People always say they go to Armenia to get in touch with their roots. Me, on the other hand, knew the ayp, pen, keem (ABC’s) by heart by the time I was four and recited Armenian poetry like it was my job. I learn I’m Armenian every time I tell people my name. King Dertad the First and Mesrob Mashdots were supposed to be my heroes. And I never realized that Santa Claus was not from Mount Ararat (which, obviously, is in Armenia) until someone told me in the 5th grade.
I am an Armenian American, but I always considered myself more Armenian than American. Strangely when I first went to Armenia with the AGBU Yerevan Summer Intern Program in the summer of 2007, I felt anything but Armenian.
Do my Kate Spade’s offend you?
Yerekhek (young people), welcome to Armenia! Now, don’t draw any attention to yourselves more than you already do. Your curfew is at 1 a.m.—sharp.
No excuses. Agcheegner (girls), if you notice, there are no women walking around at night. You may do so during the day but make sure you have an escort. And whatever you do, do not smoke anywhere on the street. Yerekhek, bedk eh hasknak, you have to understand how not to be too loud when you’re out. People will stare and when they do, don’t stare back! You won’t fit in (since you’re American) but you should at least try.
Those Kate Spade sunglasses make you look so American.
Why are you listening to your ipod nano on your way to work when most people don’t even have jobs to go to? Heels, ladies, heels will make you look more Armenian. Women here love them. They wear them in different styles and sizes, outrageous colors like neon orange, and the higher the better—they give the illusion of being above the oppression they’re under.
Look both ways before crossing the street, then look again. Madmen are driving in Soviet cars that look like old rotting lunchboxes, but they are fast and will fly by you without warning.
Welcome to church number 3 out of 45. This church was built in the year 365. Watch out for the priest in the Lex. Just ignore the army men standing over there. They’re just doing their job.
Welcome to church number 12. This church is called Etchmiadzin Yegeghetsi. Don’t sit down. It doesn’t matter how tired you are. Stand up. When you exit the church, do it with your back facing the door and make a cross, but before you go, make sure to buy a candle to light for your loved ones. Look around you. Here we have church number 43. This church was built in…
“Look around you…” Vartan said.
Vartan was my friend from the computer lab in our dorm at Yerevan State University. The divide had already been established between my group members, the Yerevan Summer Internship Program interns, and the Armenian locals—between western Armenians and eastern Armenians. I didn’t want to succumb to it, or wanted to break it, whichever it was, so Vartan and I went out to lunch together.
I asked him what people thought of Armenian Americans. “What makes us so different since we are all Armenian?”
“They think you’re crazy,” he replied shamelessly. I didn’t take offense to his brutal honesty. Instead I was genuinely curious as to why it felt like there was a paparazzi following us everywhere we went.
“Why? Because we look different?”
“Look around you…” he said.
I saw two men dressed in black sitting together, not saying a word to one another, only staring inside their cups of coffee, as if the cups contained a hidden message they would find if they looked long enough. The women at the cafe were beautiful and skinny, with red lipstick and long fingernails. It seemed as though they were staring at me the same way the men were staring at their coffee, trying to figure me out, or trying to figure out my intentions behind having lunch with a “deghatsi” (local). Many people were sitting at tables alone, and nobody looked at them or said anything because that was just a way of life. When they weren’t looking over at our table, they were staring blankly into space, as if their bodies were physically present but their minds were somewhere else. For the first time I wasn’t frustrated by the looks, but saddened by them.
“People have nowhere to go,” Vartan continued, as he took another puff of his cigarette. At only 23, Vartan was a chain smoker like many of the men in Armenia. He kept offering me cigarettes, I guess to show that he was different from the rest, which he didn’t really need to prove (taking me out to lunch when I was wearing an army skirt and a tank top, with my hair in a messy ponytail and my Kate Spade sunglasses, was proof enough of his daring nature). But I never viewed smoking as a sign of liberalism or an open mind. I never thought that it was a symbol of rebellion or being “bad.” Instead, I saw it as a form of escapism and loneliness, something to fill up the time, something that makes you feel connected to others. And the more I looked around, the more people I saw smoking; and even the women who didn’t do it, looked as though they secretly wanted to.
“They sit in coffee shops during the day, sipping on the same cup of coffee for hours because they either can’t afford another one or don’t want to move,” Vartan continued. “They just sit there with an expressionless face, almost sad but not quite, more hopeless. And then they look at you, you order food in large quantities, you’re out whenever you want, wearing whatever you want, saying whatever you want, laughing and talking over coffee. That’s crazy to them. They see women going out at night and they stare, not because it’s bad, but because they have a mind that is, what do you call it, kotz (closed). They see you walking around in casual clothing and hair that’s not done and the women stare because women are supposed to look pretty and made up at all times.”
I knew it wasn’t Vartan’s intention, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of shame for being an American. Suddenly I felt the urge not to stare back but to apply lipstick to show them that I was no different. I felt the urge to take them on a trip to the Starbucks on Astor Place at 2 a.m. to show them our loneliness and poverty. It is true that I am not homeless in New York or poor in Armenia, but I do know what it’s like to feel alone and helpless.
“Americans have problems, too,” I said. “They just don’t look inside of coffee cups or at the world to find the answers. They pay psychologists to take care of them.”
“What is that word?” Vartan asked.
“Psychologist?” I asked.
“Yes, how do you say it?”
“Psych-ah-lo-gist.” I helped him sound it out, as I usually did with English words he tried to pronounce.
“What does it mean? Psychologist?”
I didn’t know the word for it in Western Armenian, much less the Eastern translation. The dialectal differences often made it hard for us to communicate. I mastered a few key words and phrases in Eastern Armenian, but would often use them incorrectly, and when I did, it always seemed inauthentic, as if I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. What I liked about Vartan was that he never made me feel like less of an Armenian for speaking in the Western dialect. Instead, he asked me how to say certain words in my dialect, in English even. His general curiosity and honesty intrigued me. When it seemed like many locals just wanted me to spend money, Vartan offered to pay for my meal with the little money he made. For some reason, there was still a part of me that felt the need to prove myself to him.
“They are like doctors, but for the mind…” I continued.
Vartan made no comment or gesture that gave me any indication that he understood what I had said. It seemed as though I had lost him again. The table separating our chairs seemed like it was growing larger and any effort on my part to close the gap seemed hopeless.
I looked around, in the hopes that one of the people sitting alone had moved, or that the men dressed in black were talking to each other, or that the woman in pink would let out a laughter that would fill the whole room with hope. However, nothing had changed, except for the subject Vartan and I were talking about.
Vartan started asking me what I was doing at the university. I told him teaching English. Most people took one look at me to guess my age and then got surprised by this comment alone, but Vartan didn’t look at me or say a word.
He lit up another cigarette, took a few drags, with that familiar far-away look on his face, ashed it, and repeated this process until the awkward silence made me continue speaking.
“I am teaching creative writing…short stories.”
“Oh you’re teaching story writing? My level of English is okay. I wish I knew more. How much are they paying you there?”
“They aren’t paying me,” I said as I examined the bottom of my coffee cup.
“You’re doing this for free?!?” It was the first time I saw Vartan show any emotion. “Why?”
“Because I want to help my country.” I looked up, hoping he’d see the Armenian dream in my eyes.
“Ohhhh!” Vartan put his cigarette in the ashtray and gave me a high five.
The church was built in that coffee shop, summer of 2007.