By Ani Bournazian
What is your identity? For some, this is a simple question with a simple answer. My answer is, I am a 22-year-old Christian Armenian-American. To others, though, I am not that. Perhaps a better question would be, How do you measure identity?
Before going on, I’ll explain my background a little better. I was born in Washington D.C. My parents were raised in New York and Massachusetts, and my grandparents in Istanbul, Turkey, and Worcester, Mass. However, I do not consider my roots to be from there. I consider my roots to be from Arapgir, Adapazar, Diyarbakir, Kharpert, Malatia, and Mush. Those are the towns and villages my ancestors inhabited for centuries before their forced resettlement.
To get a little deeper, and more personal, one needs to understand the context of the United States my parents, grandparents, and all immigrant families grew up in. Throughout the 20th century, speaking anything besides English was looked down on. Diversity was not respected like it is today. Eating foods that were not “American” was looked down on. As poor immigrants in the United States and survivors of a genocide, my family did what they needed to do to survive: They assimilated.
Growing up, Armenian was not spoken in my house. However, I still attended Armenian Sunday school for 10 years. Going to Armenian school was good enough to teach me how to read the language, but it was mostly a foreign code I could not crack. I would practice my assigned readings and short stories so much that when I would get up in front of the class to recite them I pretty much had them memorized.
Why memorize? Because if I stumbled on my words, the other students would giggle. The teacher would roll her eyes. As a child, being made fun of and feeling like you do not belong can be the most stressful things in the world.
Every Sunday, I would beg my parents not to make me go.
“Why?” I said.
“Because you are Armenian. You will thank me when you are older.”
Next Sunday. Repeat. This went on for 10 years
That phrase was branded onto my mind. They were right, and I am thankful now that I am older. And that phrase has become the backbone of my motivation to be involved in all that has made me what I am today.
At age five, I joined the Washington D.C. Homenetmen chapter. At 10, I joined the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF). To this day, I am still an active member of the AYF and have held numerous positions since joining in 2005. During my undergraduate career, I founded an Armenian Students Association at my university, and it is still active today.
In 2015, I chose to visit Armenia and Artsakh, through the AYF Internship, for the first time on my own. I asked no friends or family to attend with me. I was determined that it be my own decision to visit Armenia and experience what it means to “be Armenian.” In brief, this trip was so moving that I spent much of my free time the following year reading about Armenian history and language to really understand where my people came from.
I visited Armenia and Artsakh for a second time this past summer. Over the past two years, I have learned more Armenian, and am able to understand more conversations happening around me than before. This past summer, I not only saw the “tourist sights” of the country and visited countless churches but also met extended family still living in Armenia; I went to a small village to sit in a mineral bath that fills with the water of Jermuk; I helped make food in the middle of the Dilijan forest. As the locals said, I “saw Armenia” for what it really is… beyond Yerevan.
So, after all that information, I am Armenian, right? Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe that is a question for me to answer, and not for others.
In any case, let’s dissect the disputed topic of Armenian identity. Some use community involvement, or choice of spouse, as a rule of thumb, while others use language ability. Some people look at Kim Kardashian and are proud that she visited Armenia, tweets every now and then about the Armenian Genocide, and wrote an article in The New York Times. Others will denounce her declared Armenian identity because of other choices she has made in her life. But why? Why are other people deciding what she is and is not? Why are we categorizing others’ identities?
I’m not writing to go on about any other celebrity, or to give a textbook definition of identity. I’m writing to reach a larger audience to really think deeply about this topic. Afterward, I will tell you what I believe it means…
First, look at an individual’s community involvement. I cannot speak for other countries, but I know in the United States, historically speaking, Armenian communities generally revolve around a church. When we hear of an Armenian church thriving or shutting down, it is generally a good sense of whether the Armenian community is present and united, or not. I have heard many people comment about others’ not coming to church or community events as an indirect jab at that person “not being Armenian anymore.”
That is a subjective opinion that assumes one knows why he or she is not coming to church or attending a particular event. Maybe there are other priorities that have taken over in life, such as taking care of an infant or elderly family member. Maybe he or she attends a different church, Armenian or not. A person may still be keeping their faith in whichever way he or she feel brings them closer to God. A person may still be advocating for the Armenian Cause, just not in the presence of other Armenians. We should look at one another and see the things we have in common—not judge one another based on the differences.
