only among some groups.

    ________________________
    * A Poetic Soul Shined of Genocides

  5. A nice read, Lalai.

    I must say that I have believed in and thought a lot about “the Armenian look”, even though I shall admit in the same breath that I have met a wide variety of physical appearances among Armenians.

    There are certain traits, however, such as noses and eyes, as you say, and hues of skin and hair, height and figure, which make me react, when I spot such people, “That might be an Armenian… or a Kurd, an Arab, Greek, Turk, Jew, Persian… even Italian, Spanish, Mexican, other Latin American…”. Perhaps it ought to be sooner categorised as “Mediterranean” or “Near Eastern”. That’s quite a look!

  6. Dear Lalai

    Being Armenian, I am sure you know the Love Story of ‘Akh Tamar’
    As you carry the name Tamar
    Do you know any poet who wrote about the Cathedral Akhtamar or  ‘Akh Tamar’,
    Please let us know.
    I’m deprived of Armenian Libraries.

    Sylva 

  7. The first thing I did when landed in Pretoria was to look for Armenians… and still that is the first thing I put in search of google before heading to somewhere else…
    Great article. Thanks!
    Meri

  8. Not sure if this is accurate information or not, but my Grandparents were both light skin with light blue eyes. A professor of Anthropology once told me that Armenians were originally light skin, hair and eyes but after the Mongolian invasions and Persian invasion retained a darker look. He also explained that the word Caucasian comes from the area known as the “Caucaus” which is Armenia. In Turkish the word “caucaus” means of “little color”

  9. Not to worry, Anadolu is a Hittite word, not Turkish.
     
    I think this article has a couple of major flaws. Number 1, most people are idiots, so a turk mistaking the author for a turk can be the result of the cashier not being very discriminating in her observation.
     
    Number 2, all those turks who look Armenian probably have Armenian or Greek blood in them. If not, they would look like the guy who makes your egg rolls.

  10. Great article. It doesn’t surprise me that the young lady thought you might be Turkish.  After all the Ottoman Turks have absorbed millions of Armenians over the centuries and converted them to Islam and made them believe they are Turks.  Therefore, they do have features and looks in common with us.  You may consider them the “Lost Beads”.  Who knows they may be worthy of a column of their own someday!

  11. I am not Armenian but I do speak Eastern Armenian tolerably well for a “foriegnor.”  In Yerevan I am not often asked if I am Armenian, as I am a garden variety Anglo-Saxon and look it.  What people do want to know is how it is that I speak the language as they find it very unussual that someone wpould go to the troube to learn it.  I do believe that there is a generic Armenian look despite the diversity of types.  I have also more than once mistaken Turkish folks for Armenians.  This does not offend average Turks who are not Erdogan.

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