Special for the Armenian Weekly
For me, every initial interaction is the same: “Nareg, hmmmm. I’m sorry… Am I saying that correctly? How do you spell it?”
“No, you’re not saying it correctly, but it’s OK, Joe (or another unfairly-easy-to-pronounce-name), it’s spelled N as in Nancy, A as in Apple, R as in Robert, E as in Egg, and G as in Gabe.”
“Ah, OK, interesting, Nareg (“r” still usually not rolled), where does your name come from?”
“Well, I’m Armenian.”
“What’s an Armenian?”
At this point, I channel my inner Armenian history professor. After all, there are so few Armenians in the world that I may be the only Armenian the unfairly-easy-to-pronounce-named-person might ever meet. I begin by enumerating the long list of Armenian contributions to the world: “Did you know that the oldest leather sandals were recently unearthed in Armenia? They are 5,000 years old. Clearly the ancient Armenians understood that protecting feet was necessary to survival. And Armenia was also one of the first wine-producing countries in the world.” I continue with other information related to alcohol (always of interest to unsuspecting students of Armenian lore).
“Beer was also invented in Armenia.”
My litany of facts now becomes philosophical. “On a more serious note, Armenia adopted Christianity as a national religion in 301 A.D., making it the oldest Christian nation in the world.” I brighten, “Armenian architects (many with the surname Balian—yes, I very much own that connection) built many of the incredible buildings of the Ottoman Empire, particularly in and around Constantinople.” I then continue, sadly, “During WWI, the Ottoman Turks embarked on a genocide, which resulted in the death of over 1.5 million Armenians. The survivors were forced from their ancestral homeland and scattered throughout the world. I am here in America because my great-grandparents were lucky enough to have emigrated to America.” As I pause to take a breath, the unsuspecting recipient of all this information is usually overwhelmed and often finds a rather quick excuse to avoid my extended lecture. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Nareg, but I forgot that I have something that I urgently need to do, right now…” Not deterred, I smile, “It’s been great meeting you. Remind me to tell you about….” I usually don’t get to finish.
They leave, and I am again by myself. I have been told that the first impressions people have of me are unique. Instead of merely stating in a nonchalant way the origin of my name, I passionately expound on my heritage. I explain who I am and why. According to Psychology Today, “Humans are uncomfortable with uncertainty, or, simply, not knowing things. Such uncertainty is particularly present during initial interactions with strangers.” When I meet someone, I try to mitigate that uncertainty by introducing them to a new culture and community. My friend John Robinns once said he “had no idea what Armenia and its people were like” before he met me. No pressure, of course.
A cultural ambassador has to make sure he successfully influences the perception of those he meets. And yet, sometimes, I get a reprieve. I do not always have to be a mediator between cultures. Take, for example, my friendship with Levon Brunson. The first time I met my lifelong friend was an event that would change my life forever. I was in first grade, and Levon was in third grade, and we were resting in a birthday-party room after a particularly epic Shadowland laser tag game. Since I had achieved first place on the score sheet (my berserker strategies are usually successful) and Levon had gotten second place, I walked up to him and introduced myself. Levon shook my hand. “Hi Nareg.” He pronounced it perfectly. I was amazed! Finally, someone who could articulate my name correctly on the first try! I told him that I was Armenian, and he said that he was, too. That moment became slightly awkward as we realized we were in an odd situation. We were stumped. Both of us were used to describing the culture and history of our own people, but today that was not necessary. So, we began to compare our knowledge of Armenian facts. And just like that, we were fast friends. After all, what else is there to learn after those first few milliseconds?
A conversation, a common activity, or a shared experience contributes to a first impression that can never be replicated. First impressions, according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, are “fairly accurate and stand the test of time.” When I reflect on the first impressions I had of some of my closest friends, and in turn their estimation of me, I realize that these initial perceptions do, indeed, last forever.