First Impressions: What’s an Armenian?

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.”

‘And Armenia was also one of the first wine-producing countries in the world…’

“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.

Nareg Balian

Nareg Balian

Nareg S. Balian is a student at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. He won a fellowship to study in Armenia in the Musical Armenia Program at the Yerevan Conservatory and will be taking two college courses at AUA in the summer of 2017. He will also be as volunteering at Orran, an at-risk center for Armenian children and the elderly. Nareg is a member of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF). He has performed piano in many Armenian events and venues, including the Armenian Embassy and won competitions at Carnegie and Merkin (Juilliard School) Halls. He is President of the National Opera Teens Advisory Council and co-founded the Capital Opera Teens.
Nareg Balian

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  1. I have dealt with that issue all my life. I usually respond by saying it is where Noah’s Ark landed.

  2. Nareg,

    This is a very well-written piece. I had presumed before I read your Bio that you were much older, and were well-settled into a career in which clear writing was required.

    We all do what you are doing when we meet odars. Armenians have a burning desire to educate the world as to who and what an Armenian is, and has always been. Part of this comes from the fear of extinction, and part of it comes from wanting European and Christian-origin people to know how we fit into the foundation of the common culture.

    I remember trying to educate my fellow second graders about Armenian history and where they should place Great Armenia when they look at a map.

    As a student a St. Albans, you have before you a very influential group of audience members, as your fellow students come from among the most influential families in the world. See especially if you can locate and educate the children of Turkish and Azeri lobbyists. Ask them why their parents take money from these clients. Is there any lie The Shed Group, Richard Gebhardt and Robert Livingstone will not assert for money?

    I too had a Levon experience. In third grade I was visiting my best friend’s house. My surname and first name are not Armenian. My friend’s mother and grandmother started speaking. They spoke western Armenian, as did my mother and her family. I asked the mother “Took Hye Ek, Mrs. Schmidt?” They were shocked, as was I, to learn that my odar friend was actually my Gess-Hye yeghbayr.

    • Thank you for your advice about St. Albans. I have given homilies and speeches where I talk about our history and experiences. The story about your “odar” friend is amazing. We are all cultural ambassadors and respect each other’s history and backgrounds.

  3. I wish it was that easy to answer the question among Armenians. For example, I have been told that I am not an Armenian on FB because I am agnostic. Also because I am gay. Others have been called non-Armenian because they do not speak Armenian, or because they do not have Armenian names, or because their last name does not end in “ian” (or “yan”), or because they are among the estimated 2 million “hidden” Muslim Armenians and have not (yet?) converted to Christianity, or because they are Christian but not members of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

    If the person with the “unfairly easy to pronounce name” were to read this, he would probably die laughing. Or hold us in utter contempt for inventing beer, wine, and sandals but not being able to get our act together after 4,000 years.

    • Aram Hamparian of ANCA wrote an incredible article, “We are all Armenians.” I’ve attached the link here. If we respect each other and recognize that our diversity makes us stronger as a nation, we will go far. I think many Armenians recognize this and they are the ones who represent us as a people. You do. I do. And all of us with any attachment to the ancient people of Armenia.

  4. Thank you so much for that enlightening yet humorous tidbit of information.
    I must admit I did not know what an Armenian was for years until I began to work in the city of Glendale California.
    Since then I have grown to learn and appreciate the culture, people, and history.
    Through the years I have made many lifelong friends who are Armenian and they, in return, have taken me to Armenia with them and allowed me to climb “their” mountain Mt. Ararat in 2013.

  5. Narek, I too enjoyed this article and commend your writing style. Your music must be glorious! Congratulations too on your efforts to create stronger connections and understanding among Armenians and non-Armenians. Let’s remember–Armenians and non-Armenians alike–that we are human beings first and need to do away with the labels that separate us. I would add that though first impressions can never be replicated, we shouldn’t become a slave to them. Despite Malcom Gladwell’s claims, there have been so many times in my life where I realized that my first impression was rooted in judgment rather than an open heart and an open mind. In other words, my first impression was wrong. By not being attached to my initial perceptions, I came to see–and feel–that the person I’d judged inappropriately was different than I’d originally thought. What a delightful realization to have been so wrong!

    • Thank you so much for your comments. I agree–sometimes impressions are rooted in quick judgment, which is wrong. As in anything, the more time you spend with a person, the more you realize their complexity.

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