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.”