Second, think about one’s choice of partner. I think we can all relate to this conversation:
“______ just got married.”
“To an Armenian or an odar?”
Whatever the response, it may lead to either positive or negative feelings. If the partner is Armenian, we feel this is great and the Armenian community will continue to thrive and grow with purebreds. If the partner is not, this may lead to the unfortunate thought that our diaspora and community will soon bleed out and become too thin.
On the surface, this makes sense, right? But when you think deeper about it, whether or not Armenians are coupling with other Armenians is no indication of what future generations will bring. There may be a higher chance of their family being involved in Armenian-related activities if both partners are Armenian. However, the opposite could also happen. In my own church community, I have seen “full-blooded”Armenian families and children drop out of the community. I have also seen non-Armenian spouses embrace the Armenian culture, church, food, and music. A person should not say that a non-Armenian parent who brings their child to Armenian school, who attends Armenian fundraisers, who learns to speak Armenian, or who visits Armenia, is any less Armenian than an Armenian parent who does none of the above.
However, I am aware of judgments made of these same non-Armenian spouses coming from my own Armenian community. Critical judgments about non-Armenian spouses will only hurt the Armenian Diaspora as they alienate these families and fragment our own people. These people should be welcomed into our communities with open arms as any other Armenian moving to a new community. Because the Armenian people are relatively small in number, it confuses me how people so readily make judgements and exclude others. In the end, Armenian or not, we are after all human. We are social beings, and that means we all strive to adhere to a group identity.
My third, and most personal point, is that many Armenians use a person’s ability to speak the Armenian language as a measure of that person’s Armenian identity.
While I was in Armenia this summer, I took a taxi alone to go home from the mall. At one point during the ride, the driver spoke so fast that I did not understand what he said. In Armenian, I asked, “What?”
At that moment, he could tell I was not a local. Here we go again, I thought to myself.
“Where are you from?” he asked in Armenian.
“Are you Armenian?”
“If you were Armenian, you would speak a little, no?”
“I am Armenian, and I do speak a little.”
That is all I could get out because I was speechless. So many emotions ran through my body. I was hurt. Here I am trying to communicate with you, trying to learn, visiting this country… and you question my identity.
After I got out of the taxi, I kept thinking about this experience. Sirdus hye eh (my heart is Armenian), I thought to myself. I tried to reason, “This guy doesn’t know any different,” but it did not ease my disappointment. As someone who has focused her studies on how language is psychologically learned and processed, I know that language development cannot occur unless there is motivation. Furthermore, an individual needs at minimum 20 hours’ worth of practice a week for progression orally. Yes, I was born and raised in America and grew up learning English as my first language. Yes, I would like to learn to speak Armenian fluently along with many others; but without anyone to teach me or to speak with, how is anyone supposed to learn a second language proficiently?
After more time had passed, my encounter with the taxi driver in Yerevan still bothered me. I thought about all the times other Armenians made me feel bad about not speaking fluent Armenian, even though my name is Ani and I “look so Armenian,” as if that is some sort of inspirational wisdom. This unspoken superior-inferior hierarchy among Armenians about “what makes you a good Armenian” is the same reason some friends I knew in Armenian school now do not participate in Armenian activities as adults and disassociate from identifying as Armenian.
I realize this judgmental attitude is all too present in our own communities. It casts a person aside as inferior. It does not help build stronger Armenian Diaspora communities, and it is not acceptable. We, a small ethnic community, are capable of doing better, and we do in fact know differently than the taxi driver I had in Armenia.
As members of the American-Armenian Diaspora, we do not live in a homogenous society. We encounter many types of people. We know that everyone comes from different backgrounds. We know, as Americans, that given our different upbringings we should respect and treat one another equally and try not to judge.
To be part of an Armenian Diaspora community should mean celebrating, encouraging, and creating an inclusive, mutually supportive environment for all those who show interest in Armenian culture, history, religion, etc., regardless of their involvement, bloodline, or language skills. To judge another person as Armenian or not, solely based on any of the abovementioned elements, reflects ignorance and disrespect.
There is no metric that measures Armenian-ness. Whichever way a person identifies, accept it. After all, identity is a personal choice, and as Armenians it should be one that we present as motivating and not disheartening. The drive to embrace and perpetuate the Armenian culture comes from within. So, if you are Armenian, or if you are not, the only thing important is what is inside your heart.